Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Rarely Heard Anthems

Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid

I have a strange relationship with Elbow. Initially, I dismissed them far too rashly as a blandly anthemic band in the manner of Coldplay, a description that misses the structural ambition and intricate complexities of their best songs. As I’ve warmed to the group, I now realise that they are probably the type of band the likes of Coldplay, Keane and Snow Patrol so desperately want to be – a band with anthemic qualities, but also with genuine subtlety, musical intelligence and humane warmth. There is the nagging sense that they’ve essentially been remaking the same record since ‘Cast of Thousands’, but it is at least a consistently excellent record and one with sufficient depth to be worth revisiting.

This, their fourth full length, works best when it veers furthest from their established template. It opens with a startling track that somehow manages to combine a serene and mesmerising meditation with aggressive punctuations of violent brass. There’s a film-score quality to the most mysterious songs here, from the John Barry-esque ‘Audience with the Pope’ to the fairground carousel-meets-Ennio Morricone atmosphere of ‘The Fix’, which sees a characteristically wry Guy Garvey duet with guest vocalist Richard Hawley.

The focus of the album comes with two ballads – both of which are plaintive and melancholy rather than grandstanding or portentous. ‘Weather to Fly’ is a mix of quietly compelling sounds – from some manipulated high pitched backing vocals to the distant parping of a New Orleans-style brass band at the song’s conclusion. ‘The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver’ is more self-consciously widescreen in its crystalline sound, but as clear and gripping a depiction of isolation as Garvey has yet mustered.

Indeed, Garvey is on strong form throughout, his voice somehow retaining that personable, conversational quality whilst also sounding clear and bold in its delivery. Sometimes he sounds like he’s engaging us in late night pub chatter, just before closing, and having sank enough beers to reveal some personal secrets. His revelations are both intimate and amiable. The opening ‘Starlings’ seems to be a list of uncertain, philosophical responses to love (‘I’m asking you to back a horse that’s good for glue and nothing else…but find a man that needs you more than I…’). Continuing the theme, there’s a whole world of imaginative, dexterous wordplay in ‘The Fix’, a song at least partially inspired by corrupt gambling practises in the world of horseracing, by no means a common subject for a pop song.

‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ is their most restrained statement since ‘Asleep In The Back’. Even the ballads are mostly elusive (there’s nothing as immediately heartstring tugging as ‘Switching On’ or ‘Fugitive Motel’), and there’s no grandiose chugging in the style of ‘Fallen Angel’ or ‘Leaders of the Free World’. Some tracks (particularly the piano and vocal ‘Some Riot’) burrow into the mind gradually and insidiously, ignoring pop music’s predilection for the immediate and infectious. ‘Grounds for Divorce’ veers into that familiar ramshackle groove they have already furrowed on numerous occasions, although it does so with such élan that its inclusion is entirely forgivable. Given the group’s tendency to hold back, the bigger statements are all the more impressive and unexpected when they come – from the nefarious brass on ‘Starlings’, savagely punctuating an otherwise serene mood, to the thunderous drums on ‘The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver’. Where string arrangements are involved, they are carefully interwoven into already intricate textures.

Unfortunately, two moments do stick out as somewhat underwhelming. The terrace chanting of ‘One Day Like This’ risks lapsing into benign platitudes, and seems like a transparent attempt to rewrite the group’s Glastonbury singalong ‘Grace Under Pressure’. It’s far less interesting rhythmically and melodically than that excellent track though. Similarly, ‘The Bones of You’, whilst sounding undeniably lovely, seems like an amalgam of the chords, rhythm track and melody from a variety of other Elbow songs.

‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ is an album which requires a good deal of patience as it reveals its hidden depths. It comes with plenty of fascinating twists and turns that demonstrate precisely why Elbow have not captured the collective spirit in quite the same way as the aforementioned lesser bands. Like previous Elbow albums, the meticulous attention to detail and overall sonic architecture are breathtaking.

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