Thursday, March 13, 2014

Flying High: Elbow - The Takeoff And Landing Of Everything

There comes a point in the careers of pop stars that whatever it was that propelled them to stardom in the first place either becomes passé or they, themselves, simply get bored with it and move on.

Sometimes this is met with acclaim - Madonna and Bowie are the obvious examples of regularly and successfully breaking the formula. And sometimes it is met with disdain - Dylan was famously booed for going electric while the Stones faced universal derision for 'doing disco' (oh, how we now all enjoy Miss You...).

But sometimes it is best not to change at all. Just stick to the formula that won the masses over in the first place and apply minimum tinkerage. Some might say this is unadventurous, but there is good argument to support the view that maintaining continuity is harder than trying to be different - and failing.

It would be tempting, then, to surmise that Elbow took that as the creative brief for their sixth album, The Takeoff And Landing Of Everything. On first listen it does exactly what an Elbow album should do - blanketing you in a mellifluous hour of old-beyond-years musings about life from the perspective of a band individually still only approaching their 40s (yes, I was surprised too). But give it a second, third or fourth listen, and like peeling away the layers of an onion, you get closer and closer to the core of an album with depths-a-plenty.

However, before treading further into those depths, let's get out of the way the inevitable mention of Coldplay. Elbow aren't Coldplay. Coldplay are Coldplay. Of course, when you mention "anthemic", "uplifting" and "infectious choruses" there are only two bands you could be possibly talking about. Some will say the margin between Coldplay and Elbow is gossamer thin. Or, as the NME's Emily Mackay somewhat colourfully put it that they are "...only ever a sonic bollock hair from Coldplay, but a world away in the minds of their fans thanks to their romantic but sardonic northern sensibilities". She has a point.

Elbow: whatever gave you the idea they were Northerners?
So let's get 'the North' thing out of the way, too. There is clearly a thread that runs through Bury's Elbow, Manchester's Doves and I Am Kloot, and Sheffield's Richard Hawley, whether it is the reverb-drenched vocals, the thudding, cold Peter Hook bass notes, or the tendency towards bloke-in-the-corner-of-the-pub introspection. It is its no surprise that Elbow, Doves and the Kloots move in the same circles.

But, to be honest, so what? Guy Garvey, brothers Mark and Craig Potter, Pete Turner and Richard Jupp have crafted to perfection the Elbow thing. In a cynical age, when it is so tempting to sneer at populism (well, there is plenty of populist crap about), Elbow have found a songwriting niche that exudes wit, wisdom, empathy and, above all, warmth. Only those with neat anti-freeze coursing their veins could fail to have felt uplifted by One Day Like This.

And so, if you haven't yet heard it, New York Morning, the breakout single from The Takeoff And Landing Of Everything, does the same. Clearly the outcome of Garvey's recent relationship split and subsequent escape to New York, it progressively builds itself up to just short of epic proportions, as if Garvey himself was coming late to the conclusion that life was crap before, and that a life-affirming wake-up in the Big Apple offers a restorative effect. Call me a sucker for such stuff, but it's a beautiful song.

Despite his avuncular appearance and personable demeanour (his BBC 6 show has been required listening for both late night Sunday soothing and for the breadth of taste) Garvey possesses a jaded side. "These fuckers are ignoring me" he broods on Fly Boy Blue/Lunette.

There is a distinct coldness to The Takeoff And Landing Of Everything but its the sort of coldness that drew many a sixth-former to Pink Floyd. It's not necessarily morosity, but there is a kindred spirit here to the Floyd's "hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way" line on Time. But whereas the Floyd's take on Englishness was built on repressed middle class adolescence in academic Cambridgeshire, Elbow unashamedly apply their northern cojones to a street fighting song like Charge, a boozed-up self-induced argument of a song.

There is a lot to enjoy with The Takeoff And Landing Of Everything but do not be put off by some critics who, I suspect, have given it a cursory single listen and dismissed it as a musical mid-life crisis. Give it your full attention and then repeat. Two or three times. You'll unravel an absolute gem.

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