It’s 2008, Elbow were on the crest of a popular wave of good will built upon their most successful album (The Seldom Seen Kid), that married Garvey’s world-weary, crumpled yet occasionally lovelorn vocals to sweeping strings, enveloping rhythms and communal choruses. It was topped off with a Mercury award and a showstopping performance of ‘One Day Like This‘ at Glastonbury; they were in their own way the 00s version of Pulp – an unlikely success story. Like them, It’d been a long time coming for this middle-aged Bury five-piece who had earned attention the hard way with a series of critically well-received records through the late 90s and early 00s, that were ultimately ignored by the mainstream. So much so that by 2005’s Leaders of the Free World they had been dropped by their label. The turnaround then was quite remarkable.
Fast forward to 2017 and Elbow are again at a crossroads having attempted to rehash the successful ‘Seldom Seen…’ formula to lesser and more bland results on a previous duo of average follow-up albums, Build a Rocket Boys and 2014’s The Taking off and Landing of Everything informed by Garvey’s divorce. These largely disappointing releases one suspects were formed in the shadows of the pressure to repeat the feat. Seventh album Little Fictions then, finds Guy and the lads coming to terms with the loss of long-time drummer Richard Jupp after 25 years. Recorded between Scotland and Manchester, at a time of uncertainty, is it still the same Elbow that fans love and detractors love to hate? Well kind of. Last year Garvey described it as both ‘sparse‘ and ‘chunky and beat driven‘ two contradictory statements that are somehow true.
Elbow still sound like the Doves on downers, but this time complimented by, at points, a productional sparsity that recalls the atmosphere of Talk Talk‘s Spirit of Eden, only the songs aren’t as good. Take the twitching elegance of ‘Trust The Sun‘, which skitters along upon a bed of beats, luxuriating in melancholia and disenchantment, (‘an eye for an eye for an eye‘) Garvey sings, rising from bed each day with the barely concealed rage of a man clinging to every fragment of hope he can muster. While ‘Gentle Storm”s pattering beats and keyboard dips are redolent of the enveloping opener ‘Ribcage‘ from Cast of Thousands, it sees the frontman basking in the beams of a new love (he married his girlfriend last year) – a repeated plea to ‘Fall in love with me/every day’ is as affecting as it is romantic. It’s at the heart of what makes Little Fictions tick.
Perhaps the most trademark Elbow moment comes with the soaring opener ‘Magnificent(She Says)‘ that sees Garvey open his eyes to embrace the wonder of his young child’s fledgling life “Every morning I was woken up by a kid playing in the sand and it was the loveliest thing to see” he says, of life with his baby. With its pattering drums, and woven with cinematic strings, it’s as close to the kind of lump in the throat inducing ‘The Bones of You‘ or ‘One Day Like this‘ anthemicness as Little Fictions gets. While ‘All Disco‘ displays a poignancy of a music fans palette (‘what does it prove if you die for a tune? Is it really all Disco‘). Final track ‘Kindling‘ is lit by a cymbal shuffle that sounds like a better produced Velvet Underground‘s ‘Sunday Morning‘. Garvey’s vocal is heartfelt and bathes in a lovelorn afterglow, but his words are a little trite in part.
Elsewhere there are prescient moments. The epic eight-minute title track’s twitching beats are sewn with strings, swelling impressively and galloping to a crescendo. It could be a song about post truth and fake news but it turns out the subject matter is more familiar: the personal, every day and homespun. Childhood memories mingle with the lies we tell ourselves to survive. These intensely personal and poetic fragments of biography are interspersed with witty asides (‘our fat boy fishing chair‘). ‘K2‘ is more obviously political, as Garvey’s post-Brexit incredulity tumbles forth over a subtle instrumentation ‘I’m from a land with an island status/makes us think everyone hates us‘ he sings with a sigh as the disappointment of being British and represented by leaders who are at the tiller guiding us toward some rather large icebergs.
It’s fair to say if you love Elbow you will still fall under the spell of Little Fictions. If you don’t, you will still decide to turn off around two minutes into most cuts, continuing to write them off once again as dull plodders, as these songs largely amble and shuffle along, threaded with Garvey’s earnestness rather than always leaving an indelible mark. So, whilst there are moments of heart grasping beauty here, which recall what Elbow did best on their first three albums, these are still surrounded by some forgettable trudges.
If you’ve been open to Elbow’s charms in the past, you will once again marinate and be lifted by this set of earnest anthems, which somehow sound less conscious of repeating the commercial success of The Seldom Seen Kid – a fate that befell their last two long players. Of course it’s not visceral or futuristic, Elbow’s music is sometimes very heartwarming, capturing little precious moments and turning them into anthems, like enjoying a piece of warm Hovis bread with butter, hymns for the broken everyman, and who doesn’t want to feel like they are being reflected in song? For while these suites of luxuriant strings, vocals and twinkling percussion are not going to change anyone’s lives, they might just save a few in the process. So a return to form? A little.
Little Fictions is out now on Polydor.