Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
Record Label: Fiction / Polydor / Geffen Records
Release Date: March 17, 2008
Much loved by critics but short on commercial success, Manchester, England's Elbow have quietly maintained a successful 10-year career by staying out of the limelight, keeping their noses clean and churning out a succession of quality records. Since their 2001 debut Asleep in the Back, they've managed to take their lush keyboards, strings and layered guitars and mix them with an amalgamation of ambient sounds and textures and candid, evocative lyrics. Their subsequent follow up albums the gorgeous Cast of Thousands and the politically charged Leaders of the Free World established the band as exquisitely artistic, sometimes mopey and exceedingly catchy.
Their latest release The Seldom Seen Kid has been hailed by many critics as their best work to date, and rightfully so. Though the disc starts off sleepy, it manages to get better with each song and ends in near-perfect status. Opening track "Starling," is a long, atmospheric ballad that uses an eerie keyboard backdrop and puts the album in an immediate reflective state. Though there are lyrics, the album serves mostly as an instrumental and proves the point that frontman Guy Garvey is not afraid of taking chances and veering from the norm. A wordless chorus and the spacey keyboard give way to startling (read: very startling) blasts of brass.
Lilting second track "The Bones of You," and third track "Mirrorball," both try their hand at mid-tempo, swirling indie pop, with the latter being the more effective, while the second uses snippets of George Gershwin's "Summertime." They also hover near the five minute mark and while they are certainly gorgeous, the bittersweet melancholia is almost too much to take. Thankfully the album picks up with lead single "Grounds for Divorce," (the only song on the disc under four-minutes) which is accented by a dance-able guitar riff that is equal parts fiery and snappy and a little bit Led Zeppelin. Garvey has been a word-smith of the highest order since the band's debut and is again in sterling form on this record. That being said, few songs on the album match the wit on "Divorce": "I've been working on a cocktail called "Grounds for Divorce" / Polishing a compass that I hold in my sleeve / Down comes him on sticks but then he kicks, like a horse / There's a Chinese cigarette case and the rest you can keep."
After the rousing chain-gang glee of "Grounds for Divorce," Garvey and company pull off one of their most autumnal and sentimental ballads to date with the fluttering charm of "An Audience With the Pope," which recounts pondering sex as a teen while grappling with his Catholic upbringing: "Sweet Jesus I'm on fire / She has the sweetest, darkest eyes / And when it comes into her eyes / I know iron and steel couldn't hold me / Good God I'm easily bruised / So often in love to her flame / And the things that she's asked me to do / Will see a city of saints forgetting his name."
The wistful "Weather to Fly," features non-startling brass accents and is so indelible it's surprising this band has achieved so little commercial success. "The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver," is charming in a sleepy, somber reflective nature, as it details the pitfalls of success. NME magazine has called it the album's "jaw-dropping centerpiece that soothes and swells the soul. "Some Riot," is drowned in sonic processing, programming and detail and most closely resembles the band's debut.
"The Fix" is a duet with Richard Hawley that channels Damon Runyon as the two sing in a comedic, Odd Couple-esque way as they play the part of two con men plotting a scheme. "One Day Like This" is an orchestral, gospel-themed epic that soars to radio-ready heights and seems poised for stadiums and arenas. It's the album's most uplifting and most accessible and despite its length it's a definite must-listen.
Considering the trials and tribulations the band had to endure to make the album its no surprise the disc is so exquisite and masterful. Having gone through three record labels in seven years, the band also lost close friend Bryan Glancy, a local singer-songwriter nicknamed "The Seldom Seen Kid," by Garvey's father. Aside from the mention of his name on "Grounds for Divorce," the disc's only other nod is the closing track "Friend of Ours," which uses nine lines to serve as a eulogy, a koan, and a fitting finish to a triumphant record. Guitars churn gently while strings swirl in the backdrop as Garvey sings: "Before leaving get to the bar / No one round here makes you pay / Never very good at goodbyes / So gentle shoulder charge, love you mate / Love you mate / Salford skyline blue / Always you / Could fly around any corner / Till you do / Love you mate."
By the time it is done, it's clearly evident The Seldom Seen Kid is a masterpiece and a career-best from a band whose consistency has not been matched by any British indie band this decade. Filled with lush epics, witty lyrics, woozy, hypnotic choruses, and impressively powerful singing, it's a lock for one of 2008's best.
"A Day Like This" is far from cheesy. I completely agree with the reviewer on this one: it's good to have an optimistic number thrown in there. This is a gold review!
Elbow are such an ace band and yet have managed to stay very low-key. Surprising, especially when you consider they've put out 4 solid albums too! They're absolutely tops live too. Best gig I've ever been to. It was actually Garvey's birthday on the night and they had a chocolate cake brought to him on stage. It was a real intimate gig. Love these guys!