Elbow: Build A Rocket Boys – a review
Build A Rocket Boys
Craftily calling themselves ”Ëprog without the solos’ Elbow have carved out a uniquely English space for themselves that puts them far ahead of their peers.
Whereas the likes of Keane and Coldplay seemed to get bogged down in the Mcgee termed ”Ëbedwetting’ world leaving behind a soggy mattress of music Elbow wear their heart on their sleeves. And it works.
They also make a highly imaginative music that is moving, on the new album, into darker and deeper territory becoming, like Massive Attack, an unlikely inheritor of the mantle of post punk. They are true experimenters of sound, unlike the usual clutch of modern post punk bands whose music is considered groundbreaking when it is actually a copy of groundbreaking music decades ago and not that genuinely original.
Unlike Radiohead, whose latest album is yet another sonic adventure that you admire but feel emotionally detached from, Elbow make a music that resounds with the emotion stuff.
In their slow gestation over several albums and eighteen years of frustration some of which were as critically acclaimed underdogs Elbow have managed to remain part of the fabric of a northern city. Instead of playing around with their sound like other bands who spent years on the fringes like Biffy Clyro and Snow Patrol and looking for the commercial edge they stayed true to themselves. They became stadium massive on the breakthrough Seldom Seen Kid that saw them become the biggest band in the UK by following their own instincts.
Inserted of losing it the band went right back to their roots in Bury and north Manchester satellites- unfashionable towns that resonate with their own northern genius. and honed their sound down to its combination of stripped down sparse terrain and sweeping, melodramatic, orchestral swoops that are the perfect backdrop to Guy Garvey’s voice that conveys so much emotion and passion without ever cracking up.
The splendidly titled Build A Rocket Boys is a further refining of this and from the opening, The Birds, seems determined to set its stall. Written and recorded again in Blueprint studios in the backstreets five minutes from Manchester’s city centre it truly is the sound of a city centre in the rain with the weight of history and that peculiar sombre northern undertow of melancholia that has been handed down through the generations of northern bands since Joy Division.
Very much a band the Elbow team have been working towards this since they stumbled out of Bury in the early nineties with a hotch potch of influence from Nirvana to the surrounding baggy scene. They famously went down to Square One Studios in Bury in about 1991 to see if they could find the Stone Roses who were meant to be in there attempting to record the Second Coming.
Elbow never made the same mistakes as their forbearers and their work ethic is splendid. Instead of relaxing on the kudos of The Seldom Seen Kid they have moved on and taken their sound into darker and even more stripped down place that oozes with the sadness of lost youth and carworn memories.
It’s their musical scope and imagination that really scores, this is a quiet music with a loud human edge. Album opener. The Birds sets the stall with its hypnotic electronic backdrop and introspective vocal from Guy Garrvey who is in great voice on the album. Lippy Kids is a paean to lost youth and a gently powerful brooding song. With Love is driven by an almost blues gospel handclap with what sounds a Kora over the top giving the song an atmospheric- almost West African feel- like taking the blues right back to its roots and dredging them back up through the hi tech of 21st century crumbling UK. It also has one of those great subtle sing-along things they do so well- makes me think of that great night in Castlefield when the band played Manchester International festival and every drunk nutter in town was there with their booze in plastic bags singing along.
Neat Little Rows is a jerky, bass driven, hypnotic groove with an uplifting keyboard motif for the chorus that sits in the same sort of space as XTC’s multi rhythmic but very English, English Settlement as Garvey sings in a falsetto over the top his plaintive northern vowels to the fore. The genius titled Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl sounds like Ewan Macoll English folk- that super stripped down and personal- sat right in your ear music- a real achievement as it’s so hard to make music this quiet in these times where noise fills every crevice. The song is the perfect example of the band taking inspiration from their lost youth- a looking over your shoulder at lost innocence and having no fear of moving into middle age- something that pop is eternally terrified of. This brazen honesty gives the album its power.
The Night Will Always Win is almost hymn like with its stark backdrop that is like rain falling, High Ideals is another super stripped down backdrop- this time a shuffling, almost finger clicking beat and a lush piano motif, The River hints at Bowie’s Low with its emptiness and piano motif, Open Arms has that neo gospel chorus section that you can already hear played out over the sports on TV. The Birds (Reprise) is a curious almost growling thing that is like one of those wistful Tom Waits barroom ballads with John Mosley taking the vocals and the part of the wistful old man,. The album closer Dear Friends sounds like the big, emotional piece that the band do so well- quiet introspection turned into a lush melodic piece.
This is not an easy album, Elbow have gone darker and more personal and taken on the unlikely pop themes of old age and the frailty of life in a downbeat setting resisting the challenge for clap happy anthems. They are writing for themselves and not the stadiums and ultimately that will their lasting reward as they have created another album to be treasured.