Once a well-travelled and much-adored support band, Elbow have very suddenly become something of a big deal. Twenty years after the Ramsbottom band first began playing together as college students, Elbow’s fifth album Build a Rocket Boys! looks to build on the success of 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid, which won them the Mercury Music prize.
Elbow’s sound has not changed too much since their début album Asleep In The Back was released in 2001, each track owing much to the uniquely expressive vocals of frontman Guy Garvey. The quintet’s expansive, plaintive brand of alternative rock has gradually hoisted them up the British music hierarchy, and with their latest release, Elbow seem to have perfected the style they’ve been honing for a long time.
Indeed, strains of that memorable début can be traced right through to this record; the bass-heavy mix and layered vocals of opener ‘The Birds’ reminiscent of ‘Any Day Now’, the first song on Asleep In The Back. However, this album is far from a re-hash of old ideas, and in fact takes the Lancashire band’s sound onto new heights.
The band’s ability to switch between styles remains hugely impressive, ‘Neat Little Rows’ using a distorted grunt of a bassline as its springboard – for an aggressive punch in the verses, and for a percussive melody in the chorus. Whether you’re searching for a foot-tapping singalong – ‘Open Arms’ – or an intimate, personal account – ‘Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl’ – it can be found on Build A Rocket Boys! Too often, albums start out with the admirable goal of encompassing several genres but sacrifice creativity on account of difficulty, or spread themselves too thinly over multiple styles, often resulting in a convoluted, incongruous mess. What’s so impressive about Elbow’s fifth album is that it manages to incorporate so many different sounds without losing its way, and establishes its own voice rather than being swept under by a deluge of different tones.
Garvey’s vocals shine brightest during the album’s tender moments, his cries of “do they know those days are golden?” on ‘Lippy Kids’ tinged with the kind of regretful nostalgia we all feel for our childhood. His unfettered Lancashire accent is the centrepiece of much of the band’s best work, and their latest release, while also reminding us that this is an extremely accomplished group, highlights Garvey’s brilliantly individual voice. While his vocals lend themselves best to the kind of minute tragedies that Elbow’s songs so often deal with – breakups, wasted days, broken promises – they can also be redemptive and surprisingly powerful. The aforementioned ‘Open Arms’ is a true stadium tune, complete with a well-trodden hook (“We’ve got open arms for broken hearts”) and an almost incantatory chorus.
And it’s the lyrics which really hit home hardest on Build a Rocket Boys! There’s an identifiably conversational tone in many of them, but also a simple poignancy in some of Garvey’s homespun, but affecting, words. The heartbroken serenade of ‘The Night Will Always Win’ is centred on a realisation of shortcomings in a relationship, its refrain of “I miss your bad advice” indicative of Elbow’s ability to mix the personal with the universal without resorting to hackneyed cliché. Occasionally, tropes and slightly overwrought lines do creep in, but in the main this is an astonishingly personal album stuffed full of wonderful words.
Two tracks, though are deserving of the very highest praise. ‘Lippy Kids’ and closer ‘Dear Friends’ are perhaps the best songs Elbow have yet put on record, and are surely worthy of mention in best song of the year lists. The former, a thing of simple, uplifting beauty, is a salute to impetuous adolescence and subsequent hindsight, its sepia-tinted recollections infused with a magical combination of tearful regret and heartfelt joy; the result is six minutes of pure wonder, and hugely moving to boot. ‘Dear Friends’ is again based on a simple premise – an expression of gratitude to your mates – but its lyrics soar, acknowledging flaws but also celebrating them, and finishing with a poignant, relatable send-off: “You stuck a pin in the map I was in/And you are the stars I navigate home by”.
The glorious elixir that makes Elbow great – that impossibly deft mixture of honesty, poignancy and personality – has never been been better than it is here. Build A Rocket Boys! is not just Elbow’s best album so far, but perhaps the best album anyone has released this year. Simple, brilliant, soaring, beautiful, it’s something to be listened to and re-listened to, and a sumptuous record to be enjoyed for years to come.
Best tracks: ‘Dear Friends’, ‘Lippy Kids’, ‘Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl’, ‘With Love’.
If you like this, you’ll also like: Becoming A Jackal – Villagers, Do You Like Rock Music? – British Sea Power, Through The Windowpane – Guillemots.