Elbow are back with a new record, the intriguingly named The Take Off and Landing of Everything. The band’s commercial success has brought them creative freedom – Phil Smith argues that the result is the album the band have probably always wanted to make.
Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything
Reviewing an Elbow album presents the greatest challenge: how far can you get without mentioning ‘One Day Like This’? There remains a perception that they exist on the periphery of the glory of that song, with everything else ‘One Day Like This’–lite.
It represents a fundamental misunderstanding not just of that track but the band itself: it’s is a song about hope before it is about love. Written as the band grappled with the commercial mediocrity that had defined their career, it was a last ditch grasp at success and professional fulfilment. The true mastery of the song and the album from which it was taken, The Seldom Seen Kid, was not just the song but its follow track, ‘Friend of Ours’, which reflected on the premature loss of a good friend. A stunning kick in the bollocks, it showed that yes, Elbow write gloriously sentimental and uplifting songs, but they are as excellent at depicting the troughs of everyday life as the peaks.
Their latest album, The Taking Off and Landing of Everything, is a strong continuation of this legacy. Few albums in British music have so touchingly captured the gentle, but occasionally intense push and pull relationship we have with our hometown cities and post industrial landscapes. ‘Charge’ presents a classic tragic hero, a man stalking the streets of his hometown, attempting to relive the glory and vitality of his youth. He is bitter and hurt by its, and his own, sorry decline. On ‘Colour Fields’, we are introduced to a bright girl in a dead town, grappling with the knowledge that so many are investing their hopes in her, and the only way to fulfil them is to leave. Then, the pull. ‘My Sad Captains’ puts Guy Garvey in the shoes of a dying Mark Antony, wishing for one more knees up with Eros and his loyal, hometown lieutenants. It is a sentiment anyone can instantly identify with.
Interestingly, the bond between the band is more evident on this album than ever before. This is despite the geographical distance between the members, with many of the tracks, for the first time, written in their entirety by individual members. Its a confirmation of their raison d’etre, to revel in the deep bonds between friends and family, to chronicle their ups and downs. Crucially, however, the careful balance between unabashed sentimentality and world weariness is constantly maintained.
Musically, this album is a timely reminder that for most of the 2000s Elbow were considered Radiohead’s closest peers for experimentation and innovation; refusing to adhere to the traditional songwriting structures that dominated the post-Oasis world they existed in. Elbow’s space, prog-rock influences are clearer and more dominant here than at any time since their debut effort Asleep In The Back 13 years ago.
The result is an enthralling one, with so many songs veering in unexpected directions. Opener ‘This Blue World’ is one of the most romantic songs Garvey has written, but musically it plays out as a teasing, 7 minute salvo. It builds and builds into a crescendo, but not one of orchestral bombast as you might expect. Instead, it mellows out into an understated grandeur. Closing track ‘The Blanket of Night’ sees a deeply un-Elbow invasion of synthesisers during the chorus, a deliberately off-putting and unsettling way to end a record. Elsewhere, Pete Turner’s unconventional bass playing continues to delight, always on the periphery, used only to add sudden bursts of colour and life. His contribution to ‘New York Morning’ is comfortably the highlight of the track.
This playful approach to songwriting music bears the ripest fruit on the magnificent ‘Fly Boy Blue/Lunette’, the first three minutes of which is vintage, hard nosed Elbow satire. The drums and guitar crash and soar; but just when you expect a ‘Grounds for Divorce’ style cacophony of a climax, the tempo breaks into a hypnotic and quiet rhythm. Garvey steps us to deliver his finest lyrical flourish to date, pondering the questions thrown up by the unsettling comfort of middle age. If Lowry and Jacobson met in a Manchester pub, neither, with words or paint, could create a more poignant image of life’s peaks and troughs, all through the prism of whether to give up smoking. It is, by some distance, the finest song Elbow have ever presented. Bittersweet never tasted so good.
The title of this album becomes so much clearer upon listening, as it truly feels as though they have come full circle. They have always been exceptional at completing stories, with ‘Lippy Kids’ from their previous album a delightful continuation of ‘Scattered Black and Whites’, one of the first songs they wrote. On this album, ‘Real Life (Angel)’ is a stunning follow up to ‘Fallen Angel’ from Cast of Thousands. On that track, as close to a shoulder swaying, foot thumping number they have produced, the initial adrenaline rush of freedom and excitement that a break up brings is chronicled as a newly single girl dances away. ‘Real Life (Angel)’ mesmerisingly chronicles the next step, the galling crash to earth amongst the post clubbing haze. Thematically, this album bears strong similarities with Leaders of the Free World, encapsulating all of the emotions a night spent in the company of our loved ones brings (or indeed a night without them), no matter where in the world. The drinking, the smoking, the laughter, the tears, the longing, the peaks, the troughs. To Elbow, we are all, in the most positive sense, fallen angels.
The commercial success that Elbow now enjoy has allowed them to make the album you suspect they always wanted to make. Here, they are free to sing and play about the world as they see it: The Taking Off and Landing of Everything. The end result is one of their most heartbreakingly, life alarmingly moving albums to date.