Review | Elbow - Giants of All Sizes
Manchester band Elbow’s eighth studio album harks back to their darker early work without straying too far from their well-worn template.
Elbow have always been a band of two halves. One is Elbow the household name - purveyors of earnest and uplifting yet down-to-earth anthems like their ubiquitous “One Day Like This”. If this, and similar Elbow tracks, didn’t have so much heart and personality, it would seem fitting to describe them as “purpose-built” to soundtrack weddings and Olympic ceremonies. The other half - the one less recognisable to the everyman - is comprised of darker, more restless arrangements and lyrics, and occasional experimental detours.
It is this latter half that the band’s new album Giants of All Sizes draws more heavily from. After a brief, twinkly piano phrase, a heavy blues-inspired guitar riff introduces “Dexter and Sinister”, the first song of the album. Although texturally and tonally similar to the band’s successful 2008 single “Grounds For Divorce”, this track is less straightforward, briefly and harshly interrupted by synth tones in the intro, and morphing from an infectious glam-rock stomp into a waltz-time outro built from layered guitars, synths, and mournful wails from guest vocalist Jesca Hoop. Here, the band’s prog-rock influences are most apparent, as is the darker, less optimistic lyrical content - the first line of the album, and repeated hook of this opener is “and I don’t know Jesus any more”.
The context in which Giants of All Sizes was written makes it unsurprising that the lyrics display more anger and frustration than they have done for a while. The continuing Brexit saga (previously referenced on the band’s previous LP Little Fictions in lyrics like “they gambled the farm on a headline, Jesus”), combined with more personal events such as the death of singer-songwriter Guy Garvey’s father, have influenced the tone and content of most of the songs here. Garvey stated in an interview with NME that “at times, it’s a bleak record, but it has a huge, if bruised, heart.”
Recorded on the outskirts of Hamburg, Germany, the band returned to a looser, more collaborative songwriting style, with fewer preconceived ideas or plans. Pianist and vocalist Craig Potter describes how “we sat around and played together in a way we haven’t for a long time and experimented and improvised with the music which led to the looser feel you hear on ‘Empires’.” This single features a house-of-horror style synth riff set to a swing on the drums, repeating guitar motifs, and a lyrical hook that alludes to the simultaneous political and personal tragedies that informed the album: “Empires crumble all the time / Pay it no mind / You just happened to witness mine”.
Sandwiched between the epic grandeur of this track and the aforementioned “Dexter and Sinister” is the dreamlike “Seven Veils”, all sweeping strings and warm textures. So far, so Elbow - but the subtle R‘n’B influence on the falsetto vocal sections is a surprising yet effective trick. “Seven Veils” is one of a few tracks here that call to mind Guy Garvey’s 2015 solo album Courting the Squall, a record that was more minimal and structured than his albums with the rest of the band, and focused less on rousing melodies.
“The Delayed 3:15” is a stripped-back, musically simplistic track that calls even further back in the band’s career, to the straightforward acoustics of classic cuts like “Scattered Black and Whites” from 2001 debut album Asleep in the Back. Here Garvey recounts a train journey delayed by a suicide on the tracks, pondering the man’s motives and wondering why his final moments were spent by “spray-paint swastikas and cocks” and “coke cans bleached by sun” when “there’s Cannock bloom and river sun a mile just down the line”. The song ends with a sprightly string section and even whistling - perhaps a sonic painting of this bloom and sun as the train passes through it?
Garvey’s lyrical strengths have always been around eloquent observations of everyday life and small details, and the juxtaposition of these details with weighty themes like love and loss. His vocal timbre - both angelic and unapologetically northern and regional - is the perfect method of delivery for his words, and this latest record is no exception to this.
On "White Noise White Heat", menacing, brash strings give a sense of the cinematic to what is otherwise the most straightforward rocker on the album - all pounding drums, fuzzed-out bass from Pete Turner, and bitter, melodramatic lyrics (“the white heat of injustice has taken my eyes”). Elbow haven't been as filled with righteous anger, both lyrically and sonically, since the towering title track of 2005's Leaders of the Free World. A press release further explains:
"'White Noise White Heat' is a motorik, metallic soul-blast, soaked in rage and doubt over the artist's role in documenting genuine tragedy, following London's 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. Guy stresses that this is not a song about Grenfell but rather his reaction. After 20 years of living his life in public through his lyrics and believing that music can be a positive force, this was the moment of true artistic self-doubt."
Garvey also had this to add: "I kind of renounce all our previous records with this track, or what we are best known for. What is the point of uplifting songs in the face of this horror?" This explores the limitations of himself and his music in improving society: “who am I, some Blarney Mantovani with a lullaby when the sky is falling in?”
The album's first slight misstep comes with “Doldrums”, a sparse, mid-tempo track that places Garvey’s vocal front-and-centre, yet the somewhat meandering melody isn't quite memorable enough for this spotlight, and the instrumental lacks the band's trademark dynamic range. "My Trouble" is more successful, using warm synth tones, layered guitars, and stately piano chords, and standout lyrics:
“There will come a time when you and I, are invisible to all but you and me, and I'll sing each line that appears with the years, 'til there's countless rings on our proud old tree, and I'll always get hold of you, my heart at the double, I miss you, my trouble is, I miss you, my trouble”
Ending with the kind of orchestral grandeur typical of the band's seminal 2008 album The Seldom Seen Kid, the track transitions into the folky guitar intro of "On Deronda Road", a hymnal song that marries the close vocal harmonies of Fleet Foxes to electronic drum patterns and crawling bass synth reminiscent of trip-hop and Bjork. Although the lyrics are much sparser than the band’s usual offerings, the way that they are repeated, mantra-like, is hypnotic, especially once the layers of guitars and electronics start to build to a vivid texture towards the end.
Closer "Weightless" is another lyrically concise offering with grand, ornate instrumental textures and Mark Potter's chiming guitar tones. The lyrics compare the death of Garvey’s father in 2017 to the birth of Garvey's son mere months later, and explore the cycle of death and birth, and what is passed down through generations:
“Hey, you look like me, so we look like him, when the time came, just like you are, he was weightless, in my arms”
As with previous Elbow offerings, their eighth album displays outstanding melodic and lyrical craft, and each instrumental is chosen and arranged with care and accomplishment, building a stellar collection of tracks that hits the high bar that the band has set so consistently for the last twenty years.
Best songs: Dexter and Sinister, My Trouble
Worst song: Doldrums