Take a moment to conjure the image of a chart-topping pop sensation in your mind— is she youthful? Impossibly attractive? Are her songs manufactured in Simon Cowell’s pop laboratory according to an algorithm that has been proven effective by dozens of starlets before her? If yes, you likely envisioned the kind of primped and preening human being usually stationed at Number One. You probably didn’t picture five middle-aged Northern men touting Mancunian accents and prog-rock influences. In many ways, Elbow’s success would appear unlikely, but with the March 10 release of The Take Off and Landing of Everything, the band found themselves at the apex of British popular music: the top of the charts.
Elbow’s appeal is uniquely localised; they never found much success outside of the UK. Perhaps this is because they deal in the sort of rainy-day aphorisms only useful for soothing an island of cynical souls. Album opener ‘This Blue World’ chronicles a union that once flourished under a pervasive layer of cloud. Vocalist Guy Garvey speaks of a lost attraction spurred once more by “an urgent morse in the gentle rain.” He urges a one-time love to “plot your course on the windowpane” as though the road to their amorous reunion has been charted by raindrops—hardly a cheery sentiment.
The Take Off and Landing of Everything simultaneously laments and glorifies the emotional stasis of middle age. Unfortunately, breakups sting as much at 40 as they did two decades ago, but apparently a rowdy piss-up remains the age-old cure for heartache. On ‘Fly Boy Blue/Lunette’ Garvey confesses: “my old friends are a serious habit,” and claims “I’ll still want a bottle of good Irish whiskey and a bundle of smokes in my grave,” though he also cedes “I’m reaching the age when decisions are made.” He is a man newly aware of his own mortality, but not yet ready to relinquish his youth. Despite the weight of Garvey’s lyrical subject matter, there is no more sonic melancholy present on this record than on any of Elbow’s others. The group has virtually made a career of pairing sombre string sections with vaguely romantic sentiments. However, they’ve largely managed to evade mawkishness or sentimentality in a way that bands with a similar shtick (think Coldplay et al) have not.
In Elbow’s defence, there is a lush, mellifluous quality to their work which only adds credibility to lyrics that might otherwise be soppy. Garvey’s grand, philosophical gestures are continually understated by the band’s nuanced instrumentals. The reverbed guitar on the album’s title track is so rich it almost scintillates. The mellow ‘Honey Sun’ reflects something of the golden quality of its title; electric guitar slides are drizzled across a tambourine beat while Garvey waxes lyrical on escaping “broken devotion.”
If The Take Off and Landing of Everything has one message it is this: it is never too late to start afresh. ‘New York Morning’ reveals Garvey’s poignant, newfound infatuation with the city. Somewhere, thousands of miles away from home, he achieves a reconciliation not present elsewhere on the record— he sings, “oh my God, New York can talk/somewhere in that talk is all the answers.” Elbow may not be a band with all the answers. They haven’t quite settled into mid-life cynicism as impressively as a group like The National has, but they continue to offer up consistent, if not inventive, albums.