Leaders Of The Free World

station Approach,” the first song on Elbow's misleadingly named third album, is a song about coming home. It was probably occasioned by the band's existence as touring musicians, and as such should be awful. Instead, it reminds me of the way Guelph always feels when I take the all-night bus back here after visiting friends in other cities. It starts out a little shaky and just glad to be back, but as it gets stronger Guy Garvey sings “Coming home I feel like I / Designed these buildings I walk by” in his shouldn't-be-beautiful-but-is voice and I know what he means. He sings “When I'm low that I need to be in the town / Where they know what I'm like and don't mind” and I know exactly what he means. Right now Elbow are hitting an emotional pitch no one else is managing; one more personal and more potent than those that might be considered their competition.

The ballads are probably the best example. There are great lines scattered throughout Leaders Of The Free World; “Do you move through the room with a glass in your hand / Thinking too hard about the way you stand,” “I'll miss you the way you miss the sea,” “And would you tell her / Not to talk as if I died,” “These feelings belong in a zoo.” But as with most music, the real test is in the delivery. This is Elbow's least rocky album, the least shot through with sudden gusts of distortion (traditionally courtesy of Craig Potter's organ), and it's just as exquisitely sequenced as the last two. But as before, that doesn't mean they try to even out the sound of the album; instead, it starts with a few of the louder numbers before eventually subsiding into troubled calm. And those songs—“The Everthere,” “My Very Best,” “Puncture Repair”—stand out starkly against the backdrop of Coldplay and their ilk.

Two reasons for this leap out at me: Elbow have been together in roughly this form for fourteen years, ten of which came before their first album. I don't think that experience necessarily counts for much (a hundred thousand crappy bar bands scream otherwise), but Elbow play together in a much more absorbing and satisfying form than most bands they're compared to. When they have a sweeping, lovelorn song like “My Very Best” they don't forget to still have the rhythm section do something interesting. Although things are never too busy, there is almost always more going on in an Elbow song. And the songwriting never descends into the empty, universal-sounding platitudes you half-expect; they're grounded in the deeply personal, and while that makes them harder to adopt as personal anthems, there's a bigger sense of emotional truth to them. They hit harder, and not just because Garvey isn't afraid to write a song about wishing he was “hard” enough to take on his girlfriend's more-handsome ex (“Mexican Standoff”).

He, and by extension the band, come across as more human, more sympathetic and more affecting. There's a real sense that they're being honest with you, that you're being let in; but I never feel voyeuristic when I listen to Elbow, never feel as if I'm prying into someone else's business. It's an incredibly fine line to walk, and one that must be walked at the same time as the band attempts to make music that stands on its own. And Elbow seem to know enough that when the subject matter is less compelling, as in the pro forma (but doubtless sincere) politics of the title track, they have to back it up with something more absorbing on the musical level.

As with the excellent Cast Of Thousands album, Leaders Of The Free World feels disjointed at first, almost ramshackle. If anything, it's more initially disappointing, with only “Station Approach” and “Leaders Of The Free World” really grabbing me the first time. I confess to having an affection for “growers” that dates back to my teen years, but the basic reason for that affection remains: When you trust music to repay your devotion and it does, it can feel better than a thousand instant thrills. It was the feeling running through Leaders Of The Free World that kept me listening for more, and sure enough after half a dozen listens I couldn't explain to you why I didn't used to love all of these songs. Like most of the albums I've really loved in the past decade or so, it's the way this music so precisely and so ineffably articulates my emotions that make me want to keep listening.

Elbow's music is usually about the past, or about how our pasts inform our present, the heavy weight of our lives. And on Leaders Of The Free World, even more so than before, it's about missed connections, regrets, imagined affairs, wishful thinking. “My Very Best” is followed by “Great Expectations”, which is described on Elbow's website as follows:

I got married once on the 135 bus to Bury. It was such a low-key affair that even the bride didn't know.

There's a whole imaginative, wryly romantic outlook on life contained in that thinking, and it runs in rich veins throughout Elbow's music. Sadness for Elbow is always redemptive or at least instructive, happiness always wise, love “Less derring do than quiet care,” quiet optimism always warranted and our lives ends in themselves. For the third time in a row their most compelling love song is about growing old, about life-long devotion. But whereas “Newborn” was over-the-top declaration and “Switching Off” a fondest wish, “The Everthere” feels more modest:
If I lose a sequin here and there
More salt than pepper in my hair
Can I rely on you
When all the songs are through
To be for me the everthere
It's the sound of settling down, and if I occasionally hope that at some point Elbow will again seize on the weird outbursts present in their earlier work, it's hard to argue against this music. Three albums in and no fall-off. They deserve to be bigger than U2, but the personal quality that earns them that kind of love doesn't tend to translate on a wider scale; I can only hope they stay small, and personal, and magical.


Buy it at Insound!

Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2005-09-12
Comments (29)

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