Returning to his roots to record Elbow’s third album inspired Guy Garvey to write this love letter to his home town, warts and all. It also happens to be their best LP yet
Elbow’s Guy Garvey isn’t your average pop star. A romantic grump with the voice of a cherub, he makes no attempt to cover up his thirtysomething years with a fake birth certificate. He doesn’t dance. He barely even shaves. But on the other side of the coin, here is the man who sat on Liquid News with Face off The A-Team and became his new best friend. Who had his relationship with DJ Edith Bowman splattered across the tabloids. Who’s getting himself a nice little sideline as a DJ and pundit after deputising for Marc ‘Lard’ Riley on BBC 6Music. Who’s continuing the work of Princess Diana in his campaigning for landmines charities.
And then there’s his band, who after 10 years of struggle have earned themselves a reputation as the drinking man’s Coldplay. First album ‘Asleep In The Back’ arrived five years late, after their initial record deal was pulled from under them at the eleventh hour. They were nearly torn apart by the recording of their second, ‘Cast Of Thousands’, after apparently fraught sessions in Liverpool and from being upstaged by two giant Styrofoam figurines called Elle and Bo. Theirs is one of pop’s most heartwarming tales of grace under pressure; their steady ascent climaxing at Glastonbury 2004, where, beaming, they recorded thousands of overjoyed, sunburnt fans singing along to ‘Grace Under Pressure’’s chorus, “we still believe in love so fuck you”. Where Franz Ferdinand conspired to make girls dance, Elbow are the best in the business at making grown men cry.
‘Leaders Of The Free World’, the third album from the Bury five-piece, was originally to be called ‘The Stops’. And the stops have indeed been pulled out; this is Elbow going all out to break the indie glass ceiling and join contemporaries Doves and Coldplay in the proper major league. Their first move was to set up base camp at home, at Salford’s Blueprint Studios, producing the album themselves. They then decided to turn the recording space into a living art installation, inviting film-makers The Soup Collective to document the recording experience with hidden cameras, drawings and art installations (the album comes with a beautiful DVD that’s as much a work of art as the record itself). The result is innovative, passionate, warm, and uplifting. Where ‘Cast Of Thousands’ at times sounded awkward and clinical, recording this live makes it sound breathtakingly alive. And as well as pulling out the stops, they’ve pulled out their sturdiest choruses ever. This is Elbow’s happy record and rather than, as you might expect, a collection of broken-hearted sob stories about Edith, it’s a love-letter to a place, to home, to Manchester. It opens, on ‘Station Approach’, with Garvey stepping off a train after the ‘Cast Of Thousands’ tour, eulogising the piece of pavement that leads down from Piccadilly Station, once a decaying symbol of urban decay, now one of the shiniest emblems of the city’s regeneration.
“I haven’t slept in several days”, he croons, “but coming home I feel like I designed the buildings I walk by”. It’s classic Mancunian civic pride, which, after the aptly christened ‘Picky Bugger’, lead single ‘Forget Myself’ ratchets up. Like ‘Fallen Angel’ but better, it’s the surrealist cousin of ‘I Predict A Riot’. A bouncer with “a head like Mars” resembles “Buddha with mace” as Garvey watches the kids from the suburbs look for meaning at the bottom of a pint glass. “Are you falling in love every second song?” he asks, with the wink of a man who does the same every second weekend. Later, during ‘An Imagined Affair’, Garvey will drink so much that he’ll hallucinate that same bouncer morphing into a Christmas tree.
Where the songs on ‘Cast Of Thousands’ were about being away from home, ‘Leaders…’ deals with the consequences of coming back. Like a second chapter to old songs such as ‘Fugitive Motel’, tracks like ‘My Very Best’ show a relationship disintegrating due to distance. Garvey grainily sings “Long away and far apart/ That’s how forest fires start” while bongos, acoustic guitars and what sounds like a heartbroken laptop whirr away in most unexpected and beautiful combinations. It’s an album of twists, turns, and stories.
Quiet mood pieces like the aforementioned menacingly sad ballad ‘The Stops’ (loneliness and loss topped with pretty chiming bells and slide guitar) and the ghostly ‘The Everthere’ act as intermissions between the big, jaw-dropping set pieces. The title track takes their signature chugging guitar on a swashbuckling tour around the playground fights of the Bushes and the Blairs. ‘Mexican Standoff’ details the awkward meeting between you, your partner and your partner’s ex in a gargantuan flurry of flamenco handclaps and flutes. But the standout track is ‘Great Expectations’; an epic waltz about a wedding starring a rain-spotted bride, a prostitute priest and a bunch of footballers imagined as a religious choir. It’s a blissful mix of hopeful love and funereal sadness, against a Spanish guitar, sweet piano and beating drums, with the buzz of an electronic angel flying overhead. It’s devastating, unflinching and one of the finest songs we’ve heard all year. ‘Puncture Repair’ is the antidote, a quiet comedown which ends the album on another love letter; this time to a friend, “who patched me up and sent me on my way”.
For a band who once tried to make a corpse in a bathtub sound romantic ( ‘Asleep In The Back’’s ‘Newborn’), Elbow have lost none of their surrealist flair, but gained a hell of a lot of soul. They’ve always been masters of musical intricacy and lyrical detail. But this time, going home has caused them to look more widely at the world outside. While the band play in broader strokes and bigger tunes, Garvey has come into his own as a storyteller, giving tales of everyday heartbreak the widescreen drama of kings and world leaders. Indie Britain hasn’t been such a potent place for scenesters in years, with Nu-Yorkshire bursting at the seams. Elbow are older, but they’re also wiser, having survived all the obstacles that ¡Forward, Russia! and The Long Blondes still have to face. It’s given them strength in endurance, and this record is the sum of all those experiences.
If there’s any justice, it should also see Garvey rubbing shoulders with other anti-popstars like Chris Martin. ‘Leaders Of The Free World’ is a masterpiece; further proof that this is a band to last you a lifetime.