build a disappointment boys!

The new Elbow album leaves me underwhelmed, and that makes me sad.

Now, let's be fair - it's been out for only a few weeks so this is first impressions and all. That said, this is the first time in five albums that I feel like something is missing. What's that something? I don't know, but it was something of which the other four have plenty to spare.

It brings me back to my first listen to 'Cast of Thousands'. It was possibly my most anticipated album of 2003, following the note-perfect 'Asleep In The Back' as it did, but I was also a little nervous, as it was following the note-perfect 'Asleep In The Back'. The digital release of "Ribcage" ahead of the album was the first time I paid for a download and I remember being incredibly impressed, a bit confused and sort of disappointed in it all at the same time. Certainly not an easy track for a comeback single, but after a few listens it sunk in and revealed itself to be the stunner it is. Then came the album and I had a similar response - not as good as 'Asleep In The Back'! But, it wasn't trying to be. It's a completely different beast and that confused me. Repeated listens over the next few days brought me around to it but, right or wrong, that initial impression still shapes my feelings about the album. Forced to pick, I rank it as my least favorite Elbow full length. (Or, rather, did.)

That initial insane expectation shattered and somewhat met, 'Leaders of the Free World' and I had an easier time on our first meeting. Then came 'The Seldom Seen Kid' and it was quickly apparent that this was the album they had been trying to make for the past two but hadn't quite been able to reach. They'd arrived and created their second masterpiece.

Which, of course, gives us new troubles for 'build a rocket boys!', following the (almost) note-perfect 'The Seldom Seen Kid' as it does. (Its flaws - tiny as they are - are part of its charm.) It's hard to pinpoint what it is about the album that doesn't sit well with me, especially because every time I think: "this isn't working", I realize that it was a brave move on their part and I appreciate them more for it. (Right? Right.)

There's one thing that I know for sure does not work for me and it was painfully obvious on my first listen to the track: "Neat Little Rows" is not very good. Here's why: it is little more than an attempt - conscious or not - at a "Grounds For Divorce" retread, itself not their finest single. It starts out well enough with its driving bass line and treated vocals, but the chorus brings it to a grinding - or should I say - pounding halt. It's all "bang bang bang bang" while the descending piano line really drags the song down with it - a bit like driving a car at top speed during the verse and then slamming into the brick wall of the chorus. All of this isn't helped by the immediate recall of the perfection of "The Bones Of You" with the lyrical imagery - not the same sentiment by any means but I instantly go there when I hear it and/or see the single sleeve. I hate to say it, but it's the first not good Elbow single. *tear*

As for the rest, here's where it gets tricky. It's all a bit flat, but that probably wasn't the worst idea after the bombast of "The Seldom Seen Kid". This, of course, is going to make the album more of a grower than a shower, but continued attempts to pull more out of it reveal little to nothing. It starts out promising enough - epic opener "The Birds" takes the swamp-rock "Grounds For Divorce" admirably attempted but came up a tiny bit short and runs with it for 8 minutes without overstaying its welcome by a second. Even though it could only come first, it doesn't really play nice as an opener and sets up the very strange flow of the rest of the LP. "Lippy Kids",while lovely, is too much of a whisper to follow such a shout and feels a bit wasted as the second track, and the jarring transition into the more upbeat "With Love" lessens the impact of both. (Also: poor use of the choir in "With Love" - it sounds cheap rather than uplifting.)

"Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl" sits uncomfortably in the middle, being even more subdued than "Lippy Kids", and no amount of Guy Garvey's way with a turn of phrase can hide that there's no tune here. "The Night Will Always Win" stretches a good idea out for too long, repeating an amazing sentiment - "I miss your stupid face" indeed - to the point where it ruins the impact. "High Ideals" does similar, except even after a dozen listens I can't recall a single line, just a slightly out of place mariachi band and orchestra arrangement.

Following that, though, is the stunner for me. "The River" is a bit like a fleshed out "Our Little Boat" and is totally gorgeous. It is as long as it needs to be at under 3 minutes just as "The Birds" needs all 8 of its minutes and there's not an extra note or voice to be heard. It's the "Presuming Ed (Rest Easy)", "Crawling With Idiot" and "Some Riot" of this album and, as of now, the only thing I truly love on it.

Up next is "Open Arms", such blatant attempt to re-write "One Day Like This" that it is very little surprise that it has been earmarked for second single. I don't think I'd go as far as saying I hate it, but - like "One Day Like This" and "Grace Under Pressure" before that - it is an Elbow song that is not meant for me. This fades to a bit of a pointless reprise of "The Birds", sung by an older man to suggest the passing of time that the album is (apparently) obsessed with - or something like that - but it comes off a bit hokey. The album closes with "Dear Friends", which is pleasant enough but certainly not strong enough to end the album.

It's heartbreaking, really, that this album does very little for me. Much like the mess of a PJ Harvey album, if the name wasn't attached to it I'm not even entirely sure I'd have made it through an entire listen. I realize I'm being incredibly nit-picky and am, perhaps, expecting a bit much from it, but they've shown in the past they are more than capable.


Mike McCann said...

Great post, James. It pains me to agree with nearly every point you make, loving this band as I do.

I'm certainly happy to have new material, but much like that initial "Oh!" reaction to things that didn't sound like I expected them to or hoped they would (hello, Carnival of Light; g'day, The Second Coming; what's up, The King Of Limbs?), there's going to be an adjustment period while I figure out what this album means to me as a standalone work of art. Right now it's still part of a larger body, and I believe that's where the underwhelmitude stems from.

Not wanting to get struck by lightning, but reading about the upcoming Death Cab For Cutie album Codes and Keys leaves me with the same mild sense of dread...

Keep up the excellent work; Crap for Genius is a must-read for me!


Chris said...

My god, i thought I was the only man alive to think that this album was a disappointment. I guess that most great bands start to tire over time. I suspect that some of these songs didn't make it onto seldom seen...and perhaps should have remained so.
Now with my guitarist head on - Where have the guitars gone? Mark's a cracking underrated player, but out go guitars in favour of too many sentimental strings...Yawn.
Anyway, maybe they will bring out another cracker, maybe not. All the same the first three were awesome, and the fourth very good, so lets say thanks for that.