For a band that has been playing together longer than I have been alive, it’s was a wonder I hadn’t ever heard of them before—and yet I was so pleasantly surprised with Elbow.
The Manchester-based band—with notably more reception/success in the UK than the in the US–has always held sincerity at it’s core. Nothing about Elbow had ever been forced, faked, or factitious. While the band formed in 1990, they weren’t formally introduced as Elbow until 1997. The name was inspired by a line from the BBC TV drama The Singing Detective, where a character describes the word ‘elbow’ as the loveliest word in the English language. From there, they had their first failure that should’ve been their first album. Their label, Island Records, sold out to Universal and as a result the band was dropped and album wasn’t released. That didn’t stop them, though – they hopped onto an independent label and released three EP’s that gained traction on BBC Radio 1. With six albums under the belt and having only lost one member over their twenty-five years together, the English band’s style has continued to grow and mature with them. It should be as no surprise that their seventh studio album Little Fictions, is the most refined, evolved version of Elbow to date, equipped with the appropriate themes of growing older and the challenges that follow.
Little Fictions is a refreshing take on a sound that the ear has grown accustomed to. With the same welcoming atmosphere and warmth that is expected of Elbow, we find the band playing with percussion and experimenting while showing careful restraint, as to not deviant too far from where they started.
The opening track and first single of the album sets the tone for what’s to come. “Magnificent (She Says)” is a sentimental tribute to domestic life with a daughter, and with lyrics like “the world doesn’t even know how much it needs this little girl”, Garvey captures a portrait of parenthood that even those without children find themselves relating to. Form echoes the message in this case; with a playful, repetitive guitar line and bright drumming. The notes get higher when the chorus approaches, your hope following. You’re given the sensation of following you’re following the little girl that the world needs so much – you’re running through fields with her, you’re plucking sea-glass from the sand at her side – and you’re put into the shoes of being a parent without the responsibility but with all of the emotional labour.
Perhaps the most intimate song—and probably my favourite—of the album is the second track and third single. “Gentle Storm” has been on repeat for me since my first listen through of the album. The opening percussion caught me off guard but when the accompanying vocals joined in, I found myself put more at ease. They’re at war with each other – the vocals versus the backtrack; and yet neither is a victor nor loser. They clash, they don’t seem to meld and yet they do. The hard edges of percussion are rounded out by soft vocals playing with the piano and the soft vocals with piano are given an edge thanks to the percussion.
Little Fictions does not entirely sugar-coat the horrors of the growing up or of being apart of history. “K2” highlights the aftermath of the Brexit decision, going through the thoughts that likely went through many of the heads of British citizens at the time. Lyrics like: “They gambled the farm on a headline, Jesus, getting harder to see to see what they’re doing ‘till it’s done” and “planning on a static caravan in the Andes” show the backlash after the decision was voted upon by the people, and with the threat of retreating to the Andes in a caravan lingering in Garvey and the band-member’s heads, they give you a perfect sense of how it felt to be an embarrassed British citizen. It does its job of standing out from the rest of the album – the vocal layering gives the impression that Garvey is trying to be in a million places at once – he’s taking up so much space, showing us how justifiably angry he is, as does the steady raising and dropping of his voice, suggesting argument. And that drop – that defeated sigh, if you will, as a final way of attempting to deal with the situation at hand.
Little Fictions has a whole lot of heart. It’s a love-letter to the days that have passed and the days that will come; it’s a hug to those growing up and it’s hope to those growing old. The most interesting thing to me about this album is how it works lyrically and thematically. Garvey tackles these huge themes around life, growing up and growing old, yet scales them back with such humility and authenticity that allows listeners to sit back in comfort rather than in fear of this later stage of life. It’s casual but that isn’t a sacrifice for passion. While the band struggles to offer anything new and innovative for the genre (with clear influence from the likes of Radiohead), that’s not to say it isn’t worth the listen. It’s familiar, poetic—it’s endearing in the way it overflows with honestly and a melancholy for youth, and it’s certainly Elbow through and through. An album should take you on a journey or at least attempt to tell a story – Little Fictions takes you on that journey, whether you’re a willing participant or not.