Elbow: “Build a Rocket Boys!”
I almost hesitate to bring this up– fully believing that whatever critical credibility I may have will be dashed in certain circles– but I’m coming to be less and less interested in rock and roll bands who make their stock in trade difficult, “artsy” albums– the kind designed expressly to confound listeners and through their expectations into a blender; the kind that are more about cerebral stimulation than, well, rock and roll. To some degree, I think this goes against the current rock critic establishment, to which making a Bold and Important piece of Art is seen as a more challenging– and therefore more laudable– undertaking than creating pop music that appeals to the masses on a heart level. Somewhere along the way, I think, we came to believe that the mark of a truly great band was radical reinvention– not, say, provoking an entire stadium of people to raise their collective voice to the rafters.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since I received– at roughly the same time– the new albums from Elbow (which I quite like) and Radiohead (which I don’t exactly dislike, but do fail to connect with on a heart or hip level– something that could well be my fault, not theirs). The general consensus about Radiohead– for the last fifteen years or so, anyway– has been that they are the standard-bearers for Rock-as-Art, and their music seems to be held in highest regard when it’s at its most insular and “difficult.” (The utterly defiant and uncommercial Kid A was their magnum opus of the last decade; the more conventionally rock-oriented Hail to the Thief was typically regarded as one of their weaker works.) Even the new album– while not exactly difficult, at least not by their standards– carries with it the air of importance that has caused many critics to bend over backwards in its defense. All the while, a band like U2 continues to stir hearts while being unfairly maligned as old-fashioned or lacking an edge (though not, thank God, an Edge).
And so it is with Elbow, a band that has, as far as I’m concerned, released the best British rock album of 2011, and by a landslide. Consider just how difficult their own task was in creating Build a Rocket Boys! The record follows directly after the singular success of The Seldom Seen Kid, an album that performed so well with critics and fans alike that it seemed almost to strand Elbow in a dead-end alley. To replicate the blueprint of that album would seem like a cash-in, and surely draw the ire of critics; to make something deliberately different, difficult, or artsy would seem, in singer Gur Garvey’s own words, rather “churlish,” and certainly ungrateful to the fans who rallied around Seldom.
But that sticky situation is met with a glorious resolution in Build a Rocket Boys!, a craftsman-like album in the best possible sense. This is the sound of the Elbow boys simply realizing that they’ve been given a specific plot of land to til, and they’ve poured all their energy into that most praiseworthy toil seemingly without ego, but not without great sensitivity to how listeners will react. Thus, the album is built on a foundation of all of Elbow’s best qualities but tweaks them, expands upon them, and at times simply delivers them with renewed zeal. It sounds very much like the best kind of sequel– one that propels the action forward and ultimately stands as very much its own thing without ever seeming to become uprooted. Elbow achieve rousing success for a second time over, and they do so by keeping the focus on heart-level engagement with their listeners; if you doubt the viability of this conceit, simply scan the reviews and fan reactions, which are across-the-board raves.
And so we have an album that begins with an eight-minute number called “The Birds,” sounding quite neatly like vintage Elbow while also representing something quite new for the band. Their love of prog-rock is in full bloom here– the song comes in multiple distinct movements, and even has a keyboard solo!– yet they’ve whittled away the theatricality and sense of excess that typically characterizes prog-rock to make what is, really, just a very long and intricate Elbow song, one in which the focus isn’t on instrumental or compositional chops so much as the soulful central image of “the birds” as messengers of fate. The song is briefly reprised later on the album, this time sung by an elderly gentleman– again, something a little different for Elbow, yet perfectly in keeping with their own sense of showmanship.
The fact that it’s sung by an older man stems from the album’s themes of aging and the passage of time– the record alternates, roughly, between songs about youthful innocence and songs about growing up and staring down mortality– but this is neither a fatalistic nor even a particularly inward-gazing album so much as it’s a cause for Guy Garvey to indulge in his most captivating qualities– namely, a generosity of spirit and a penchant for romance that are essentially peerless. The album’s centerpiece– and maybe it’s best song– is called “Lippy Kids,” and it’s a compassionate portrait of teenage boys who have their whole life ahead of them; Garvey– perhaps looking back at his teenage self– urges them to “build a rocket, boys,” and this becomes the album’s mantra and chief concern– to seek to build something out of high ideals, to cherish every moment as precious and pregnant with opportunity.
That may sound like sort of a hokey message for a rock band to deliver in 2011, but that’s precisely the charm of this music; it’s unflinchingly earnest and sincere, which is not at all to say that it’s lacking in either darkness or humor. Actually, the only time I fear the album might drift toward schlock or sentimentality is in “With Love,” a song that beings promisingly– by appropriating the spacious quality of dubstep– before moving into a sort of high-stepping gospel refrain. It sounds to me like a classic pop song on the making, but perhaps the kind of pop classic that could wear out its welcome quickly. Yet even this song– hardly a dud– is evidence of the great skill and resourcefulness of this band, truly firing on all cylinders here: “Neat Little Rows” commandeers the junkyard rhythms of a Tom Waits song and makes them into a sort of faux-bluesy pop gem, not unlike “Grounds for Divorce” but not a clone of that song, either; “High Ideals” seems to get to the core of what Elbow is all about, a celebration of rhythm and sensual textures and pure pop songcraft, all in one five-minute burst; and “Open Arms” is one of those straight-for-the-heart sing-alongs, perfectly suited for raising the roof of a stadium or simply the local pub.
But I think the best moments– and the greatest innovations to the Elbow model– are the quieter numbers. “Lippy Kids” might even displace “Mirrorball” as the loveliest Elbow song on record, but I’m equally enamored of “Jesus Was a Rochdale Girl,” a wonderfully intimate tune that spotlights the soulfulness of Guy Garvey, both as a singer and as a writer, while also pointing– appropriately enough for an album like this– a way for this everyman’s band to continue aging gracefully. I should say– though it is perhaps a little redundant at this point– that, through all of this, Elbow makes music with joy, an infectious sense of camaraderie, and a sincerity of intent to carry listeners along with them rather than defy them to keep up; and this all strikes me, of course, as a fairly remarkable and certainly commendable achievement.