Three of my favourite bands have released new albums in the last couple of weeks, and it would be remiss of me not to comment. It’s Music Week on X&HT, and I want to start with Elbow’s latest, Build A Rocket Boys.
Warning: contains fanboi gush.
It came five minutes and eight seconds into The Birds. Up to that point, the opener had been a slow build, coming up in gentle waves, ushering me into the close-miked, densely textured world that Elbow have made their own. A quiet, insistent repetition of the phrase “Looking back is for the birds” as a small string section slides into the mix.
And out of nowhere, everything goes widescreen. The mix opens up, and the string section takes flight. The simple figure they’d been repeating towers away, single notes blasting into massive chords and the joy and sorrow in it grabbed me and knocked me sideways. This is no exaggeration. I had my headphones on, and I had just turned the corner onto Devonshire Street heading towards Piccadilly Circus. The Elbow Moment had arrived, and I should have been sitting down for it. My eyes stung with a sudden wash of tears, and I stumbled. I managed to disguise it as a trip on the uneven pavement, but damn it. They’d got me again. The rotten sods had got under my skin, and it had taken less than five minutes this time.
Every bloody album. Scattered Black And Whites on the debut, Asleep At The Back. Fallen Angel from Cast Of Thousands. That moment where they drop the curtain, and you see the full picture. The reveal, when they show you that you’ve been looking the wrong way the whole time and they pluck the doubloon from behind your ear, the bunch of flowers from their sleeve. That moment when the girl you like, that boy you’re already half-smitten with turns to you and smiles that smile. That moment. Knocking the breath out of you, slapping a grin on your mush and blurring your vision. And they do it every time.
Look, if you want an objective review, you’ve come to the wrong place. I love Elbow with a full and open heart. They can navigate the pitch and swell of a song better than any rock band at work today, knowing the way that a silence, a pause can have power. They know how to sneak up on you, whisper in your ear and say just the right thing to send your knees to water. Build A Rocket Boys is the most seductive album they’ve ever done.
Perhaps the Mercury Music Award they won for The Seldom Seen Kid persuaded them to take things a little more seriously, to play things that bit more straightforwardly. To stop mucking about and go straight for the heartstrings. If that was the plan, they’ve flippin’ nailed it. Build A Rocket Boy has hit me and stuck on the first listen.
The sound is woody, organic, unshaven, beer-and-fag-and-whisky scented. Analog synths are a new addition to the sound, a chortle and purr at the fringes of the mix, adding a glow that reminds me of the themes to late seventies kid’s shows on songs like Jesus Was A Rochdale Girl. Guy Garvey’s voice is, as ever, the constant, An after-hours Peter Gabriel. Mark Hollis with a smoker’s throat. Like the legendary Fiddler’s Green, he’s the embodiement of a particular place and time. If a pub could talk and sing, it would tell stories like Guy Garvey.
Build A Rocket Boys is an extraordinary achievement. It’s a quintessentially English album, with resonances and references to music hall, bar songs and football terrace chants. It’s aware and celebratory of our history, and ready for whatever the future holds. It’s big-hearted, wise and effortlessly anthemic. It’s as careful and detail-oriented as a new lover, and will leave you with the same flush and giddy joy of discovery.
The cover art, by cartoonist and flaneur Oli East, tells it all. A kid in a baggy astronaut suit, arms flung out wide to embrace whatever’s coming. Seemingly slapdash in execution, but on closer inspection every element has been placed with precision and care.
As we finally shrug off the winter and head towards spring, I can’t think of a better soundtrack.