I love Elbow. That's the word you use for this band: Love. That's the currency their music trades on, and what a good deal of their songs are actually about. And the band clearly love each other, are great old friends, and spread those feelings even into their public engagements- like the way they openly loved winning the Mercury Prize, without coyness. However Elbow's loving soul was not codified until 2005 and Leaders of The Free World. Up til that point they were only the most notable among a series of noughties guitar bands (Doves, Coldplay, Starsailor) in thrall to Radiohead. Hence the limited presence of their first two albums in the following list.
Their big break came later than it should have, in 2008 with The Seldom Seen Kid, and while we're grateful it came at all it's possible that some of Elbow's best stuff could have slinked by unheralded, in the shadows of their rightfully well-known singles.
1. Station Approach- Leaders Of The Free World
“Coming home I feel like I, designed these buildings I walk by” -exhibit 1 is a song about city-derived rejuvenation, and city-sized rejuvenation. A ticking guitar part and ringing piano chords mirror the motion of the journey narrative in Garvey's lyric. The melody is one of his most winning, heralding all the good feeling and sun-warmed sentiments of the song's central mantra “I never know what I want but I know when I'm low that I, I need to be in the town where they know what I'm like and don't mind”. By the time the song's beating and ticking heart supernovas in the final third the listener is overcome with transported joy, and wracked by perfect empathy.
2. High Ideals- Build A Rocket Boys!
Making his welcome entry a little over a minute in, Garvey pulls a typically graceful poeticism from his bulging stash: “There's a ladder tear in my high ideals”. And that's just one example of the balanced and artful arranging which Elbow pull off in this spicy longish jam. A guitar motif which spans four octaves begins each bar, followed by fluid orchestral melody lines which become entangled in a rich call and response chord sequence. Keyboardist Craig Potter coins some of the most memorable parts of the song with his by turns wonky and articulate piano lines, a service he has repeatedly rendered for the band down the years.
3. The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver- The Seldom Seen Kid
In the dead centre of their disputed masterwork The Seldom Seen Kid, there's this imposing and mysterious song. “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver” strives to combine their early atmospherics with their later songcraft and comes through with a potent formula. Keeping its' dark secret close to its chest until deep into the second verse, it toys with a clipped and stunted melody, which grouses in the lower registers of Garvey's voice. Come the middle of the sky-scraping inversion of the second verse the whole song bellyflops into a mesmeric chord sequence which seems to convey all of the height of that titular tower crane. It's a stunning harmonic design which Rufus Wainwright would be content to have written.
4. Great Expectations- Leaders Of The Free World
I think it shows tremendous confidence to realise you've given a song the same name as a very famous Dickens novel, and to go ahead and publish it anyway. But then if I had written “Great Expectations” (the song) I would have no trouble finding that confidence either. The thing introduces itself with a exquisitely observed musical evocation of rainfall -the perfect backdrop to Garvey's sensitively sentimental tale of mock wedding vows made on a bus in his youth. Each verse is a law unto itself, evolving independently of its predecessors- so much so that when the hushing ending happens (so close to a chest-beating peak of volume) it takes you by surprise. Here, more than any other Elbow song, Guy sings with his heart beating so close to the surface of his skin.
5. Switching Off- Cast Of Thousands
This wins its place on this list for two central reasons. Firstly its' lyric is one of Guy Garvey's most potent works. He is big-hearted and buoyant enough that he sometimes flirts with sentimentality in the derogatory sense. However it's couplets like “Deep in the rain of sparks behind his brow, is a part replayed from a perfect day” which confirm his talents and entitle him to positively bed sentimentality, if it means stuff as rich as this results from the rendezvous. And secondly the calm grandeur of the arrangement, with zuzzing keyboards and the soft resonance of the kick drum. “Switching Off” represents an early indication of how far Elbow are capable of taking their romantic impressions.
6. Don't Mix Your Drinks- Asleep In The Back
One of the more compositionally distinguished cuts from the band's 2001 debut Asleep in the Back, “Don't Mix Your Drinks” bristles with quiet noise and alien intimacy. Garvey's slight but meaning-filled vocals give warning of a fate he yet cannot precisely describe: “I'm begging you to listen, something draws me in, and I just can't christen it”. That chorus springs unbidden from the first verse, like a tardy ghost, and in its aftermath a sickly thin theremin-like sound evokes distant car alarms. The song is shorn of Elbow's usual romantic tendencies, never settling into a comfortable strum, and remains one of their most effective mood-pieces.
7. Jesus is a Rochdale Girl- Build A Rocket Boys!
Similar to Don't Mix Your Drinks only even quieter, with even less going on, this small but vital organ of Build a Rocket Boys! earns a place via its bravely stark arrangement. Quiet is sometimes a statement is sound production, and when low volume is combined with extraordinary sparseness of vocal content (I think Guy literally only sings three notes across the entire song) the effect is nothing but deliberate. The humble music which supports the lyric contrasts with the richness of lines such as “I have... nothing to be proud of, and nothing to regret, all of that to make as yet”, allowing their natural poetry to flourish in the open space of unfilled sound.