Elbow’s music rolls like a Manchester Limousine. Beautiful on the surface yet intricate and clever if you care to look deeper. And if you do, well, the journey that you go on makes it all worth it.
A debut that is not an actual debut and an opening track titled Any Day Now. No-one can say that Elbow do not have a sense of humour. Asleep in the Back was re-released in deluxe form at the end of October this year and a fanfare is as deserved today as it was in 2001 when it was first released.
Asleep in the Back was on the Mercury Shortlist in 2001, but did not win. They would return to put this right with Seldom.
This was the second ‘debut’ that the band recorded, after previous material was scrapped when their record label dropped them. There was also an EP, Noisebox released in 1998 and 2000. This can be found for mega money on the internet, but handily is available in the new Deluxe Edition of the album, along with some live tracks from the Astoria and a BBC Radio One live set.
If you are one of the people who caught the coat tails of The Seldom Seen Kid then, welcome, but at some point, listening to this album is essential.
Any Day Now starts the album and is as good a song about escaping as you will find. It’s got beautiful guitars that drip with sound and a bit of a mantra too;
“Any day now how’s about getting out of this place. Any ways.
Got a lot of spare time. Some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive.”
Not so much a screaming battle plan from these boys, instead a subtle delivery bordering on sleepy and some will say miserable. Do not make the mistake of writing this track or this album off as miserable though, I’ll give you melancholic if I must.
Red is more about harmonies and a beautifully delivered vocal from Mr Garvey, effective drums and some cello in there for good measure. Little Beast is more mumbled and less comfortable than the two previous tracks, if you were drifting off then this jarry number will bring you back. The melody is plonky, the background vocals are wispy, this one is seemingly more about the instruments but it leads into an absolute corker of a track.
Powder Blue is the perfect match of lyric, delivery and instrumentation. You strive to uncover moments of musical perfection like this. Every low mumble from Guy prior to this, is instantly forgiven as his voice soars on this track.
“Bring that minute back, We never get so close to death Makes you so alive
I share it all with you Powder blue”
This song is beautiful. In every way you want a song to be, piano work that makes you want to cry, and the high chorus that will make sure you ARE crying. I have not even mentioned the words, lyrics that are universal and weirdly specific too. It is almost as if they paint the best picture ever, with stunning brushstrokes covering the entire canvas, but they still go back and give you the detail too. And to stop you getting too lost in this moment, it ends, abruptly, and you are on to Bitten by the Tail Fly; all together a very different animal.
I love this song, but in a different way. A quiet vocal punctuated every now and again by startling guitar work and drums that just do not go away. I will grant that maybe for the first listen you’re sitting there thinking “…the f’ is this…?” It packs a punch and goes a little down the road that Elbow explore more in other offerings. I saw it live in Manchester this year, the intensity really hits home when you see it performed on stage.
Newborn, like Powder Blue before it is a standout track. This is possibly the most beautiful song ever to feature an opening line about being a corpse in a bathtub. God bless Mr Garvey once again though because it works. It is a love song, and in both musical and time terms it is epic and neither one of these factors should put you off. It is all gentle and pleading, takes you away in the middle and thunders back. Coldplay comparisons may not be too welcome in connection to Elbow, but Fix You owes more than a doth of the cap to this song. In the opinion of this reviewer, this song alone is better than any sound-alike Coldplay have ever or will ever come up with.
Coming Second has a groove. I hesitate to say this because comparison’s to other bands and Elbow have rarely been helpful in my opinion, but this song is a bit Blur-like. It’s foot stomping like Beetlebum and it gets inside you.
Scattered Black and Whites is Elbow through and through; a beautiful lyric tinged with the personal, the family, the need to ground yourself in certain familiar situations. Garvey sings, “I come back here from time to time, I shelter here…” we all need places like that in our lives and thanks to the words that world is shared with us. Climbing trees, a sister buzzing through the room, probably a man, who possibly had his own chair that no-one else was allowed to sit in and got shifted if they tried to;
“and he talks of people ten years gone, like I’ve known them all my life, like scattered black and whites”
‘He’ talks, and luckily for us, so does Guy Garvey, and it feels like we too have known people like this all our lives. You might say it paints a bit of Royle Family-esque picture, you might say that.
The best writers in the world (many of them featured on this site) write about what they know, what surrounds them, what they remember and what they want to happen.
Elbow are able to deliver the personal track that everyone can identify with, they do it later on Station Approach and Weather to Fly and these songs carry an extra weight because of it. You don’t have to have grown up in Bury, or hung around Piccadilly or other places in Manchester to appreciate it, it’s not a joke you won’t be in on if you didn’t… but it makes the warm feeling warmer if you did.
There is a layered approach to the music from this band. It won’t necessarily remain slow and subtle if it starts off that way, out of a minute of a mumbling vocal and sparse music can bloom the best four minutes of music you will get, at least until the next track. Some tracks take flight and soar, some are air born for the entire time and all you have to do is shut your eyes and go there and yes, some maybe downright weird the first few listens you give them, but even those take hold of you eventually.
Asleep in the Back is a journey over so many musical peaks and troths that you should never get bored or complacent in the sound the band offers. As soon as you think you have them boxed off (ballad, Newborn) they give you a jolt (Bitten by the Tail Fly, Coming Second). Ignore Coldplay comparisons and don’t get too bogged down in the ‘Guy sounds just like Peter Gabriel’ debate and judge it fairly. You get a remarkably focused debut album, showcasing elements that the band would return to in later outings.
It is possible to listen to Guy talk about Bury and specifically Little Beast here and think that he doesn’t have many positive things to say about the area. In reality, Bury is a small Lancashire town that seemingly everyone hopes to escape in some way. It is possible to see the Metrolink to Manchester as the only redeeming feature of the place – again the band are not the only people to have this love hate thing going on. It’s the same in any hometown; love leaving, it makes coming back sweeter.
If greenery, hills, the odd chav and one or two proud mills still standing aren’t enough to get you, see the Met Bar which has been the scene of many a notable music event (a Joy Division kerfuffle for one, know yer history).
When our vicar says one Sunday “And a quick mention to Chris Jupp’s son’s band, who has an album out this week”, some of the congregation of the church looked appalled that such a thing had been mentioned in the notices, by a vicar no less! The reaction was all over some faces… bringing that rock and or roll up in a place like this…. indeed!
Well, those people are still sat in the same place every Sunday, a quick walk away from the Church hall where Richard and the boys practiced all that time. I don’t think the re-issued album got a mention in the notices though. Thankfully, the nation, nay the world is catching up to what some people have known all along.
Asleep in the Back was the first step.
Words © Simon A. Moult / Moultymedia 2009.
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