Elbow are perhaps an unusual choice for an album spotlight in Concrete Music. Rightly or wrongly, they’re not really seen as a young person’s band. On the contrary they seem to have built up a reputation of being something of a ‘dad rock’ band, which I suppose is somewhat understandable given that many of their best songs are about looking back nostalgically on one’s youth from the vantage point of middle age. Some people even have the nerve – heaven forfend – to refer to them as ‘easy listening’, a term which seems far too dismissive to me. But Elbow are too great a talent to simply ignore. Their humbleness manifests itself in a lack of showbiz pretension, but the strength of their music shines through. Headed up by their warm and down-to-earth frontman Guy Garvey, the band wear their heart on their sleeve. To some their songs may seem overly earnest, but to those who buy into them – everything they do comes across with a sweet sincerity.
Elbow have never been ‘massive’, but they’ve been able to pull a decent crowd for years now. Of course, there is always one song that everybody expects to hear at any of their gigs. It is a song that has come to define them, a song with such a massive singalong chorus that one could justifiably call it the 21st Century’s answer to ‘Hey Jude’, a song about forcibly opening a pair of curtains – ‘One Day Like This’. Following the release of that song, Elbow seemed to settle down into a winning little formula. It would do them a disservice to suggest that they lost their creativity or ‘sold out’ to use a tired old phrase. Their music remained passionate and emotional and rich, but one could start to suspect that they had Elbow sussed out. They do optimistic singalong anthems about friendship and love very well, and the last few albums have had songs of this type peppered liberally throughout.
Anyone who thinks they have Elbow sussed out would do well to give Giants of all Sizes a listen. From the stomping opening track ‘Dexter & Sinister’ it’s clear that Elbow’s usual pervasive optimism is in short supply. Guy Garvey – the band’s sole lyricist – has clearly had a difficult couple of years. “I was born with a trust that didn’t survive” he growls on the single ‘White Noise, White Heat’, a lyric that could be said to sum up the entire album. Safe to say, there’s no throwing those curtains wide this time around. Throughout the album Garvey’s frustrated lyrics reflect his own political alienation, personal grief over the death of his father, and concern over the state of the world. It’s not just the big issues Garvey sets his sights on, however, as ‘The Delayed 3.15’ memorialises a man who took his own life by jumping in front of a train he was on. “You didn’t make the news” Garvey laments, lashing out at the “first class tuts” he witnessed around him.
The album is not all doom and gloom, but one of mixed emotions. It is an album that deftly balances both darkness and light. On this album, however, the light comes more from within than without. There is a marked lack of gregarious, ‘we’re all in this together’ anthems. On the Beatlesque ‘Doldrums’ Garvey takes a lyric that would on any other Elbow album have been played straight – “all of this stuff in our veins is the same” – and sings it entirely without conviction, referring to it as a refrain fit only for “desperate men”. It is as if Garvey can no longer bring himself to toe the traditional Elbow line of togetherness and unity. Instead, he finds solace elsewhere, in his own nuclear family. Although Garvey lost his own father over the recording of this album, he also became one himself. The last third of the album is devoted to songs about Garvey’s new family unit. In ‘On Deronda Road’ he sings of “home like I have never known”, while the lush and expansive closing track ‘Weightless’, in which Garvey remembers holding his new-born son in his arms for the first time, is positively joyous.
All in all, ‘Giants of all Sizes’ is an album of contradictions. It is an album both angry and tender. It is a deeply introspective work that simultaneously manages to turn out a couple of songs louder and brasher than anything we’ve heard before from the band. Elbow, always a champion of the album format, have produced, in an age of the single and the playlist, a work in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Those hoping for something a bit more energetic may be left disappointed. Although there are a couple of rocky songs on the album, overall most of the songs take on a slower pace. The music is entirely fitting to the mood of the album however, and the band’s willingness to experiment with different sounds means that things are never dull. That said, it is lyrically, rather than musically, that they surprise most. Elbow have always had something to say, but never before has it felt this urgent. “I haven’t finished yet” sings Garvey near the start of the album. I should hope not, Guy. One album like this a year would see me right.