elbow have not yet, it seems, been a band to bow to the pressures of mid-career megastardom. It was over a decade into their career as elbow — more still before the quintet assumed that name — that ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ transposed the serene songwriting of their first three LPs to some major commercial gain, a sudden vault to fame after years of relative mainstream inconspicuousness that comes with a natural pressure to live up to refreshed expectations, a weight under which many might buckle.
Yet the records that followed, ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ And ‘The Take Off And Landing Of Everything’, only consolidated this newfound status as household names, Guy Garvey’s unshakeable sense of ease at the helm of an orchestral sweep still capturing the hearts and minds of press and public alike. On ‘Little Fictions’, their new album, they’ve a legacy to live up to that only grows with each passing year, tasked with maintaining the formula without letting it grow stale.
They are blessed, of course, with Garvey’s irresistible vocal talents — that smooth yet worn brilliance it’s impossible to get sick of — which remain their defining presence. That part of the recipe it would be impossible to depart from, yet for the first twelve minutes or so of ‘Little Fictions’ the rest of the band back it with an impetus that feels genuinely fresh for the group, even at this, their seventh outing.
Opener ‘Magnificent (She Says)’ is one of the finest songs of elbow’s career. Like the rest of the record the production of Craig Potter is splendid, made use of by a sublime blast of strings. Yet these are not the grand, bombastic sweeping strings elbow have utilised before, but a more determined sounding thrust. Their sound overall is still its lush, gentle self, but it comes with a buried hint of momentum that sees the band breaking new territory — however coyly.
Those kinetic undertones are made more apparent with the motorik, borderline danceable drum beat that backs sparse, conversely soothing piano chords and a signature Garvey croon on ‘Gentle Storm’. The rhythm persists as the hypnotic ‘Trust The Sun’ takes shape next. On the first three tracks the sheer flow of ‘Little Fictions’ sets it apart from just about anything they’ve ever done.
Which is why the bombast of ‘My Disco’ is so infuriatingly jarring when it lumbers into view. As a standalone single it’s a fine song, if a little elbow-by-numbers, yet given the band had slipped into such a pristine, appealing groove thus far on the record it feels nothing more than an unnecessary, overblown plod of an interruption.
For the rest of the record elbow are for the most part in understated form. That subtle drive of momentum that was so rudely disrupted returns sporadically, and the record as a whole makes for an immensely pleasant listen; pleasant, perhaps, though not entirely meaningful. Sonically, the boat isn’t pushed out much further, save for the interesting rhythmic twists on ‘Firebrand and Angel’ and the title track’s grand, eight-minute crescendo, while Garvey’s lyrics are relatively ordinary save for the outwardly anti-Brexit musings on ‘K2’: “I’m from a land with an island status / makes us think that everyone hates us / maybe darling they do.”
‘Little Fictions’, in the end, though a welcome sign of elbow gently progressing with their formula, is a step forward feels too hesitant. At their best the band exhibit hit one of their finest furrows yet when they relax into a newfound sense of groove, but too often do they return to the tried and tested grandiosity of old. Their next move will be a telling one.
Words: Patrick Clarke
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