Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: October 2008

18 October 2008

Album Review: Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid


I love this album so much that four hundred words are criminally insufficient to do it justice; but I wrote this brief review for a music journalism job application and, partial as it is, it seems pointless to keep it locked up on my hard drive. Enjoy!

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Manchester ballad-kings Elbow found a good thing early on and have ridden it well, doing very little to redefine themselves since 1997's Asleep In The Back. There's a magic potion somewhere between frontman Guy Garvey's velvet rasp, the band's consistent ability to kick out highly dynamic slow-burning odes and dirges, and their rare competency in team songwriting (it's never clear in exactly which instrument their tunes first germinate, as if each piece escapes the studio process to emerge fully-formed). Sudden sprays of aggressive distortion or overpowering organs pepper otherwise tender, even cautious music. Choral repetitions forget they belong to a love song, and hook into hypnotizing drum and bass grooves until an afterthought of a fadeout. Exultant stadium singalongs take turns with ominous, swaggering lounge numbers. One minute, you're hallucinating drunk on your back in the alley outside a pub - and the next minute you're soaring over the golden meadows of your youth.

Elbow's greatest strength is their ability to repeatedly pull listeners though this wash of contradictions, finding the most stirring sentiments and primal urges and then throwing them into the ring together. It's a formula that reaches new levels of sophistication on their latest release, The Seldom Seen Kid (Fiction Records, 2008) – in which divorce proceedings inspire floor-stomping anthems, the small grief of loneliness is rendered in widescreen, and the city’s dirty streets magically transform into a romantic wonderland replete with siren-violins and a disco ball made from the Moon.

Garvey’s lyrics paint rich, tactile emotional space that swings from voice to voice, by turns abrasive (“cramming commitments like cats in a sack”) and nostalgic (“out of a doorway the tentacles stretch of a song that I know, and the world moves in slow-mo”). It’s a moving cocktail - one that can get you drunk before you know it - and so I’m willing to forgive the occasional clumsy tracks where depth is traded out for overplayed suave (“Audience With The Pope,” “The Fix”). There are fewer dragging moments on this album than some of their previous efforts, fewer saccharine stumbles and crawling, undeveloped melodies. They do exist – although by the time the album’s last twinkling electric guitar riff fades away, even the rough spots seem indispensable, endearing, somehow part of why this band is worth it. Elbow is, after all, a bar band – and it is these little testaments to their status as ordinary blokes, these slurs and frayed edges, that drive home the incredible humanity of their music.