Elbow really reached me with their last album The Seldom Seem Kid. Wait. Elbow really reached me with the song ‘Station Approach’ from their album Leaders of The Free World back in 2005. That song found me in England and I couldn’t help thinking it was about me. That is when Elbow first struck a chord with me. The Seldom Seem Kid followed in 2008 and was one of my favourite albums of the year, but I had to give it a big chance. Elbow has rarely been a first listen band. Their albums take time to sink in. Little instrumental flourishes, Guy Garvey’s intelligent and emotive lyrics and the general quiet air that surrounds the band takes multiple listens to seep in through the cracks. Build a Rocket Boys! is no different, in fact I think it would take the longest to fully present itself. I’m almost at that point. I’ve been reading a few reviews and I agree that it is not their strongest album, but Elbow is reaching out further, trying different things and making an album that doesn’t follow the usual structure. Build a Rocket Boys! finds Elbow at their most experimental, and often most minimal, building an album truly for themselves that should appease Elbow fans, but could be difficult for new listeners.
For some reason most Elbow youtube videos won’t play on this site, but if you click the link you can watch them on youtube directly. I’ve included a couple mp3s to compensate.
Opener, ‘The Birds’, is a grandiose statement. Elbow’s longest studio track, at eight minutes, builds like most Elbow openers, climbing up a gentle slope to reach those few seconds of cathartic bliss. Repeat. It immediately gets into a groove and Garvey begins singing in his so-English voice of the end of a relationship. Breakdown. Change-up! Enter keyboards and cello to raise it up a notch and suddenly the famous Elbow explosion into an epic repeat of the first verse, this time with soaring vocals and the strings kicked up to eleven. The chorus juxtaposes the endless repetition of failed relationships with the positivity of always moving forward, “What are we gonna do with you? Same tale every time. What are we gonna do with you? Come on inside, looking back is for the birds.” ‘The Birds’ is a fantastic opener and sounds like it should lead the way to a more upbeat Elbow album than The Seldom Seem Kid, but that couldn’t be more wrong.
mp3: Elbow – The Birds
You wanted a change of scenery? It feels like Elbow has the freedom to experiment with album style. The second track, ‘Lippy Kids’, is minimalist Elbow, a lone piano and Garvey sing of British kids being British kids. Eventually guitar and bass are added to the mix, but in contrast to ‘The Birds’, this qualifies as one of the sparsest songs Elbow has put to tape. It also messes with the pace, which can put off the listener, especially if one is not familiar with Elbow’s previous work. It turns out Build a Rocket Boys! is about embracing your youth and doing what you dream before it is too late. At least that’s what I got from its use in ‘Lippy Kids’.
‘With Love’ follows, still feels minimal, but this is one that will stick in your head. Slightly out of place background vocals provided by the Hallé Youth Choir give something distinct to the track, which also trots along on a piano riff. There’s a lot of piano in the following few songs, but upon further inspection there is more going on in a lot of songs than you initially think. The following few songs, minus ‘Neat Little Rows’ the first single in slightly revised longer form, feel like there is only vocals present, but piano and bursts of other instruments are there. It is this part of the album that make it feel so minimal. It is rare to have 2 back-to-back tracks, ‘Jesus is a Rochdale Girl’ and ‘The Night Will Always Win’, that would usually be near the end of the album, providing the divide between the two halves of Build a Rocket.
‘The Night Will Always Win’ is the standout of the quieter tracks and really grabs the listener when Garvey sings, “I miss your stupid face, I miss your bad advice”, I didn’t know what it was about initially, but Garvey claims it is about Bryan Glancey, a late friend of the band who passed in 2006. A worthy tribute, who was also remembered in The Seldom Seen Kid’s ‘Friend of Ours’.
I’d say from here on in the album plays out like an Elbow album, upbeat song, slow song, uplifting song, reprise, great closer. ‘High Ideals’ mixes a solid groove from the rhythm section with some orchestral flourishes to usher in the final 20 minutes of the album. It also has the potential to be my second favourite track. ‘The River’ follows and is another piano driven ballad, with lyrics that sound like a Robert Frost poem. ‘Open Arms’ is the big fanfare number that Elbow like to put on all of their albums. Horns, Orchestra and choir all join together to create that almost gospel track. Yet since it is Elbow, it just feels like the most upbeat they can get.
John Moseley, an elder piano tuner, voices ‘The Birds (reprise)’ which consists of the first verse of ‘The Birds’ and some ambient backing sounds. Garvey had the intention of making Build a Rocket Boys! about his youth and trying to latch onto separate moments that would all work together as a whole. ‘The Birds (reprise)’ acts as a bookend that shows the aging of the characters throughout the album. ‘Dear Friends’ further backs this theory as the protagonist sings of his old friends and how they are “angels and drunks and magi”. Elbow has always been good at taking melancholic melodies and pairing them with vocals of any emotion. Here it sounds like a sad song, but the vocals speak of joy and happiness, of friendship and comradery, the most important memories of youth.
Is Build a Rocket Boys! Elbow’s best album? I’d have to say ‘no’, but the more I listen to it the more I appreciate it. It’s a lyrical album, which is something that takes time to set in and I see it further breaking through over the next couple months. Certainly it is their most complex album, with hints of early Peter Gabriel and even Talk Talk coming through. Elbow has always been about atmosphere and Build a Rocket Boys! sees them pushing themselves into new territory, where they’ll do just fine.
For more info and to purchase the album check out Elbow’s website here.