here do I start? Cast of Thousands is a great record, beautiful and emotionally powerful as well as musically inventive. Ostensibly all Elbow do is write sad songs about girls, but their particular brand of emotive dissonance stands stark beneath northern skies, the meeting point between the exquisitely formless English pastoralism of Talk Talk and the bitter sexual and emotional observances of Pulp, Hood with the emotional clout and songwriting nous of Mick Head, The Verve obsessed with the minutiae of life rather than the aggrandisement of ego, Radiohead focussed on sex and death instead of governmental ideology and economic manipulation.
Guy Garvey has a voice of fractured glass where blood and tears coalesce with the traces of a woman’s eyeliner, a lifetime of experience and misadventure bound within a whisper. It is perfectly suited to Elbow’s music, which drifts and twists to reveal moments of absent beauty where songs no longer exist, a quasi post-rock focussed on the expression of feeling rather than ability.
“Ribcage” opens the album, piano, guitar and organ gently burring electronically beneath a forlorn drum beat and Garvey’s voice, “and when the sunshine / throwing me a lifeline / finds its way into my room / all I need is you”. Halfway into the 6-minute groove a gospel choir joins the laconic misery, highlighting the blissful essence of melancholy, insouciantly accomplishing the trick Jason Pierce has been running after for years. As if that wasn’t enough first single “Fallen Angel” then shames Doves’ stabs at emotional resonance, a circular buzz-stomp grabbing a loved one by the shoulders and insisting “you don’t need to sleep alone / you bring the house down / choose your favourite shoes and put your blues / on cruise control”, dragging her out into a neon evening and forcing her to dance until she forgets why the tears started.
Closer to 45 minutes than an hour, Cast of Thousands is a less bloated record to take in than Elbow’s debut, Asleep in the Back but that’s not to say it’s any less intense. “Snooks (Progress Report)” sees Garvey comparing his own life to those of his friends, whispering over a jerking rhythm before an awesome, bronchial guitar yowl punctures through to expose the jealousy beneath. “Switching Off” is exquisitely beautiful, heartbeat toms, a tambourine and an exhaling organ offering a skeletal backing for a freshly broken melody portraying a resigned love; “you the only sense / the world has ever made / early evening June / this room and a radio play / this I need to save / I choose my final scene today / switching off with you...” A disconsolate electric whirr heightens the impact, pricking forth tears and recognition.
Elsewhere “I’ve Got Your Number” has sinister, faintly jazzy chops and hangover eyes, knows intentions and guilty secrets (“don’t put this letter in the pocket near your heart / keep it in the bottom drawer where you hide the sex tools /... I know what you have done...”) and tries to break them apart with unholy guitar squall like the 90-second single-note solo buried deep within Laughing Stock long ago, and “Buttons And Zips” is a muted, tarnished lust. The album’s title is revealed as a reference to “Grace Under Pressure,” where softly brushed guitar strings are beaten apart by the kind of jagged percussion trademarked recently by Dan Snaith, before the line between a wordless choir and an overwhelming crowd (recorded live at the band’s Glastonbury set in 2002) is evaporated in a synthesis of voice and noise, a single euphorically pained female scream perforating the melange like birdsong through rustling trees.
Elbow were always on the verge of being a great band, their debut 2/3rds of a brilliant record, but Cast of Thousands is a giant leap forward that I didn’t expect, a refinement and extension of their vision that will emerge as one of the best records of the year.