The five members of Elbow played their first gig together in 1990 at the Corner Pin pub in Ramsbottom, a market town on the northern edge of Greater Manchester. At the time they were called Mr Soft (or just Soft); it wasn’t until 1997 that they changed the name of the band to Elbow (“the loveliest word in the English language”). That year they signed to Island Records and recorded their first album. Island was then bought by the Universal Music Group and during the subsequent restructuring the band was dropped. Sadly, after seven years of writing and performing their particular brand of alternative rock music, Elbow‘s first recording was destined never to be released.
Undeterrred, Elbow switched to the independent Ugly Man Records label and released three EPs: Noisebox, Newborn and Any Day Now. By 2001 the band had come to the attention of V2 Records who issued Elbow‘s first full album, Asleep in the Back, which contained most of the tracks from the earlier EPs together with some new material. More than 10 years after the band was formed Elbow were beginning to make a name for themselves. Asleep in the Back was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize that year and, ironically, the band was nominated in the Best New British Band category at the BRIT Awards.
Elbow made another two albums on V2 Records: Cast of Thousands and Leaders of the Free World. The latter reached number 12 on the UK album chart when it was released in 2005. Puzzlingly, though, Elbow parted company with V2 Records after that. Their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, was released by Fiction Records in 2008. It immediately entered the UK album chart at number 5; it won the Mercury Music Prize; by 2011 it had sold over 860,000 copies; and it has been in the top 100 on the UK albums chart for a total of 144 weeks spanning a period from March 2008 to November 2012.
The success of The Seldom Seen Kid surprised a lot of people. The music wasn’t radically different from Elbow‘s earlier albums and it hadn’t been heavily promoted. Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian speculated that Elbow‘s appearance at the Glastonbury Festival just as the sun came out from behind the clouds for the first time might have been a factor. Or it could be that Guy Garvey’s warmth and charm as a radio presenter had brought the band to the attention of many more of BBC 6 Music’s listeners. Or, perhaps, it was just that Elbow‘s time for recognition had finally come.
What Dorian doesn’t mention is that The Seldom Seen Kid carries the unmistakable stamp of a songwriter who has just fallen in love. The first track, Starlings, is as poetic a love song as you could ever hope to hear. Guy Garvey’s lyrics are not stolen from Shakespeare nor do they rely on tired old clichés. Where most of us would say “I’m head over heels” Starlings ends like this:
The violets explode inside me when I meet your eyes.
Them I’m spinning and I’m diving like a cloud of starlings.
Darling is this love?
Five of the eleven tracks on the album are unashamed love poems. I would gladly quote them all here but this isn’t a poetry blog and, anyway, the music behind the words makes an even bigger contribution to the album’s appeal.
The very first thing we hear is a rapid dull chiming as if a child is repeatedly running his hand along the railings in the park. It is an unmistakable statement of intent. This is a band that will not be confined to any particular style, a band that refuses to pander to fashion. The tuneful rattling of the railings is soon joined by the hollow sound of loosely stretched skins over a big kettle drum, or (more likely) its electronic equivalent, and then a dreamy voice sings, “Ah ah, Ah ah, Ah ah”. Electric piano chords answer the voice inviting the vocalist to continue, which he does with the first line of an ode to his new love. Everything about this song says that the world is a perfect place – a place where the sun always shines and a small boy can have endless fun just by running his hand along some railings.
Tracks 2, 3, 5 and 10 are all songs that, like the opener, could only have been written by a lyricist in love. And, to complement the words, there’s an undeniable exuberance in the tunes, the textures and the arrangements. Elbow delight in variety. Soft, loud; sparse, full; mellow, harsh; steady, off-beat. And they use it to full effect on all these tracks.
Of the remaining songs there’s one that seems to be a tribute to a friend who died (the seldom seen kid that gives the album its title), another that pokes fun at the unquenchable optimism of gamblers (The Fix), and four slower pieces. As the album plays the joy of the first few tracks gradually subsides to be replaced by more contemplative songs and even a touch of sadness. Every composition is lovingly assembled from the individual contributions of the members of the band, each one essential to the whole. One or two of the slow pieces wouldn’t stand up on their own but, in the context of the album, they make perfect sense.
Elbow was a five-piece band – guitars, keyboards, bass, drums and vocals – but The Seldom Seen Kid also makes extensive use of strings, brass and a choir. It is ideally suited to an orchestral treatment; and that’s exactly what Elbow did in 2009. A live performance of the album with the BBC Concert Orchestra was recorded at Abbey Road Studios and released as a limited edition CD+DVD package. This is, of course, a collector’s special but it’s a brilliant example of the art.
The DVD is a straightforward film of the concert and the CD is just the audio from it. The sound is excellent; if it wasn’t for the applause (and occasional whoop) from the audience between songs it might have been a conventional studio recording. Sometimes an orchestral instrument draws your attention – a piccolo here or a French horn there – reminding you that the original mix was slightly different. The cameras move unobtrusively around the musicians, picking out moments of concentration or enjoyment on their faces, adding a little seasoning to the overall experience. It’s very much a piece of aural art with visual embellishments, rather than a film with incidental music.
As a rule Crotchety Man prefers studio albums to live ones but when it comes to The Seldom Seen Kid he is glad to have both. And the DVD.
There have been two more studio albums from Elbow with completely new material (Build a Rocket Boys and The Take Off And Landing Of Everything) and one compilation containing tracks previously only released on singles (Dead In The Boot). Excluding the compilation, the Crotchety Collection contains five of the six studio albums in Elbow‘s discography. Of those, The Seldom Seen Kid is still my favourite. It’s my favourite, I think, because it oozes the frabjous joy of life seen through the eyes of love.
I sat you down and told you how the truest love that’s ever found is for oneself.
You pulled apart my theory with a weary and disinterested sigh.
Darling is this love?