I came round to Elbow late. Like most of the public it seems, I always ignored the repeated, and sometimes pleading, reviews from critics who have loved the band since their critically acclaimed debut Asleep in the Back failed to sell. For me this was because whenever I actually heard Elbow on the radio, their music bored me. All that changed in 2008 when I saw them perform their new single on the Jonathan Ross Show. I was blown away by it, and subsequently by their fourth album, Seldom Seen Kid, when it was released. Maybe the music critics were right, and Elbow had been criminally underappreciated for the last eight years. I bought their back catalogue, and prepared to be converted.
Well, that didn’t happen. Their first three albums were as boring, with one or two exceptions, as I’d originally thought. The reason, I think, why critics loved them was because, to them, Guy Garvey’s admittedly wonderful and powerful lyrics compensated for dull melodies and arrangements. Seldom Seen Kid paid more attention to the music, and that is why it sold. Worryingly, I saw Elbow at the 2008 Latitude festival and whilst it was a good set, I could not understand why the album’s two most powerful and unusual tracks ‘The Fix’ and ‘Audience with the Pope’ weren’t played. Did Elbow not understand the basis of their success?
I, therefore, listened to the new album, Build a Rocket Boys! with hope but also some trepidation. The opening track, ‘The Birds’ is a reflective love ballad. ‘The birds, though I wore your glacial patience/ To a smudge of bitter dust/ On the last day you embraced me/ With a glistening sapling trust.’ The poetry is clever and beautiful but at eight minutes the tune and lyrics run out of steam – what’s worse the tune wasn’t all that to start with (and let’s not forget an additional one-and-a-half minutes of the pointless ‘Birds Reprise’ towards the end of the album). Oh dear! ‘Lippy kids’, addressed to teenagers on street corners, is acutely observed, but the piano leads a melody that is too repetitive to sustain interest. With ‘Jesus is a Rochdale Girl’, Garvey addresses another teenager, this time himself as a youth. The lyric is plaintive and descriptive, accompanied this time by a low key guitar, and later, organ. To cut a long story short, my worst fears were being realised track after track – great lyrics, dull music. Only ‘Open Arms’ returns to the anthemic style of the album’s predecessor, but anthemic is no good without a decent melody.
Build a Rocket Boys! will please Elbow’s long loyal cult following, but it does nothing for more recent converts who will come to see The Seldom Seen Kid as an aberration in the band’s history.