The affable northerners play it too safe on their sixth album
I once interviewed huggable indie bear and affable radio host Guy Garvey about his love of astronomy. Well, I say ‘love of astronomy’; it turned out what Guy meant by ‘astronomy’ was more ‘looking at pretty things in the sky’ than ‘knowing what any of these things are called’. At one point reception cut out, and for some reason when I called back the first question out of my mouth was, “So, have you ever tried to find the Andromeda galaxy?” A pause, and we both burst out laughing.
And that’s Elbow’s shtick all over. They’re a band who gaze at the stars, but will still give a stoical northern snort if someone mentions the word ‘Perseids’. A band only ever a sonic bollock hair from Coldplay, but a world away in the minds of their fans thanks to their romantic but sardonic northern sensibilities. But like any shtick, if left unchanged for too long, it has its expiry date. When the opening track here, ‘This Blue World’, hovers into view with its tenative, heart-tremor percussion and rousing climax barely concealed by twinkles and bells, it begins to feel like that day has dawned.
Odd, because Elbow’s sixth album should, on paper, be the one where they break free of their conventions: for this record the songwriting was devolved to individual band members, rather than worked up by committee. Perhaps their corner of the music landscape has just become too cosy, and even the lyrical themes are safe. As well as the cosmos gazing of ‘This Blue Earth’ there’s a running motif of emigration and escape, especially on ‘New York Morning’ and the gravely string-swept and trip-hoppy ‘The Blanket Of Night’. It’s a classically Elbowish topic: solid, emotional, full of northern history.
‘Charge’, with its moody, bull-headed testosterone verse and oddly keyed, unsettling refrain is more leftfield, Elbow stretching out their too-little-explored nasty, heavier side. The treated spoken vocal and disreputable bluesy sly shuffle of ‘Fly Boy Blue/Lunette’ is intriguing too, with guest performers the Halle Orchestra making their woodwinds felt forcefully. But too often you feel the band collapse back into comfy.
This isn’t a bad or a lazy album, and Elbow are too good a band to ever be dismissed, yet one can’t help but feel they could push their envelope a bit further. You wonder what would happen if they stopped defaulting towards the warm, slightly melancholic uplift of the likes of ‘Real Life’, with its avowal that “the music pulls you through”. If I didn’t think that sentiment was true, I probably wouldn’t be writing this, but making music shouldn’t always be as easy as giving someone a big sonic hug.