The second string to the Elbow came in 2003. Two years on from that second first album and with more than a few people looking in their direction to see what was going to come next from this band; Elbow seem to deliver contrasts. They create a universal intimacy which is evident in spades on Cast of Thousands along with a feeling that now they are reaching an audience and they know it (quite literally when you remember that the crowd at their Glastonbury performance sings on Grace Under Pressure).
Ribcage opens the album and seems like Any Day Now, Chapter 2. The band have got out of town, on the road to where they want to be going and there is a great contrast that they “blew the doors, didn’t we? Pissed in their champagne…gave ourselves a name”. You can’t blame Mr. Garvey and the other ‘elboys’ for showing some elation following some time wondering if their time in the spotlight was going to happen. “I wanted to explode, to pull my ribs apart and let the sun inside!”
They do that and then some. This track takes off with an almost hypnotic drumbeat, mantra-like repetition and a Gospel choir for good measure. The boys are nothing if not ballsy in working out what else they can add to a recording to give it the right feel. Gospel choir? Why not! Sing through a tambourine? Give it a go! But at the point where it is all getting big, we’re again pulled down to earth by the boys because while they “blew the doors”, they are still rooted in the everyday; Universal intimacy.
“We call that love, All you have is kisses and all I need is you.”
Fallen Angel is a stomp with interesting lyrics warning about things that are waiting to “bear their teeth for you” and a good guitar part. To me the song is about or to someone who is down on their luck and who is not quite seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Fear not though, reader and listener, for a ‘gee up’ comes in the form of song…
Drag your feathers ‘cross the dancefloor, throw your shapes electric blue. Don’t fall to pieces on me.
We’ve all had those moments where we’re told to keep our head up, best foot forward n’all that, “choose your favourite shoes and keep your blues on cruise control”, tomorrow is another day. Paul McCartney said that when he found himself in times of trouble, Mother Mary came to him… this perhaps hits on the same vein but more to the point.
“…count back the weeks on worried fingers, virgin mother whats’erface”
Fugitive Motel is Elbow doing romance and relationships in everyday life. It should not be a surprise to anyone who has heard the first album, Switching Off from this, or even Starlings from the behemoth that was The Seldom Seen Kid. Elbow do romance. They do floaty love that gets right to the heart of how you feel when you find someone, but they anchor it in normality so it never gets so couple-y that you want to puke.
The line; “I blow you a kiss, it should reach you tomorrow, as it flies from the other side of the world” is beautiful, but in reality, when you are sat in some room that looks like it’s seen better days, you’re miles away from home you’re probably knackered and chances are you’ll be reminded of that just after you’ve tried to impress. “I’m admired, I said. You always look tired, she said.”
After the debut album Elbow were swept off abroad, so the feeling in this song about being away from people that you care about while you are happily living the dream, is fitting. You are getting to places that you wanted to be way back in the Manchester rehearsal rooms, people are listening to your music and connecting with it, but at the end of the day you’re still probably sat in a soulless hotel room on “the other side of the world”, missing home.
“Cigarette holes for every lost soul to give up the ghost in this place
Give me strength, give me wings.”
Musically, chill out albums from Ibiza would be proud of this feel. The guitars drip, the chords allow you to drift off. Not everyone will be moved by this song but if you aren’t, you wouldn’t be this far into a review of the album, would you?
If by some stretch of the imagination you are still wondering if the band are going to be dwarfed by expectations, then Switching Off should be the point where you stop that once and for all. Switching Off seems to be about bottling a perfect moment, knowing it when you are experiencing it, and wishing to remember it in your last moments whenever they may be. That right moment with the right person and no stress on your mind, is a moment of pure peace and pure happiness. We have all had those moments; we’ve all wanted to keep them. Garvey at his best taps into feelings we can all relate to and when he does the music carries and cradles the vocal perfectly. “Is this making sense? What am I trying to say…”
“This I need to save, I choose my final scene today. Switching off with you.”
Arguably the right song follows; Not A Job perhaps serves to remind us that sometimes you have to stop the work and just stand still once in a while. It’s a song about taking time to smell the flowers (or “walking through the long grass on your hands”). Everything on this is majestic as once again lyrically and musically the boys knock it out of the park. There are beautiful lines throughout this and the chorus soars so high that I bet you will try and harmonise as goes along.
So to Grace Under Pressure, complete with what, by now in the Elbow adventure, you should consider Elbow staples; repetition of a mantra-like chorus and instrumentation that builds in layers and how. Richard Jupp’s drumming here is immense, you’ll drive yourself barmy trying to air drum along and suddenly you’re trying to figure out “is that the fella out of Doves?” YES is the answer, Jimi Goodwin joins in on the chorus, fitting really as this song has the same celebratory quality to it as Pouding on the Doves’ The Last Broadcast. Both quality tunes.
On Grace Under Pressure the keyboards, drums, guitar, vocals all rise with the help of the strings and then suddenly you’ve got the crowd at Glastonbury singing “we still believe in love, so fuck you!”. Apt sentiments from a band that have spent an album dealing with contrasts; with songs about taking on the world but still wanting your home, finding the moment to shine yet slowing down long enough to appreciate it. There are sense memories being set to music, there are love songs, some written with a wink and a nod and some that should genuinely move you. There is the odd song about hanging around with your mates, maybe trying to get off with your girlfriend in a shed.
By Cast of Thousands, Elbow were arguably defining their sound, taking it above and beyond some of the pigeon holing that had gone on with their debut album. There would still be Coldplay references (Talk Talk too, if you listen to parts of I’ve Got Your Number) and the ‘gloomy Northerner’ label is an easy one to apply if you are so inclined.
Some will tell you that the boys tried too hard on this album (perhaps pointing to the presence of a gospel choir as somewhat overblown and unnecessary). Some have said that this was Elbow feeling the strain of recording a follow up and that the pressure to better Asleep in the Back got to them.
It is true that this album had the kind of expectation their debut did not, but the most pressure Elbow have ever been under has come from the band themselves. They wanted to move on from their debut and try different things whilst remaining true to themselves – good bands do that. Ribcage, Fugitive Motel, Switching Off and Grace Under Pressure are monumental pieces of work from a band intent on taking the bull by the musical horns. This album builds on ideas and emotions that the boys wrote around on their debut album, it is most definitely a step forward.
Thematically, if Asleep in the Back was about wanting to achieve, Cast of Thousands seems to be about what happens when you reach the goal. The wheel does not stop turning, you’re away, off with it all and at times you may want to come home.
Coming home, is for another day.
© Simon A. Moult / Moultymedia 2011.
All rights reserved. Copying is prohibited without prior permission from the author. Lyrics are used for review purposes only, under fair use.