There are few things in life quite so liberating as the opening track on an Elbow album--they're like airlocks between the plainness of the outside world and the elaborate melancholic heave-ho that you are likely about to submerge yourself in. Following predecessors "Any Day Now", "Ribcage" and "Station Approach", "Starlings" opens their fourth album The Seldom Seen Kid rising from a bed of tumbling electronic subtlety like a depressed Atari game loading up, adding bare touches of piano, glimpses of ambient guitar, out of body background vocals, an understated pulse and a wisp of strings, before--EXCELSIS!--a fanfare avalanche of horns crashes the gate and elevates things to gasping palatial heights, before Guy Garvey's inimitable gravel tone and wrenchingly poetic reinterpretations of the everyday announce their arrival proper. It's astonishing, by far the most progressive moment on the album and if anything it sets the bar too high. But even when the pace dips, and songs like "Mirrorball" and "Weather to Fly" don't distinguish themselves quite enough, their textural peerlessness remains. This is a beautiful sounding record. Their collaboration with Richard Hawley may be more of a curiosity than a thing of beauty, but the highs, the riffing cross-stitch of "Ground for Divorce", the desolate grandeur of "The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver" and the enlightened string-laden anthem "On a Day Like This" (like their own Sound of Music--only substitute the Alpine peaks for a Manchester high-rise) number amongst the best of their career. --James Berry
Review by Stewart Mason
In a world where even the generally mediocre likes of Snow Patrol can have honest to goodness mainstream pop success, it seems peculiar that Elbow have never broken through beyond a devoted cult following. (Admittedly, the fact that their new labels, Polygram's alt rock imprint Fiction Records in the U.K. and Geffen in the U.S., are their fourth and fifth, respectively, after stints on Island, EMI, and V2, may have a lot to do with their lack of mainstream attention.) Exploring the fruitful middle ground between early Radiohead's mopey art rock and Coldplay's radio-friendly dumbing down of the same, Elbow makes records built on a balance of things not often found together anymore: strange musical textures alongside immediately accessible pop song choruses, or unexpected left turns in song structure paired with frontman Guy Garvey's warm, piercing vocals. It's no surprise that Elbow are regularly compared to old-school prog rockers like Pink Floyd and Electric Light Orchestra: they're proof that records can be cool and commercial at the same time, an idea that's not particularly hip in this day and age. Yet a song like "Grounds for Divorce," which puts a sharp, wryly funny Garvey lyric against a clanging, Tom Waits-like arrangement and throws on one of the album's catchiest tunes for good measure, or "Some Riot," which filters a yearning, lovely melody for guitar and piano through so many layers of effects and processing that it can be hard to tell what the original instruments sounded like, isn't afraid to display its accessibility even on its most experimental numbers. At the album's best, including the spacious, atmospheric balladry of the opening "Starlings" (imagine if Sigur Rós could write a pop song as emotionally direct as Keane's "Everybody's Changing") and the potential radio breakthroughs of the soaring, semi-orchestral epic "One Day Like This" (complete with choral climax!) and the wistful "Weather to Fly," The Seldom Seen Kid is Elbow's most self-assured and enjoyable album so far.
The Seldom Seen Kid
Guy Garvey's got a great voice, and good thing, too. As Elbow have morphed from ambitious but sterile art-rockers to something slightly more visceral, his singing-- equal parts Peter Gabriel and Talk Talk's Mark Hollis-- has been one of the few elements linking the Manchester band's varied output. It's also what's helped Elbow stick out a bit from the choirboy pack of Chris Martin, guy from Keane, et al. At the same time it's not a very rock'n'roll voice, which perhaps explains how, despite some degree of hype, Elbow have always fallen just shy of expectations.
Fitting, then, that "Starlings"-- the first track on Elbow's fourth album The Seldom Seen Kid-- is all about expectations, or at least subverting them. The track begins with an intense cacophony before settling into a vaguely Polynesian groove; a sole orchestral stab blasts out as quickly as it disappears once again. It's a full two minutes before Garvey even sings, and by then one would be forgiven for thinking that, modest melody aside, expectation is all the suspensefully static track has to offer. Yet Elbow are album artists, first and foremost, and in that context it's hard to come up with a better way to ease into The Seldom Seen Kid. Indeed, the similarly exotic second track "The Bones of You", with its flamenco underpinnings and Gershwin coda, stands in stark contrast to its predecessor, and it's here that the benefits of Garvey's voice really come into play. Were he to rise to a pained falsetto, "The Bones of You" would invite endless comparisons to other, slightly more conspicuous British art-rock bands. That Garvey sounds so comfortable in his skin even as his band sheds its own from track to track helps thread the self-produced disc, suite-like.
There are no roman numerals to be found in The Seldom Seen Kid's song titles, nor is there particularly dexterous playing to be heard from track to track, but that's not to discount the disc's mildly proggy vibe. The ebb and flow of the disc feels like it's advancing some unknowable plot, always the sign of a well sequenced disc but also the bridge between songs like the lovely "Mirrorball" and the bluesy (in the get-the-Led-out sense) "Grounds for Divorce". There, the song's lyrical and musical reputation are in keeping with the band's exploration of the static as well as blues traditions. It's a tragic drinking song where the protagonist loses himself in "a hole in my neighborhood down which of late I cannot help but fall." Less fancy-pants lyricists would have just said "bar," but Garvey knows the value of a poetic line or two. In typically ornate Garvey fashion, he's called "An Audience with the Pope" "a Bond theme if Bond was from Bury and a recovering Catholic," but he could have just described it as Tom Waits doing 007.
The song is a rare autopilot moment on a disc that otherwise makes so much effort to skirt cliché. Anyone expecting "Some Riot" to reflect it's title is headed for disappointment-- the song could easily explode, but follows a different, more moving path instead-- and "Weather to Fly" is almost mantra-like in its simplicity. Yet while "The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver" begins much the same, it gives way to some subtle twists, turns, and escalations that push the track into dramatically fresh territory. On "The Fix", the twist is that guest Richard Hawley's croon vies with Garvey's voice as guide through the jazzy song, vaguely film score in its menace but pretty cool despite its half-familiarity.
The single "One Day Like This" sounds like just that-- a single-- with its faster gait and sunnier demeanor, buoyed by strings and massed vocals despite a deceptive but welcome surfeit of space in the mix, but per Elbow's own downbeat reputation, the album doesn't end there. That would be too easy. Instead, The Seldom Seen Kid ends with a bonus tribute to the title's inspiration, Manchester songwriter/troubadour/busker Bryan Glancy. Track down and browse the website dedicated to his memory and you'll likely wish you knew him. Listen to this absolutely beautiful tribute and you'll miss him like a best friend.
-Joshua Klein, April 16, 2008