Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
Review by Jack Foley
“WE hope we have made a record that is as exhilarating, dramatic and personal to listen to as it was to make,” announces Elbow’s Guy Garvey in the press material for the band’s long-awaited follow-up to Leaders Of The Free World.
“It’s a tribute to a great man lost. It’s a welcome to some amazing new little people. It’s love, loss, birth, death, dads, lads and a celebration of friendship by five very old friends (17 years now!). It’s all in there and it’s definitely the best we could do.”
Had these words been uttered by the frontmen of some bands, you might think they were pretentious and hopelessly wide of the mark. Thanks to Elbow’s ability to marry passionate lyricism with intricate, often beautiful instrumentation, it’s exactly all of the things mentioned above.
Fans may have suspected they were in for something special when lead single Grounds For Divorce appeared, a moody, Zeppelin-esque rocker of a single that marked the sound of Elbow at their most gritty and dark.
Garvey’s opening salvo “I’ve been working on a cocktail, called grounds for divorce” set the tone for a barnstorming effort that proved they had lost none of their ability to emote and exhilarate.
In truth, however, it marked a false dawn. Elbow’s new era isn’t just about bulking up; as throughout The Seldom Seen Kid there are also moments of exquisite beauty.
Take Mirrorball as a primary example, which floats along thanks to a deliciously understated acoustic guitar loop before drawing on Garvey’s lovelorn vocals and some wondrous strings late on. It could well have been cheesy under someone else’s tutorship, but in the hands of Elbow it’s quietly hypnotic (Garvey’s vocals, once more, evoking memories of Peter Gabriel at times).
Album opener Starlings also takes its time to unfold, beginning as a gentle serenade before bursting to life amid some well-realised stabs of brass.
Further highlights come from The Fix, a duet with Richard Hawley that tells the story of two hustlers planning their rosy future. If evidence were required of Elbow’s beautiful complexity, then this is it – the story thriving on the dusky vocals of its narrators and boasting a cinematic sweep that’s evocative of both Spaghetti-era Morricone (thanks to the background “wah wahs”) or Butch Cassidy-era Bacharach.
The Bones of You, conversely, draws on a Flamenco influence that’s just as enchanting, providing another firm highlight and a supremely confident showcase of Elbow’s ability to marry the instant appeal of band’s like Coldplay and U2 with something a little deeper to boot.
Similarly excellent is the ray of sunshine and hope that is One Day Like This, one of the warmest, most unashamedly romantic tracks you’re likely to hear all year. With its swirling strings, insistent beat and husky vocals, it’s a genuine heartmelter that expertly celebrates the magic of being in love – the gospel touches towards the end ensure that the song doesn’t run out of steam even at over six minutes in length.
Such moments come in stark contrast to the haunting Some Riot, a slow-builder that still resonates, or the album closer Friend Of Ours, a tender tribute to the “seldom seen kid” of the title: Bryan Glancy, the Manchester songwriter and sadly missed friend of Elbow who died in 2007.
The guitar work on that track, in particular, is delicately structured and genuinely poignant, as are the well realised piano chords that accompany it late on.
Just occasionally, there are songs that are hindered by the scale of their own ambition – The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver being one example. The song – which recalls the story of a boastful tower crane operator revealing the inner misery of his life in a discussion of the hollow centre of many outwardly successful lives – is cleverly written but overly brooding in delivery, giving rise easy accusations of pretentiousness. It’s a little too epic and worthy for its own good.
But even during the moments that don’t satisfy, The Seldom Seen Kid outperforms most other albums of its type. It is, in short, another masterpiece from Elbow that really ought not to be missed.
Download picks: One Day Like This, The Fix, Mirrorball, Grounds For Divorce, The Bones Of You, Friend Of Ours