Elbow: Asleep In The Back

Masterful melancholy debut from Bury’s heaviest

Hooray! Manchester has delivered its first great album of the millennium. Others will doubtless follow, but few will conjure up magic as brooding as [a]Elbow[/a] have here.

Peering back through the musical mists of time one can see a thread of majestic melancholia that links Talk Talk to [a]Doves[/a], and that passes through [a]Radiohead[/a] and The Blue Nile along the way. At the end of the thread lies[a]Elbow[/a]. ‘Asleep In The Back’ is more than merely the sum of its influences, however: it delivers beautifully woven songs with a tender, insightful panache far beyond many.

Inaccurately belittled elsewhere as a prog group, [a]Elbow[/a] have instead done what so many groups struggle to achieve. They’ve made an album that works as one solid body. From the murmured Nowheresville desperation of ‘Any Day Now’ and its hypnotic organ grind through to the piano-rich nostalgia of the final ‘Scattered Black And Whites’, [a]Elbow[/a] create an atmosphere of universal intensity.

To do this they use a lot of different techniques and a lot of different sounds, but this doesn’t make them prog. It’s simply that rarest of gifts: originality. You can hear this creativity at work as ‘Bitten By The Tailfly’’s soft-focus atmospherics are blown apart by guitarist Mark Potter’s scratchy new wave hook. Or when singer Guy Garvey hails the gift of life on ‘Presuming Ed (Rest Easy)’ over the most regal and dreamlike of keyboard riffs, or when a saxophone suddenly joins ‘Powder Blue’’s mournful procession of melody towards the song’s climax.

But if[a]Elbow[/a]’s music soars in many directions to reach its conclusions, Garvey’s lyrics remain grounded. These are not songs that try to disguise their meaning with imagery. Every word is relayed plainly by Garvey’s monochrome delivery, each one an integral player in its own gritty drama: there are songs about watching someone being swallowed by substance abuse (‘Red’); about the fear of love growing old (‘New Born’); about drunken mating rituals (‘Bitten By The Tailfly’); about the rage of the spurned (‘Coming Second’); and about ambition and self-loathing (‘Don’t Mix Your Drinks’).

This may make ‘Asleep In The Back’ sound an overly melancholic and heavy album, but one leaves its company feeling strangely enriched – a sensation familiar from another source. Seems that after all the pale imitators, [a]Radiohead[/a] finally have a competitor worthy of healthy comparison.

Ted Kessler