Elbow – Leaders of the Free World

Approaching Home

Home is where the start is for Elbow, on Leaders of the Free World.


When you’ve written about wanting to get somewhere and you’ve written about what you feel like when you’ve got there, you’ve got to find your way home. Elbow do this with a stomp and a wink with Leaders of the Free World (2005). Whereas they certainly needed grace under pressure to complete Cast of Thousands, the band had learnt that the right approach this time was to capture ideas as and when they happened on the road, whenever and wherever inspiration hit them.

The band manage to channel the ideas into a collection that has a very developed sense of place and environment, this is very clear in the opening track. Station Approach is about coming home to Manchester (station approach, Piccadilly station) and literally knowing the area well and being at home. The listener is not excluded if they happen not to live in this city, because Guy Garvey’s lyrics can apply to anyone wherever they are listening. Three albums’ in, the universal intimacy is something they have perfected.

It’s an instant classic, lyrically it grabs you and the instrumentation is layered and builds. Acoustic guitar, piano and the mantra; “I never know what I want but I know when I’m low that I…” all combine and then Richard Jupp’s stomping drums burst in and the whole thing explodes out of the speakers brilliantly. The best thing is, lines like “Coming home I feel like I, designed these buildings I walk by” need no Garvey explanation because everyone knows what he means and what that feels like. Everyone reading this right now will know that confidence, happiness or whatever that feeling is when you are get back to wherever you call home. This is a great opener to the album.

Picky Bugger is deceptive, Garvey almost talks the verses out and the first line, “Drinking in order to feel” might just see you reaching for the button on your remote. Don’t, it grooves along and the chorus is good advice for fish:

Little Fish you count for nothing, Do your thing until you die. Keep your powder dry

It may well be about having something or nothing to do, song-writing for instance, it may well be about our place in the grand scheme of things however much you ponder life’s great questions (we might be the little fish), and it may also be about finding some fire or “mischief” to keep life interesting. The mischief in question comes with a warning, taking the powder does not make you the genius you think it does at the time. In the end though, it’s funky and I can’t get the image of Guy Garvey sitting and talking to a goldfish out of my head. Notably, the tune to Picky Bugger is slowed and reversed to provide the backing for McGreggor (b-side on the vinyl of Forget Myself).

Forget Myself is out and out one of the finest songs to be written about Manchester. Lyrically the song is brilliant and musically it’s powerful, complete with echoes of industry and construction in the opening seconds. By this point, Garvey and the elboys even making the walk-through town seem liberating. It’s a song about love, or maybe more specifically what normal people do when the love life hits the skids; slumping off into town and finding a place to people watch and pull or just drink to forget.

The neon is graffiti singing make a new start

So I look for a plot where I can bury my broken heart

Of course when you do that it’s packed with people on a night out or people trying to get home from work and you’re surrounded by coupley couples right when you’re just not in the mood.  All human life is here and people-watching is a skill. Guy gets poetic about everyone from the bouncer, the ones ‘thinking too hard’ about the way they stand, and the ones “falling in love every second song”. We know exactly the types he is singing about, and that is the beauty of it.

The you won’t be forgotten, the me will be forgiven, ultimately it seems the love that lasts is for the city itself.


If Forget Myself is about a relationship ending and forgetting for a while, you could take The Stops as the thoughts or the conversation they were trying to escape; the point where it has to be dealt with. The verses deal with the nuts and bolts of a relationship ending; realising it’s over and knowing that the friends are about to be called in for a bit of person rebuilding. The chorus deals with the feelings that aren’t about to go away anytime soon. If one half has managed to cut themselves off the other half wont for a while; “No longer my affair” Well I can’t go there just yet (we find that out in the chorus).

The Stops is Elbow. It is Guy’s writing and the band’s music fitting perfectly. Downbeat and quiet when we’re hearing that it’s over and then the chorus lifts perfectly to carry the beautiful words:

Don’t look down, keep staring like you’ve never seen the stars

If you need me to remind who you are

Little blossom there’s the shiniest soul just behind those eyes.

Frankly when that chorus kicks in it doesn’t matter if it’s someone’s opinion of the one leaving them, or a message to someone that everything will be ok, it matters not. That chorus is beautiful, the pictures created off those lines alone are so vivid and the song is a gem here and when done live.

If Elbow have been putting there own house in order up ‘til now, they certainly feel like they may be ready to take on the world on this album and nowhere is that more evident than on Leaders of the Free World where Guy takes on those Politicians (specifically the two George Bushs). It’s not very overt, it’s not in yer face, it’s a tongue in cheek nudge to those in power that their decisions have consequences, “the little boys throwing stones” effect everyone;

Passing the gun from Father to FECKLESS son

We’re climbing a landslide where only the good die young

Guy Garvey has said that with a change of leadership in both America and Britain, it may not be necessary to sing this anymore. Whether all the lessons have been learnt, remains to be seen. For more Elbow on Politics, your attention is drawn to the track, Snowball on Warchild – Help: A Day in the Life (uncomfortable listening if you happen to be Tony Blair).

The title track aside, most of Leaders of the Free World is about love, of life, of relationships in all their twists and turns. It’s all laid out here for the listener, there are relationships that breaking down, starting up, there’s that point when you realise how important someone is to you (Great Expectations) and, quite fitting for Elbow, there’s that point where you see your girlfriend with the guy she used to be with.

Mexican Stand Off deals with this perfectly. The lyric is short and to the point and it stings with humour.  That moment the boyfriend, the girlfriend and the ex boyfriend meet. Say it with me, people… awkward. You can hear the conflict within; the why is she with him (he’s good looking), nice to meet you (kill me, now please), I could deck this guy (you wish!).

The album ends with a masterpiece, pure and simple. Puncture Repair is perhaps my favourite Elbow song. It’s from Guy to someone but it works for anyone who has ever been at the end of their rope. The moment at some stupid time in the early morning when you are texting every number in your phone just to get a reply and the company that will make everything make sense again. At the end of the day, all that a good friend will do is patch you up, see you right and let you get on with it. This song is a thank you.

The song doesn’t last long, it doesn’t need to. It delivers and “when this whole thing is through” you should realise that you have heard an amazing album. It’s a complete joy to listen to, it bustles with confidence. Some songs rock more than previously and some tackle wider issues but there is a consistency in the work. On Leaders of the Free World Elbow are comfortable in their own skin and happy in their own space, you’ve got the video footage on the DVD to prove it.


Words ©  Simon Moult / Moultymedia 2011. Lyrics used for review purposes only, under fair use. Picture “Piccadilly Station Approach” © Hannah Cullen 2011. Used by kind permission. 


About The Editor

I write words about things I care about and hopefully you'll care about them too when I'm done. View all posts by The Editor

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