Stand Aside for Elbow
Mope and Hope Never Groped this Good
Things must be brightly dark and merrily dreary up in the British North Country. Dark enough to see deeply, and dreary enough to smile about, that is. Otherwise how else to explain Elbow, who’ve gotta be the smartest shadow outfit ever to put song to a soaking.
Like tears from a fearful sky, Elbow is how atmosphere feels when it lands on your shoulders, hits in your face. The burden of sensation, with all the inevitability of weather. This is the sound our souls make when we collide in the ache of a whisper, how we hear when we get kicked in the heart and our breath has been taken away.
Deem it: The Now Sound of Hurt and Hope. The Hurt of Hope. The Hope of Hurt. If you don’t feel it, then it doesn’t exist. If you don’t hope it, then it won’t.
And oh what hurtful, hopeful hymns do Elbow sling. “Station Approach” slip-starts the latest, Leaders of the Free World, with an admittance: “I haven’t been myself of late, I haven’t slept for several days, but coming home I feel like I designed these buildings I walk by.” The cat’s hurting, tossed and turned and well outta sorts, and, yes, it’s his own damn fault.
But he’s also hopeful, and he wants back in no matter how utterly painful might be the reentry: “You little sod I love your eyes, Be everything to me tonight.”
The wish upon a falling star that’ll surely, sweetly die as it falls.
So he heads for the city. “I never know what I want but I know when I’m low that I need to be in the town where they know what I’m like and don’t mind.” Be by your own lonesomes, among the kindred and spirited. It’s a confessional, a chant of yearn and learn, and the kinda lament only the luvlorn could compose.
A song sung blue, bluer, bluest, from the street in front of the Manchester Piccadilly station. Like Yves Klein’s International Blue, it is beautiful.
The wrench and render continues apace: “The Stops” is the solace of torn open hearts, “The Everthere,” with its saints and angels, taking bribes and dives, is a celestial wallow, “My Very Best” (“you’ve gone, gone and made a beautiful hole in my heart”) pulls close the pain of the occasion.
And “An Imagined Affair” proves an elemental rampancy, an emotional run amok. “These feelings belong in a zoo”, sings the warbler. Yet wild animals couldn’t summon these feelings, let alone drag ’em away. “She brings the morning,” he brings the mourning in return.
Even when trying to skew happy, he’s solemn about it.
But don’t think for a moment that Elbow angles all wallow. “Forget Myself” is an utter uplift, triumphant and anthemic to its bitter bright core. A resounding lament put to the beat of the street of no blame/no gain, so he blames himself. Again. While “Leaders…” is perfectly ominous protest music. Sop top agit-pop for the ever agitated. Elbow may revel in the reveal of the personal, but they do not live in a vacuum.
A cheap and easy analogy would be to call this Peter Gabriel fronting Morphine at the 18th Street Lounge. Real World mood-swinging music for the Thievery Corporationists. Spruce it up a bit and you get Pop Op as if audioed by Ad Reinhardt, high-thinking color for the lowly slung and pallid. Best would be to say that Elbow is a storybook case of angular warmth, the keen embrace, made all the more keen by its release.
The Way We Live Love Now doesn’t get much better than this.
At first listen Elbow might not sound like the toughest gang on the block, but listen twice, thrice, and their sinew becomes evident. Just as 2001’s Fall Asleep in the Back spilled its blooded “Red” and swelled with its black-and-“Powder Blue,” and ’03’s A Cast of Thousands nursed its fractured “Ribcage” in a “Fugitive Motel,” Leaders of the Free World steps up and in for a brutal bruising. It takes great good guts to lay yourself this bare, to don this much candor, to swagger through this many woundings. Most bands bluster, but are far from up to the brash task. Elbow, to the quite contrary, are unafraid to wear their souls on their sleeves, and that, my friend, is perhaps the toughest thing there is to do in this cover-up world.