Tuesday, February 21, 2017

album review: 'little fictions' by elbow

So one thing I've stressed a number of times is that while I'm generally fond of Radiohead and while I certainly respect them, I would never consider myself a huge fan. And yet what I find amusing is that there are a fair few bands where you can trace obvious influences to Radiohead of which I'd say I'm a much bigger fan. Muse is one of those bands, Porcupine Tree is another - although there's always been debate how much Steven Wilson pulled from Radiohead, but that's a far more contentious argument - and another is the art rock group Elbow. In fact, given how lush their debut album in 2001 Asleep In The Back was - and if this review convinces you to do anything, go listen to Asleep In The Back, it's incredible - you could easily imagine Elbow as the intersection of a more organic Radiohead and a Porcupine Tree that was aiming to be a tad less progressive and more accessible.

But over the next decade Elbow quickly split from any easy comparison to those groups. Their sound got more raucous, heavy, and diverse on their second record, and after an unfortunate lull on Leaders Of The Free World in 2005, the group regained some experimental pomp and groove with The Seldom Seen Kid in 2008. Unfortunately, with the critical acclaim that came to that album came commercial success, and while there are some acts that have successfully leveraged that for greater artistic heights, Elbow weren't quite one of them. The group had realized one of their greatest strengths came in the unique vocal tones and intricate lyricism of Guy Garvey - the Peter Gabriel comparisons are blatant and a good way - but he also had a bad habit of sliding towards sentiment, and when the underwhelming nostalgic tones didn't quite coalesce on Build A Rocket Boys! in 2011 and the stiffer pomposity of 2014's The Take Off And Landing Of Everything didn't quite satisfy, I was beginning to wonder why I wasn't just listening to The National, who at least could be counted on to carry their melancholic existential crises with more groove and swell. What I think was the larger problem is that Elbow had fallen into a comfortable sound, and if they weren't recapturing the atmosphere of their debut, they were at their best breaking out of it. Now I didn't expect either on their newest project Little Fictions, but hey, I've been surprised before - was I here?

Okay, I'll be very honest: I've been sitting on this particular review for a couple of days now. I can definitely say this Elbow's best record since The Seldom Seen Kid, but it also feels very much like something that would not surprise anyone who has been listening to Elbow at all in the past decade. It's certain to please fans who like their sound, even if I would definitely question how experimental this project is - but even despite its trend towards conventionality, there is something that kept pulling me back to this album for listen after listen, and I'm still working to put my finger on what that is.

Because here's the funny thing: in terms of overall sound and tone, this is still very much what anyone would expect from Elbow. Guy Garvey's rich vocals swelling over instrumentation that blends elegant swells of arranged instrumentation with nervy basslines, sharp guitar and piano melodies, and percussion... well, here's the thing, since the departure of their long-standing drummer Richard Jupp, you can distinctly tell the drums feel a little less progressive or interesting, at points a little stiffer with some obvious programming, at some times supplemented with a much choppier acoustic groove like on 'Trust The Sun' to deliver more texture. And I definitely don't mind Elbow bringing in more of an edge to counterbalance their knack for melodies, it certainly gives this record more of a sense of greater momentum. To put it another way, there's a very good reason that this record's lead single and opening track is 'Magnificent (She Says)', as it easily has the most dramatic or bombastic swell, especially on the pre-chorus and hook. Sure, the fluttery cascades behind 'All Disco' and the very subtle quiet liquid guitar touches on 'Head For Supplies' lend this record a great agreeable midsection, especially with some of the multi-tracked vocals, and the ramshackle sleigh bells and percussion knocking off a mix that builds into some beautiful backing strings on the closer 'Kindling'... hell, probably the best way a record like this could end. But given how smooth many of these textures are, it means that when we do get the minor key melodies playing off the handclap on 'Firebrand & Angel' that breaks into a bridge of odd muffled tones, there really isn't much intensity beyond the vocal line. The title track tries to bring some of it back with the scratchy drum machine and guitar groove playing against the echoing kickdrum, but between hooks that seem to completely stall the momentum by anchoring the melodic couplets to the percussion and an attempt to inject some strings squeals into the bridge that's more messy than progressive, I'm still left frustrated. And while there is a part of me that feels Elbow is starting to tilt towards more of a focus on looping grooves without a fulltime drummer, the truth is simply that the production just gives those grooves and percussion more texture than the melodies, which outside of the truly great hooks means that some of these backing tones can really start to run together - and given that Elbow don't write short songs, can really drag on.

So if the sound, while generally agreeable, isn't the sort that's really all that innovative or progressive, what keeps pulling me back? Well, here's where we get the lyrics and themes and that fascinating title 'little fictions' - in other words, the little stories and ideas that we choose to believe even despite not quite always being true. And let me state this right out of the gate: I've always found this sort of theme fascinating and occasionally genuinely powerful, and at their best Elbow does manage to tap into the pure sentiment that makes them work, even if or in some cases especially if you can tell through Garvey's more experienced delivery he can tell which aren't true. And yet the message to a child on 'Magnificent (She Says)' that defrosts older, wearier hearts in the face of real hope and optimism, the borderline poptimism of 'All Disco' as a message to musicians to place their art in perspective while never not giving it your all, these believe it or not are somewhat thematic outliers, as this record is much more focused on the little fiction of love itself, the sort that defies reason or objective truth and yet is pursued anyway. Now is this all kind of sentimental and borderline cheesy, especially given Elbow's softer delivery? Sure, but when it's done as well as it is on the quiet mundane all-night pause of 'Head For Supplies' or the renewed flash of hope on 'Kindling', I'm pretty forgiving of that sort of sincerity. Where it rings a little sour for me is when it slips into songs where there is implied cheating by a close friend on 'Firebrand & Angel', or the intentional overwritten abstraction of 'K2' that ultimately feels a little paltry. On the flip side, you can easily see how songs like 'Gentle Storm' or 'Trust The Sun' or to a lesser extent the lingering affection of 'Montparnasse' could come across as a little smothering, and there isn't quite that level of self-awareness in order to excuse it, even if the sincerity does carry through a lot.

But in short... look, it's the best Elbow record in some time, and while I would not put it up to the heights of their debut or The Seldom Seen Kid, any long-time fans who have stuck along for this point will like this a fair bit. It's not a great project - it could definitely use a little more tightness and bite, and I'd argue there are pieces that work far better than the overall whole - but I'd still give it a light 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of this brand of alternative rock. Otherwise... eh, I'd check out the singles, maybe 'Head For Supplies' and 'Kindling' along with them, but I'd also recommend checking out Asleep In The Back first if you're curious. Still, good project, I'll take it.

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