Friday, May 11, 2012

Elbow: Build a Rocket Boys!

I first heard this album about a year ago, when it had just been released. Because I had just reviewed Seldom-Seen Kid, I thought it was wise to wait a while before really digging into it, but also it wasn't as immediately gripping as that album. The opening song, "The Birds" is a methodical, cerebral 8-minute build that sets the tone for the album: one of reflection and rehabilitation of the past. It's much lighter and friendlier than its predecessor, and there's nothing as immediately pleasurable as "Grounds For Divorce," but Build a Rocket Boys has a few secrets of its own. In listening to, and preparing to review, this album, I reaffirmed a few things:

1) Reviewing a follow-up album is always a crappy assignment because your opinion is going to be informed by that earlier one, and as I preached in my Arctic Monkeys/Strokes review way back, that is both useful and not. I now know what I like about Elbow, and I have to try not to be upset that this isn't literally Seldom-Seen Kid Part II.
2) I'm so glad I don't work on a deadline.

It may be useful to this review to note that that earlier album was bittersweet. Vocalist Guy Garvey sounded like a poet self-destructing with grief: the lyrics are loaded with pointed, critical observations about the narrator himself and the world around him, referring to himself as "a horse that's good for glue" on "Starlings," drinking himself to death on the Earth-shattering "Grounds For Divorce," and generally being wary of the world's promises. The album's key scheme of beauty was the disappointment after the death of a loved one, as made chillingly clear on the album closer "Friend of Ours," a last toast, a sobering walk home.

There are no such hard feelings on Build a Rocket Boys. It's all enthusiasm and hope, sometimes bordering on syrupy and sentimental, but I think never going over the edge with it. Positivity isn't a feeling I usually associate with great music, but Garvey & Co know they don't need to wallow in misery for their art. When they memorialize youth in "Lippy Kids" you can buy into the delicate piano and soft harmonies because of lyrics like "Stealing booze and hourlong hungry kisses / And nobody knows me at home anymore." The soft, strummy "Jesus is a Rochdale Girl" sounds like Nick Drake on lithium, buoyed by electric piano. Even when he howls "I miss your stupid face / I miss your bad advice" on "The Night Will Always Win" it feels goodhearted and earnest. The previous album found faults to be angry about even in good things, this album is finding the better nature of the bad. "The River," a somber tune that seems to draw the album toward its close (despite three tracks following it) sounds like last call at a jazz joint, with the pianist wearily pecking away at the keys and Garvey relating a story of grief and release.

The music itself is affable, suited to the mood. Dig the stomps, claps and singalongs on "With Love," between chipper strings. "High Ideals" falls into a colonial groove, reminiscent of some of those off-kilter tunes on the earlier album, like "Starlings" or "The Bones Of You." The album teases its finale with the teeming, overflowing "Open Arms," haunts with a reprise of "The Birds," then soothes you at last with "Dear Friends" ("You are angels and drunks ... You are the stars I navigate home by.")

If the album doesn't have a "Grounds For Divorce," it at least has a "Neat Little Rows." Something has to be said for a band's capacity to rock out once in a while, and if all Elbow ever did was create modest little crafts, I might not think so highly of this album. No, headbanging isn't the top order of business, but "Neat Little Rows" is one you can really bob along to, while retaining a weighty vibe. The song combines insightful lyrics with a powerful musical mode.

The album feels whole, perhaps even moreso than its predecessor. It hits those big, bombastic moments (on "Neat Little Rows" and a few others) and those quiet intimate ones. Its songs are all complete thoughts, usually with clever lyrics that invoke a great deal of good feeling, nostalgia, wistfulness, insight, and subtlety. The band is both skilled and talented working in this mode, and Garvey's vocals can hit the epic and the personal, all with charm and affability. And this isn't an album likely to upset anyone, so why does it feel like a dangerous career move, after the comparatively-upsetting Seldom-Seen Kid?

I'll tell you why, and it's what impresses me most. I don't love to make assumptions, but the audience for this kind of soft, good-feeling music, generally doesn't deal with off-kilter rhythms or obscure lyricism well. There's a market for simple, non-challenging positivity, but Elbow isn't a safe bet for them because there's probably too much going on on this album, too much to think about. They probably can't handle the nuance in Garvey's words or Elbow's music, in spite of "Lippy Kids" appearing in trailers for movies like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This isn't easy music. But the market for such difficult music isn't looking for mature, reflective comfort, and the market that can handle it might find it too precious. I don't know what the sales figures on this album were, but the only demographic I think really looking for this is looking for a specific level of quality without any specific notions about what music is supposed to sound like. There's a conflict on this album between the easy feelings it hints at and the conflicted music that it presents. And again, as good as "Neat Little Rows" is, it won't hook you like "Grounds For Divorce" did me.

As I'm fond of saying, I don't have to talk about this album if I don't like it. I do. I fought with it for nearly a year before really opening my heart to it and realizing it hit the sweet spot for me. They have a specific sound on this album, even if and especially because every song doesn't sound the same.

I think of Paul McCartney in 1967-68. Here we have the summer of love, the revolutionary Sgt. Pepper/White Album era, a time when late-60's youth is finally asserting its voice and identity, and the Beatles were nominally the vanguard of that... but Paul was already looking backward, writing songs like "When I'm 64" and "She's Leaving Home," sympathizing with his elders, and "Your Mother Should Know" and "Honey Pie," looking back at bygone years at a time when he should have been raucous and iconoclastic. It was somehow even more subversive to combine the two rather than set them in opposition, and it worked. Guy Garvey does things the way he wants them, not the way he is told he ought to, and is probably creating a lasting body of work because of it.

I love music, and I love changing my mind about music, learning to love something I hadn't been thrilled by the first time around. I love searching for that hook and learning to take something on its own terms. Whether I truly "get" where this album is coming from, or someday will, is less important to me than the fact that now, a year after I first heard it, I love to listen to it.

Buy this album now: iTunes Canada // iTunes USA // //

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