Considering the ubiquity of Elbow’s 2008 mega-breakthrough album ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ and its 2011 follow-up ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’, it can be easy to forget that the Bury band have been plugging away since 1997 and have released five albums of lush, orchestral chamber-pop. Excitingly, Elbow have just announced details of a brand new album – their sixth – and an arena tour for April 2014.
With only one of their albums getting less than 9/10 in NME, it’s a damn impressive haul so far. But rather than simply re-enjoying their back catalogue and basking in Guy Garvey’s honey-voiced pedigree across the whole lot, it’s way more fun to decide which Elbow album is best, which is worst, and where the others slot in-between. So play the intro to ‘One Day Like This’ in your head for the gazillionth time, and enjoy…
5. Build A Rocket Boys (2011)
This is a very good album, but sadly someone’s got to come last, as Mum always used to tell me after sports day. Elbow’s latest album contains all the elements that make them such a wonderful band: the creeping sense of build (‘Birds’), Guy Garvey’s cloud-breaking vocal soar (on pretty much every song) and the warm, never-too-cringey focus on the virtue of friendship (‘Dear Friends’) that’s so important to them. It just doesn’t quite stomp like a ‘Grounds For Divorce’ or plunge the depths of the heart as deep as a ‘Newborn’.
4. The Seldom Seen Kid (2008)
Down at number four due to the near-flawless pedigree of the records above it rather than its own deficiencies, the Mercury Prize-scooping ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ certainly has some stunning moments: ‘Grounds For Divorce’ showed off a lapel-grabbing urgency that eclipsed previous barnstorm efforts such as ‘Fallen Angel’. ‘One Day Like This’, meanwhile, might be so overplayed now that the opening strings make me want to knock myself out with one of those bottles of Elbow-branded real ale, but before its monopoly on TV montages it was a peerless swell of emotion.
3. Cast Of Thousands (2003)
Has there been an album opener as captivatingly downbeat as ‘Ribcage’, on which a dreary-eyed Guy Garvey considers how he wants to “pull my ribs apart and let the sun inside”? Elbow’s second album shuddered with insecure beauty, with ‘Fugitive Motel’ in particular harking back to the darkness that made their debut such a masterpiece. Whereas later on in his career Garvey would make his voice soar, here he sounds half-asleep and draped in echo, making the album sound like a half-dream showing that he’s just as captivating in moochy-shouldered mode as he is filling arenas with his proud-chested bellow.
2. Leaders Of The Free World (2005)
An album that rarely gets its dues, ‘Leaders Of The Free World’ is a record that should have got Elbow to Pyramid Stage-leveling fame six years before they eventually did. Cut through with as much sorrow as optimism and arguably their biggest set of tunes yet, songs such as ‘The Stops’ saw Garvey performing a heartbreaking autopsy on his split with Radio 1’s Edith Bowman and started to cement his position as an everyman national treasure. But on the rollocking title track he got at his most overtly political too, aiming fireballs at Western invasion in the name of democracy with guitars that sounded as menacing as his lyrics.
1. Asleep In The Back (2001)
Actually, there is an opening song as captivatingly downbeat as ‘Cast Of Thousands’’ ‘Ribcage’: ‘Any Day Now’. Inspired by the drudge of trying to find a way out from poverty-stricken Bury, it was fitting that the album that marked Elbow’s escape was forged from their struggles to do just that. ‘Powder Blue’ remains one of Garvey’s most spine-rattlingly stirring vocal performances yet, while it’s unsurprising that the sun-through-the-trees flourishes of ‘Newborn’ once inspired a fan to tell the singer how it had comforted him through the loss of a dead child. ‘Don’t Mix Your Drinks’, meanwhile, is a chilling observation of menace that he’d go on to replace with more a more optimistic outlook as he found success. But that song, and the rest of the album, marks ‘Asleep In The Back’ out as having a knife-glimmer of dark edge that they would quickly move on from, but that remains their most captivating achievement.