Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Elbow - Build A Rocket Boys! (Album Review 2011)

After winning the Mercury Music Prize it was inevitable that Elbow would fade into obscurity never to be heard from again. Or not. But the aforementioned music award has always been viewed as something of a poisoned chalice: remember Gomez? M People? Ms Dynamite? It has also been responsible for stifling the musical creativity of acts such as Pulp, Franz Ferdinand and PJ Harvey. Not so for Bury’s Elbow. It has taken the band, led by singer and now BBC 6music presenter Guy Garvey, four great albums to get the recognition they deserve after début release Asleep In The Back; still one of the best of its generation. In 2008 The Seldom Seen Kid gave Elbow the exposure they needed boasting mighty singles such as Grounds For Divorce, The Bones Of You and One Day Like This (of which the album version should have been released as a single instead of the horrible ‘cut-down’ radio-friendly version). It has taken three years for the follow-up Build A Rocket Boys! to emerge, and like its predecessor it is a record of rare beauty, careful crafting and elegant execution.

From the rattling beginnings of huge opener The Birds, with its distinctive Garvey-led vocal melody and persistent guitars (reminiscent of R.E.M’s Leave – turned down a notch), to the earnest heartfelt lyrics and swirling instrumentation of closer Dear Friends, Build A Rocket Boys! is a plethora of intricate arrangements, vocal harmonies (credit goes to the Halle Youth Choir) and unique composition. The former transforms at three and half minutes through spiky electronica to bring in to chorus: “what are we going to do with you? Same tale every time… Looking back is for the birds…”. At minute six, the explosion of sounds brings in the last act and a layered vocal outro before an odd last thirty seconds. Following this the early highlight, and core track, Lippy Kids is a joyous celebration of disillusioned youth, of hanging around on street corners, smoking and drinking. Lyrically superb, this is possibly the best song writing from Garvey since the band’s glorious début: “I never perfected that simian stroll” is genius. Precise and controlled.

The heartstrings are pulled with the poetic ballad Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl with Garvey’s raw vulnerable vocal delivering a lament to his ‘first love’. The odd bontempi-esque organ provides the contrast against the simple guitars and more great lyrics: “…a single switch to flick…but a thousand boxes yet to tick…’. Wonderful. Likewise, and with all the melody of grinding machinery, High Ideals provides the best piano on the album and yet more fascinating lyrics (tales of family history and military antiques). Hard edges and ambitious arrangements prove that Elbow never take the easy option – with spectacular results.

Build A Rocket Boys! rarely falters. The short interlude The River is nothing more than a respite before the overtly stadium-bound Open Arms – a well-intentioned song of longing for someone dear to return that loses itself within the production. The obvious chorus just about gets away with it and the guitars in the second half lift the song from Coldplay-like banality. And With Love is a constant vocal stretch; a neat idea and wonderful simple chorus gliding from distracting to hypnotic. Minor misgivings from a band that can deliver the hardness of Neat Little Rows and the stirring balladry of The Night Will Always Win in the space of ten minutes.

Build A Rocket Boys! is at times a wonderfully subtle album, taking all the composure and quiet revelations of Asleep In The Back and combining the anthemic qualities of The Seldom Seen Kid. Appeasing long-term fans and new admirers alike, Garvey et al hit the middle ground running, fuelled by nostalgia, memories and the tried and tested ‘writing on the road’. This is the perfect follow-up to the huge success afforded three years ago and Garvey remains one of the best songwriters making music today. There are no obvious radio singles with most of the best music weighing in around five minutes, proving that Elbow do not have to pander to commerciality to make an impact. Not this time. Further reassurance that sometimes there is life after Mercury.

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