Elbow's seventh album has arrived and, despite losing their drummer, it appears to be business as usual. It's an album of slow-burners which fits snugly into a slow-burning career. Elbow are one of those parts of the British music scene that you know will be reliably plugging away in the background, whether you’re paying close attention or not. Guy Garvey and his band produce an album every two or three years and, though they're not going to blow your mind with a major change of pace any time soon, they are consistent and their profile rises a notch with every fresh release. I'm not a huge fan myself, which I think it's best to be up front about. I think for a person to fall in love with a group they have to fall for the singer's voice and, unfortunately, Garvey has never quite won me over. I'm almost annoyed at myself for it! I do tend to warm to regional accents that come across in song, as opposed to the typical trans-Atlantic tone many of the UK's singers unwittingly find themselves recreating. Garvey's voice sounds like home, but I find it recalls something older, something traditional. I can easily imagine a medieval poet delivering his verse in similar lilting melodies. Perhaps it's the safeness of his singing that doesn't quite sell it for me, for I've always liked a bit of danger to my rock music and danger is not in Elbow’s repertoire (or I've yet to discover it therein).
Little Fictions is something of an experimental album from the band though, by all reports. It represents them making music in a new way, by choice and necessity, as they adapt to losing their drummer, Richard Jupp. Compared to The Take Off and Landing of Everything, which saw the band writing individually, all the songs on Little Fictions began life in a room with all four band members. Having lost Jupp the band tried new creative approaches to making rhythmical bases to build the tracks up on, sampling percussive noises and building loops before drafting in session drummer Alex Reeves. This results in repetitive grooves that have an in-built rhythmical complexity to them. The album is embellished by luscious strings and choral voices from Manchester’s Hallé Choir and Orchestra. They add an epic weight to the arrangements, providing the opportunity for these mellow, spacious songs to develop to grandiose heights.
The album opens with ‘Magnificent (She Says)’, with its broken bassline and off-beat guitar groove providing more of a momentum than a lot of the album, but it’s held in check by adherence to the restraint which characterises their work. ‘Gentle Storm’ leans toward the gentle rather than the storm. There’s a tonne of space in this one, with keyboards that simply spell out bassy chords while a dancey, percussive pattern hangs in the back as Garvey croons, pleading for a partner to fall in love with him. Similarly ‘Trust the Sun’ sits on a repeating drum phrase, while sparse instrumentation floats behind, with an eerie single note punctuating the first beat of every bar. When there is significant movement in the track it’s done by the piano, jumping to the fore, while everything else slinks around gently behind Garvey’s voice.
‘All Disco’ has the echo of a big Phil Spector drum beat, but the tambourine seems to be all that’s left of it, with the actual drum-kit so far off in the background it’s practically a ghost. The guitars dominate in this one, and we get to hear the choir for the first time, adding width to Garvey’s vocal as it reaches out, singing “what does it prove if you die for a tune, don’t you know it’s all disco?” ‘Head For Supplies’ begins with pretty guitars and the sparsest rhythms yet, there’s a drum kit there but it sounds like it’s being played with feathers. There’s a certain beauty to this one as it builds gently with a little acoustic guitar, a touch of strings and eventually the choir. The choir traces the vocal with such precise harmonies it almost sounds like Bon Iver’s digital harmony effects at points: thick slabs of voices forming perfect chords. It’s odd how artificial this sounds, when it’s such a real sound, but this is a feeling I get a lot from the album. The constructed rhythm tracks, the soaring strings and the sections of dense choral vocal have all been processed to the point they start to sound like synthesised sounds, often leaving Guy Garvey’s vocal on top as the most human-sounding element on the record.
‘Montparnesse’ is all intro, just piano and voice, but there’s an insistence to the piano rhythm, the sort of part that suggests at any moment the track could burst into life and soar off into the stratosphere. But the tension never breaks here, it just holds us in place, waiting, expectant. I was expecting it to set up ‘Little Fictions’, the eight minute title track that follows, but instead it just hangs ethereally, unresolved. ‘Little Fictions’ itself begins with an interesting broken groove while Garvey’s vocal weaves its way up and down the scale. Compared to much of the record it is quite big to begin with, so you wonder where it’s headed, to last so long. The chorus breaks things down, all space and syncopated stabs. Garvey really starts to get worked up in the second verse and then it strips back down again, you just know it’s going to come back stronger and bigger but they really make you wait for it, building the tension and expectation gradually. There are some great lyrics in this song, imagery that pits the modern and domestic against a distant past that seems vital and tumultuous. It strikes me that this is one of the main selling points of Elbow, Garvey’s lyrics are poetic, evocative and occasionally mysterious.
This album is sure to be one which grows and grows in estimation, if you were inclined to listen to it over and over. I’m sure there is more depth to explore and meaning to uncover if you’re prepared to go deeper. But on the first couple of listens it certainly comes across as quite slight, there’s a lot of rhythmical experimentation and atmospheric play that makes it hard not to be reminded of Radiohead from time to time, but these guys certainly have a character and passion that is all their own: something that doesn’t surprise when you’re looking at a successful band on their seventh album. It would be wrong to say that Elbow are one trick ponies, there is diversity here and innovation, but the feelings they conjure often hit the same note. People say that this is an uplifting album and the band have talked about the process of making it being joyful, but I’m afraid what I hear is almost always melancholic. There’s a sentimentality and a nostalgia at play in their writing, they always sound to me like people commemorating some former glory. For my tastes I’d like to see them attempt some different paces, but I guess that just isn’t Elbow. This album will play well to the home crowd and, in all likelihood, it will reach new ears and forge fresh converts. But, for all its experimentation it doesn’t feel like any kind of departure from the blueprint of their past successes.