For almost two decades now Americans have flocked to the Britpop sound in droves. Bands like Coldplay, Travis, and Keane are favorites on airwaves and TV shows stateside just as they are across the pond, where their sweet aching ballads touch the hearts of millions. Yet, as a collective whole, America has seemingly rejected Elbow. Not maliciously. We just sort of polity ignore them, which is ironic because that seems a very British thing to do.
Why should this be? Elbow songs are filled with that beautiful melancholy, perhaps the hallmark of the Britpop sound, just as with those other bands. Singer Guy Garvey can croon with the best of them. While known to have lyrics that are slightly more provocative and poetic than hacky comparisons between tear drops and waterfalls, Elbow is not a band to shy away from a good ol fashioned love song, although these are usually layered in with other songs about politics, heroin use, and cheating at the horse track.
Just as the lyrical content of a typical Elbow song is smarter and wittier than most of their contemporaries, the music is also slightly more challenging. Elbow uses more instruments per album than most bands do in a career, up to and including the full orchestra and choir treatment. “Grandiose” is a term that is commonly associated with the band, and that grandiosity is on full display in their new album The Take Off and Landing of Everything.
Maybe due to the scale of their musical ambition, or just because Guy Garvey’s voice has a similar timbre, Elbow have drawn Peter Gabriel comparisons throughout their career. Recording this album at Gabriel’s Real World Studios seemed like a tacit acknowledgement of this influence and all the dramatic epicness that implies. However it must be stated that an epicness fatigue can set in. Swirling layers of strings and vocal choruses over a triumphant rock ballad can be transcendental, but if you push those devices to the point of routine, you run the risk of saturating and desensitizing the listener. Gabriel himself has been guilty of this type of auditory inflation, as has Elbow in recent years.
For fans in the know, every single album Elbow released in the aughts is on their best of the decade list. This streak of excellence culminated with The Seldom Seen Kid, which was so good they got to perform it live with the BBC Concert Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios. That performance with the orchestra is impeccable and inspiring. Perhaps so much so they had nowhere to go from there, because the follow-up album Build a Rocket Boys! was not as distinctive or edgy as any of their prior work. Its relative mundanity even reflected in the title despite the exclamation point which conveys an excitement the album fails to muster. Really, would you rather watch someone build a rocket, or launch one?
True to its title then, The Take Off and Landing of Everything does seem to have a spark lacking in its predecessor, although it is not entirely free of its sins. The second track, “Charge” demonstrates this by using an engaging warm synth pad riff as the track’s basis, but where some bands might have a keyboard or guitar solo, Elbow ops for an orchestra solo.
“Fly Boy Blue/Lunette” is an album highlight, showcasing Elbow in classic form and showing us what they can do when they focus on producing a song instead of looking for reasons to book a choir. A minor and mysterious melody is meticulously harmonized for the duration of the first part of the song until it flips the switch to a major key for a satisfying outro in the “Lunette” section.
However since the first single is “New York Morning”, its clear that the label at least thinks bigger is better. It’s a good song, but it’s not covering ground earlier songs like “One Day Like This” and “Open Arms” haven’t already tread before. A nice refrain built to majestic proportions. Not a bad thing in and of itself. The problem is that it begins to feel like a box to be checked. “Oh, got to have at least on of those on the album!”
That same criticism could be directed at the album as a whole. It feels like it’s trying to adhere to a particular blueprint of known success. You don’t have to be Radiohead and push for reinvention every other album, but there is something to be said for endeavoring to make each album a unique experience. The last three Elbow albums could almost be a single three disc album they play so tightly together.
It has been noted before that Roger Waters really hasn’t written anything new since The Wall. That is, he has written material, but it all plays and feels like a worn out echo of his masterwork. The fear is that Elbow might suffer the same curse, making and remaking The Seldom Seen Kid over and over but never quite getting it that good again. Maybe that’s too harsh though. After all, there are people out there who are huge fans of The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking. Somewhere.
“It’s a well produced album of good songs, why can’t we just leave it at that?”
Because this is fucking Elbow we’re talking about here! Let Coldplay and Travis get mired in mediocrity, Elbow has always been a cut above. They are held to a higher standard. The Take Off and Landing of Everything isn’t a bad album or even a mediocre album. It’s a very good album similar to their previous good album previous to a decade of pure excellence. But we’ve already established most Americans haven’t listened to Elbow before. So by all means, start listening now. You will hear why Elbow is such an acclaimed band. However you’ll likely discover your favorite Elbow album in their back catalog.