this is a review i did of the album when i first heard it. it's pretty long and probably boring (and a bit wanky at the beginning) so you shouldnt really bother,...but...., if there are doubts in your mind, this sums up my feelings about why it is such an amazing record.
Elbow- The Seldom Seen Kid.
Slumped at a bus stop the wait inevitably drips into its fortieth minute. The skyline is a puff of insipid grey and the only sight, aside from the buildings that mirror the sky, is the parade of old dears lining the bingo hall opposite. They shelter from the cold and the wind and the rain, fighting it off with a constant stream of seesaw cigarettes that dip and bounce along to the conversation. Defeated, I reach into my bag pulling out a sprawling tangle of headphone wire and with it keys, wallet, phone, like the sum of a fisherman’s unwanted trawl. Three attempts and the sticky play button gives in.
First comes the looping swirl of the keyboard, and then the lazy thud of drums before a languid chorus makes a trio. This pattern sooths until the sudden piercing shrill of trumpets. It stays for only a moment before being swept away by a stretching yawn of guitar, and then the voice, simultaneously gruff and delicate. ‘At the top is stopping by your place of work and acting like I haven’t dreamed of you and marriage in an orange grove/ you are the only thing in any room your ever in/ im stubborn, selfish and too old’. The vocals and music build together. ‘The violets explode inside me when I meet your eyes/ then im spinning and I’m diving like a cloud of starlings’. Everything stops; eventually there is only the soft residue from flitting sparks of sound. Then, coolly in the silence, ‘Darling is this love’ and an explosion of brass once more as the opening track of The Seldom Seen Kid rings out amongst the gloom.
The Seldom Seen Kid is the fourth album by Elbow, and the first with new label Fiction, a subsidiary of Polydor. In the past Elbow may have been unfairly thrown about next to bands that subscribe to a faceless and crass brand of plodding supermarket rock. Safe for the ears, safe for the brain, more often than not spouting vague and tasteless rhyming couplets that would be insurmountably troubling if only anyone would ever bother to read them or detach them from another cloyingly earnest chorus. On close inspection, it is hard to fathom why Elbow have been perceived by many to reside in this safe and steady category. Perhaps it’s entirely down to aesthetic reasons, with many possibly echoing my mum’s recent claim whilst watching Glastonbury that the grizzly Guy Garvey with his supple paunch and tottering stalk of the stage, ‘doesn’t look much like a lead singer’. Whatever the reasons, whilst Elbow and these bands may have been mistakenly pegged together in the past, this collection of sprawling yet measured songs of bittersweet piquancy work hard to defy all former comparison.
As the ardour of Starlings fades, with its interplay between woozy daze and euphoric lucidity, in many ways mirroring the songs tale of burgeoning love, the following tracks allow their form to unravel slowly and with repeated listens. The album bursts out with a tale of early romance and another striking declaration of love comes with the penultimate track (One day like this) to more or less bookend the album with a mix of tales acting as snapshots of the city and its inhabitants in between.
The Bones Of You and Mirrorball drift by on first listen without the striking musical tricks to match Starlings, and only allow small snatches of their narratives to latch on. There is so much half-asleep imagery and semi-conscious sounds with Elbow that often the tracks seem crafted to unravel as dreams, grasping clipped glimpses and varying interpretations with each listen, ensuring that a fuller picture only comes with time and repeated thought. In The Bones Of You a blustering city boy hears a song that transports him back to a relationship he has worked to forget (straight to my head like the first cigarette of the day). Looking back he succumbs to his memories (I can work till I brake but I love the bones of you) and the track finishes with the soft sound of Summertime drifting over the buzz of the city, people bustling through muffled cries for the Big Issue. Mirrorball tells the tale of a new arrival (new love or a child) transforming all, and with it, the way our eyes perceive the surrounding environment. (We made the moon our mirrorball/ the streets an empty stage/ the city sirens violins/ everything has changed). Grounds for Divorce howls out with its fuzzy blues guitar and dusty barroom stomp, the first of a trio of songs about Brian Glancy, friend of the band, Manchester musician and the kid of the title. The narrator declares that ‘Monday is for drinking to the seldom seen kid’ and then spins a tale of self-doubt and destruction. An Audience with the pope continues the theme of gin soaked desolation, but where as the previous track thumped and spat with sawdust on the floor, this rattles and twists like the staircase of an insidious but alluring cocktail bar. Weather to fly then slows the pace with a ‘frosty and bright’ repeating rhythm to mimic the weather of the songs lyrics. The intro of Loneliness of the Tower Crane Driver, a cautionary tale of misplaced ambition (the ticker tape tangles my feet as I look for a face that I know), swings and lurches like the slow turn of the crane, pausing for a moment of clarity before erupting, Garvey’s voice at its most driving, pleading ‘send up a prayer in my name’, until the steady rhythm falls back into view. The Fix brings a moment of emotional respite with the story of two likely lads that conspire to sort a horse race in their favour. Richard Hawley guests and the two brilliantly spar as the songs tricky protagonists, with the luscious sneer of Garvey's crooning lip ‘the jockey is cocky and vicious’, and Ghost Town esque Banshee cries heaping on the atmosphere. Some Riots with its faltering piano line is the second song about Glancey and acts as a retrospective plea from one friend to another. ‘Brother of mine don’t run with those fuckers. When will my friend start singing again’. One Day like This with its arching and aching strings and soaring chorus is the twin to Starlings, however this time the protagonist is sure of what they feel. ‘I can only think it must be love’. It is an unashamed epic of found love with its call to ‘throw those curtains wide’ because ‘one day like this a year would see me right’. The last song of the album and the third about ‘the seldom seen kid’ is a delicate elegy to a missed friend, the bulk of the vocals backed only by the sweep of the drums and the soft beat of the bass, as Garvey whispers ‘Never very good at goodbyes/ so (gentle shoulder charge) love you mate’.
The album finishes with one final whispered ‘love you mate’, a highly emotional gesture on an album that never wallows or leaves a saccharine taste in the mouth. Perhaps the biggest joy about Elbow is their ability, lyrically and musically to remain crisp, listen after listen. As before, there are always different nuances to be revealed, always new elements that are only revealed from a different angle. This is also perhaps Garvey’s main skill as a lyricist. In doing this, in processing these snapshots of his milieu’s dark bustle, he also turns the city into another character, making it live and breathe along with its inhabitants as he swoops his eye over the mass below to draw out stories and in turn drag the listener in and out of the city on his say. With so much flight imagery on the album, it is perhaps apt to quote the beginning passage from Haruki Mrakami’s After Dark. ‘Eyes mark the shape of the city. Through the eyes of a highflying night bird, we take in the scene from midair. In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature- or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms…To the rhythm of its pulsing, all parts of the body flicker and flare up and squirm’. As Garvey’s Manchester flickers and flares up and squirms below, it leaves only the thought that this album is a beautiful and startling achievement.