Elbow’s Best Of: Reviewed
When a band releases a Best Of it’s easy to be cool and write it off as a cash grab, the band in question might have split up, might be going on an indefinite hiatus, might be at the end of their contract, there’s lots of reasons for them in fairness. For a long time I didn’t get Elbow’s Best Of, that’s not be being cool by the way, it just passed me by. I’ve spent the best part of a month with it and I really really didn’t want to like it but I’m here to tell you the boys have done well with it. I wanted to be all yeah well buy the albums, scoff scoff scoff, they’ve missed off such and such well this isn’t for the Day One crowd is it scoff scoff… but it is. This isn’t the end of their story, but this collection works as the end of a phase – I don’t even want to say Phase One because at over twenty five years thats some first chapter. Whatever you call it, from Asleep to Little Fictions it’s been a journey; they were some way down the road before the world seemed to wake up to them after all, and the journey is told in this collection.
The Best of Elbow starts with Grounds for Divorce, a good opener and an acknowledgement that The Seldom Seen Kid was the waking up point for a lot of people. Beyond all that it’s catchy, stompy, and the guitar work is down right biblical. I love this song live, Guy has a tendency to pull off his Freddie and get a call and response going before launching into it. Mesmerising,
Following on from that we are brought bang up to date with (now Ivor Novello award winning) Magnificent (She Says), sweeping and an indication of the difference the band found once Jupp had decided to leave. It shows where they are, but nods to all the constants you get from Elbow too – interesting musicality and Guy’s storytelling. Something which leads on nicely to Lippy Kids. This showed a return to the stripped down sound of Build a Rocket Boys following the juggernaut of Seldom. It’s lyrically beautiful and musically paints a subtle picture which is sombre and reflective whilst at the same time being uplifting and soulful. One for everyone of us who had never quite perfected that simian stroll, or ever felt like a stranger in their own house growing up. And it’s got a whistle.
One Day Like This follows leading into The Bones of You for a one two punch from their most popular album. The former is arguably their most popular song in terms of mainstream acceptance, I mean it was everywhere wasn’t it? When I was growing up I remember watching all this concert footage of these massive events like the Prince’s Trust Concert, and I remember Phil Collins coming on everywhere and saying “I’m going to play that bloody song again!” before giving the crowd a rendition of In The Air Tonight. I feel the same way about One Day Like This, the band charmingly say they don’t mind being the One Day Like This band but if I never hear it again I’ll be happy. I don’t skip it here, and given the distance of nearly 10 years, some of my negativity has dissolved. It’s uplifting, perhaps because it was written when they were asked for a single, and with the knowledge that the album was coming out, away from all the stress they were enduring when that was an unknown factor. The Bones of You has some of Guy’s best lyrics, rambling down wonderfully windy lyrical avenues and taking us all with him. “Overdraft speeches and deadlines to make” – hail to the chief.
My Sad Captains is gorgeous, and needs to be on this compilation given that it is partly about all the things the band missed out on while they were focusing on the band; it’s a look at all the nights out, nights in perhaps, experiences they didn’t have while they had the experiences they had. Does that make sense? It looks back a little, but it also looks around at the boys there with them, all of them, even the one that’s now not on the journey anymore. What a perfect waste of time indeed, plus Owen Paul had ownership of that phrase for long enough. Leaders of the Free World and Mirrorball are good choices, Guy in angry political front man mode and a stand out from that album. He was going to retire this one live, given that the big Bush and the little Bush were away from the White House and America had achieved something approaching stability and likeability with the Obama presidency. Ah yes, 2005, simpler times….
Fugitive Motel has a rightful place being that it was written about being away from loved ones, touring on the other side of the world (Texas, which isn’t in the dustbowl as it happens, but who cares really?). Like My Sad Captains, it’s fitting that songs about the band and missing folks are on this band’s Best Of compilation. It’s heartwarming to see them include this and Great Expectations; a song about sitting in a hotel room thinking about someone and a song about sitting on a bus from Manchester to Bury imagining marrying a girl who has no idea you’re even thinking about her. Guy makes it sound beautiful when he tells the story behind the song, and not stalkery at all. If anyone can take you with them while their mind wanders far away from the 135 bus it’s Guy Garvey. New York Morning is the meat in that sandwich, it soars and it’s as big as it should be. They really pulled off the epic scale again with that one.
The Birds makes an appearance, a song about an old man looking back over his life while carers, nursing home staff (probably) condescend him with their “what are we gonna do with you, same tale every time” dismissive tones. Fittingly following this is Scattered Black and Whites which is all about remembering old times, family times and all the sense memories from childhood. Those Elbow boys know how to sequence an album don’t they?
The single disc has all the big ‘universal’ anthems and the smaller story songs, enough to keep everyone happy, You can moan about what about Open Arms, Neat Little Rows, Powder Blue all you want but this is a band that tells a story from first to last on all their albums, the best of is no exception.
It feels like a lot of those anticipated moanings have been addressed with the second disc. Any Day Now starts it off as it did their debut, Fly Boy Blue is one of the most interesting pieces from a very very fine album The Take Off and Landing of Everything. It was never going to bump Sad Captains for inclusion on Disc One, but I’m glad that this and This Blue World are included here. Outstanding pieces of music, both of them.
Weather to Fly had to be included too given that it’s about the band “figuring how we were wired inside”, thank God they did have the drive and the time on their hands. Station Approach has to be there too, a song about coming home to Manchester and being around people you don’t have to pretend in front of. We all have that place we know so well that we feel we designed every part of it, we can travel through with our eyes closed almost. Station Approach also has one of the best examples of Elbow’s fondness for a mantra. Switching Off is about capturing that perfect memory so you can bring it back as your final vision before you die, beautiful and simple like another favourite of mine, Puncture Repair. If you’ve ever fallen apart and found that person, you’ll identify. Day One folks might still argue about track selection but across both discs it’s pretty much perfect, the single version of Kindling with John Grant makes it, Newborn makes it, one of Guy’s best musical interpretations of being in love is here too; Starlings, as is the impossibly vast Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver. The second disc and therefore the Best Of journey concludes with Dear Friends, summing everything up perfectly.
Elbow are a very good band, a great band, they had their story before they had their mass audience. Before they were England’s darlings they were the lads that pissed off to Cuba despite the fact it would annoy America, they are the guys that will sing about things we all feel but they’ll make it personal. You don’t have to be from North West England to get them, you never did, the universal is personal with this band – the nuance is translatable.
Elbow’s Best Of delivers, it’s a nod to the day one listeners, a group hug for the band and a reference point if you needed one.
Now sod off and buy all their albums and ignore everything you’ve just read. Grace Under Pressure is drumming brilliance, Lost Worker Bee is a piece of work and their cover of Independant Women is better than the original. I’m jealous of everyone about to discover the wealth of all this band have given us.
© Simon A, Moult / Moultymedia 2018.