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Wednesday, August 04, 2004 

The Floating World: Elbow

Prefatory note: Originally I had been intending to sleep now, I'd even gotten so far as getting into bed, saying goodnight to K. and turning out the lights. But for whatever reason I started thinking about Elbow (specifically Cast Of Thousands), and I reluctantly hauled my ass out of bed, because I know most of this wouldn't survive the night. Weird how switching to a floating format has resulted in more inspiration than is common (well, not weird, but, you know...). Or maybe I'm just having a good few weeks.

Also: Since I'm Canadian, the version of Cast Of Thousands I've got is 11 tracks long; it doesn't have 'Whisper Grass' or 'Lay Down Your Cross', and I've never heard them. Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence.

(and yes, when I'm tired I use parentheses more than I should - it's how I think)


It's difficult for me to know where to start this, as the bits that floated into my mind as I lay in bed a few minutes ago weren't exactly beginnings, middles and ends. I know what I want to say about Cast Of Thousands, and Elbow, but I'm not sure how to get there.

Well, a random thing is as good as any thing: Cast Of Thousands, as far as I know, is regarded as a "leap forward" for Elbow, a progression from their debut, Asleep At The Back. Which is true, if a bit misleading. it's identfiably the work of the same band, but it's different enough that it's hard to put your finger on precisely how.

Which is fitting; the album is redolent of dreams, from 'Not A Job' to 'Flying Dream 143'; the whole thing possesses a hazy, oneiric unity that binds it together but prevents you from saying how. I know when Guy Garvey belts out "You don't need to sleep alone / You bring the house down" on 'Fallen Angel' it is joyous beyond words but (because, of course, of that same quality), I can't tell you why. I know "The dream again nobody understands" from 'Not A Job' is the absolute heart of Cast Of Thousands, but short of sitting you down with the record I can't explain.

But here's the thing: Elbow usually get tagged as either uplifting or sad. Neither is right. Oh, there are powerful moments of both on the record (last year, all I needed for a journal entry to convey what I wanted to convey was four lines from 'Ribcage'), but there's much more there.

Lust snakes through the record, surfacing in the almost sinister and yet almost nostalgic 'Buttons And Zips' (the most inexplicably sexy song I can think of off the top of my head) (and upon hearing it, it seems to obvious that lust and nostalgia and the sinister should go together), and there's darker stuff here too. 'Snooks (Progress Report)' comes first, and although there is a hint of bitterness in the report of the doings of friends (and a hint of the pathetic in the chorus), it's not until that astounding cry cuts through the heart of the track that you really pay attention. Already we've had a beat made out of vaguely tribal drums and what sounds like feedback from a bowed saw (and if you went on their "slightly smarter Coldplay" rep, would you expect such sounds? Cast Of Thousands, among other virtues, finds Elbow far more groovy, dissonant and interesting than many were led to believe), and then at 1:13 what sounds like Garvey yelling backed with a blast of feedback sounds. That it is followed by a vaguely Eastern guitar bit for a moment is only more arresting.

Two songs later, you get "I've Got Your Number" (with Garvey intoning "I. Know. What. You. Have. Done." like a sentence), starting out with a vaguely jazzy, dithering bassline. Garvey gets some great lines to spit out here, dripping with contempt ("Grow a fucking heart, love", almost whispered with just the correct amount of bitterness), but after the central, overdriven organ blast the song subsides - a mere forty-five seconds (out of 4:48) in the middle of the song as the bass plods on, plus two quick later interjections, but the song swirls around it. As the track winds down and Garvey repeats the title, he finally admits/pleads "You've got my number" - suddenly he sounds like he wants a friend to call. He can't win. Like 'Snooks' and 'Buttons And Zips' and much of the record, the air is heavy with shared history we're not privy to.

Even 'Crawling With Idiot', too cynical to be a love song ("Come on, love, it's not serious"), is mostly focused on how stupid the punters are, and how hot and thick the air, at the local pub rather than emotional distress. Garvey and co. see things too clearly to just provide reassurance or a song to cry along to; there's more life in these songs.

Some of that is down to Garvey; at some point I described his voice as a big warm fuzzy sweater, and when he's whispering or singing in a lower pitch that's true (he's my favorite current male vocalist, in any case). But when his voice takes off, without much of the showiness that mars an awful lot of the singers getting praise for imitating Thom Yorke their singing, it fucking soars. The combination is utterly deadly.

He's helped by the fact that the record coheres so well. Asleep At The Back was very obviously the best songs of ten years of experience strung together, and although there's not a bad track in the lot, the fact remains that it still feels pitched together ('Any Day Now', 'Newborn' and 'Bitten By The Tail-Fly', to take three examples, just don't flow), although that's a very minor complaint. Here, though, Elbow have songs of equally wide emotional and sonic range, but they fit. The record knits together cleanly, united by that dream logic and a masterful sense of space (few rock quintets leave as much room as Elbow do on Cast Of Thousands) and a revised songwriting approach. Whereas before Elbow were down in the muck of specificity, telling definite stories, much of the approach here is closer to 'Scattered Black And Whites', the closing song from Asleep At The Back and my favorite. Still a story, yes, but much more impressionistic, and seemingly much more personal. When Garvey sang of drunks on 'Powder Blue' it sounded like he was inhabiting a character; whether it's true or not, Cast Of Thousands sounds much more personal.

Witness 'Switching Off', for example. If you distilled Elbow's work to date down to just two songs, for release as a single, you could much worse that 'Newborn' b/w 'Switching Off', although that might make you think their range of subject matter was painfully small. But while 'Newborn' was a frenzied (literally, near the end) declaration of love, the singer promising "I'll be the corpse in your bathtub" as he swears to be there always, 'Switching Off' is the same story once the devotion is a memory, not a promise. When Garvey sings

You, the only sense
The world has ever made
This I need to save
A simple trinket locked away
I choose my final scene today
Switching off with you

it doesn't feel sad. It feels like the end of a lifetime of love. Again, hard to put into words. Garvey is not, as far as I know, old enough to really make the song autobiographical, but it sounds like it is nevertheless.

But again, the album as a whole isn't just one story, isn't many stories. It's a waking dream (there's a reason Nick Southall compared them to Talk Talk), a series of reassurances whispered in your ear, a beer in the pub with friends, that dirty little secret you keep, and plenty more besides.

There is a snake in Elbow's garden (even in the beatific 'Not A Job', Garvey dreamily repeats the line "hissing bitter punchline" at one point), but at the same time things are okay. Their dread is leavened with love, their exuberance (and that gospel choir on 'Ribcage' works so much better than most in rock songs) with darkness, loneliness with camraderie. Cast Of Thousands works, touches heart and head, because it is packed with the splendors and pains of life, and something in us responds to that. It was the sixth-best record of last year, according to me at the time, and in retrospect my top ten would eventually settle with this at three or four. It's a record with immediate pleasures, but depths to explore. It's a record with plenty of obvious highlights ('Ribcage', 'Fallen Angel', 'Switching Off', 'Grace Under Pressure'), but whose less ingratiating tracks, far from being filler, might reward close attention even more than the obvious suspects.

All this from a relatively gnomic band (cf. especially the sculptures on the front, but also the performances and lyrics generally), but one with a sense of humour: The fact that most of a Glastonbury crowd is listed in the liner notes is what usually gets mentioned, but look at the lyrics to 'Flying Dream 143' (which features another jarring burst, this time of vocals). When Garvey in the song sings "But how my 15 stone flew to you / I don't know" while describing his dream, the lyrics bashfully render it as "how my (ahem) 15 stone". That still makes me smile when I look at it.


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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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