Halfway through the eighth Elbow album comes a lyric that’s almost impossible not to home in on. “Who am I?” sings Guy Garvey on White Noise White Heat, a song that recounts the singer’s despairing reaction to the “unspeakable crime” of the Grenfell Tower fire. “Some blarney Mantovani with a lullaby when the sky’s falling in.”
It sounds like a snarky critic’s dissection of the music that propelled Elbow to mainstream fame. Ever since their 2008 single One Day Like This became not just a hit, but an omnipresent part of British life – there was a lengthy period when no sporting achievement or victory in a TV talent show was allowed to be televised without it blaring buoyantly on the soundtrack – Elbow have enjoyed a decade as Britain’s leading purveyors of ballad-paced, bruised-but-warm northern optimism. In fairness, that’s rather a reductive view of their subsequent output, but equally, no Elbow album since has been allowed to pass without at least one song that fitted the bill: string-laden, stately paced, its central message essentially “come ’ere, you daft bugger, give us a hug”.
Hearing them repudiate their most popular mode comes as a shock, but then, desperate times call for desperate measures, and the circumstances of Giants of All Sizes’ recording sound grim. Quite aside from events in the outside world, it was marked by a string of deaths among the band’s circle, including that of Garvey’s father. The result is a succession of troubled songs that frequently question Elbow’s USP. “How do you keep your eyes ablaze,” wonders Garvey, “in these faith-free, hope-free, charity-free days”? The answer often seems to be, you can’t.
The music similarly plays against type, or at least the popularly held view of type. When they first started attracting widespread interest, one of the most frequently remarked upon things about Elbow was the band’s unabashed love of progressive rock – still a ballsy thing for a hotly tipped alt-rock band to admit 20 years ago. Its influence has never really left them – on any given Elbow album you’re never that far from a song that sounds shimmering, aching but uplifting and suggestive of long teenage hours spent listening to The Carpet Crawlers by Genesis on repeat. But it’s more prevalent here than ever. It’s telling that Giants of All Sizes is being released as a limited edition single track CD, as if it’s a suite of songs, rather than a collection of them.
You can hear the influence in the complex but tightly woven mesh of instruments on Empires and the opener Dexter & Sinister, which starts out driven by a distorted bass riff not a million miles removed from that on The Seldom Seen Kid’s Grounds for Divorce, but seems to turn into a different song entirely midway through. Moreover, if it never lacks melodies – Seven Veils and My Trouble are particularly lovely – Giants of All Sizes digs into prog’s more disruptive side, the wilful awkwardness expressed by its jarring time signatures, unpredictable shifts and knotty cramp-inducing riffs.
The result is what you might call a dislocated Elbow, noticeably light on songs that might cause festival crowds to hug each other and raise plastic pint pots aloft, big on taking their signature motifs and upending them. “All together now,” offers Garvey midway through Dexter & Sinister. What follows isn’t a singalong chorus, but a rambling piano solo. Guitar solos you expect to be soaring inducements to punch the air never quite achieve lift-off: they rasp too harshly, come sprinkled with moments of squeaky discord or are possessed of an ungainly, staggering gait. When the strings arrive on The Delayed 3:15, they don’t provide the usual stirring, epic swell: they follow a twitchy, scattered pattern played on a clarinet. The net result is as agitated and troubled as the song’s narrator, who’s watching the body of a suicide being extracted from beneath a train by “pale-faced kids in rubber gloves, dressed as cops”. Doldrums, meanwhile, features a very Elbow-ish lyrical sentiment – “all of this stuff in our veins is the same” – but it’s depicted as a sentiment only “desperate men” would suggest. The song’s climax repeats the line over and over again, but defies you to join in. One voice distractedly mutters it, another wheezes and pants the line between gulps of breath.
It’s debatable whether Elbow’s patent brand of warmth and optimism really is redundant in the current climate. One of the striking things about Nick Cave’s rapturously received Ghosteen was how empathetic and hopeful its songs sounded, potentiated by the fact that empathy and hope are two things in short supply at the moment. But the galvanising effect on Elbow’s sound isn’t really up for question. Musically, Giants of All Sizes is richer and stranger than anything they’ve released since their commercial breakthrough. Even when it finally settles back into more comfortable lyrical terrain – My Trouble’s hymning of cosy domesticity, On Deronda Street’s paean to parenthood – the music strays beyond their usual comfort zone: ragged and underpinned by glitchy electronic beats. It suits them out there.
What Alexis listened to this week
The best recommendation you can offer the former Chairlift singer’s latest solo single is that its delicate, understated take on AutoTuned pop is as good as its title.