Given his well-documented love affair with the English North-west, it could be disconcerting to discover that Guy Garvey has effectively made “a second home” for himself in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Home has always been where Elbow‘s heart - and art - is, exemplified by the wistful reminiscences of 2011’s Build A Rocket Boys!, all rented houses, street corners and community centres. Those who fear a new transatlantic twang can relax, however. Elbow, as their fondness for the audience singalong indicates, are all about making connections, and miles away from his old haunts, the singer found a familiar ambience in New York’s bars as he sat there reading, writing, observing. It was a throwback to his days in Manchester years ago, he tells MOJO, when he used to sit in the Night And Day Café, trying to impress the beautiful girl behind the bar by wearing a “little corduroy Bob Dylan-style cap as if to say ‘I am writer, I am’”.
“Listen to any Elbow song, and it asks the same question: ‘Is there anybody out there?’”
Garvey no longer needs to advertise his vocation through ostentatious headwear: Elbow’s five albums to date stand as abundant proof of his writing credentials. The Bury quintet’s reputation as some kind of “people’s band” is cloying, suggesting they’re prone to starting up Goodbye England’s Rose at the drop of a hat, but their desire to communicate is unmistakable. Since the last album, Garvey, already a BBC Radio 6 DJ, widened his demographic by reading a bedtime story for CBeebies. The band were commissioned to write the BBC’s theme for the 2012 Olympics, resulting in suitably chiselled anthem First Steps. They even took their outreach work to extremes when they performed at Jodrell Bank last summer, playing under the “mighty inquisitive eye” of the Lovell Telescope. Listen to any Elbow song, and it quietly asks the same question: “Is there anybody out there?”
The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, their sixth album, is likely to bounce back the same resounding “yes” as 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid and Build A Rocket Boys! It’s not a giant leap - you can trace a line to the emotional undulations of 2001 debut Asleep In The Back - but Elbow haven’t been embraced to be wreckers of civilisation. Their speciality is the graceful ability to elevate the everyday, offering a prism through which to view “the mysteries of the human heart” as pondered on tearful new track My Sad Captains. After the big-hearted nostalgia of Build A Rocket Boys!, these songs turn their gaze forwards, eyeing up what remains ahead. You don’t need the world’s largest radio telescope to pick up the issues of mortality and make-or-break change pulsing through the record. “I’m reaching the age when decisions are made,” sings Garvey on the defining track, the jet-lagged, raw-nerved shuffle of Fly Boy Blue/Lunette, and The Take Off And Landing Of Everything explores that precarious state, capturing a world of navigation and negotiation, of compromise and confusion. “Midlife crisis” might flippantly cover it, but instead of revving up their rock’n’roll credentials like a brand new sports car, Elbow stare the uneasy transitions of middle age softly, steadily in the eye. In the light of earlier work - Grounds For Divorce or The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver, for example - it feels like the record they’ve been waiting to make all their lives.
“The title track combines Pulp’s Party Hard with Tomorrow Never Knows for a sudden necessary blast of noise.”
Perspective is everything, and churchy opening track This Blue World has the vision to look down on a whole relationship from dizzy start to sad death, beginning and end all at once. The record closes, too, with a song of sweeping scope, an eerie meditation on what happens when people can no longer place themselves on the map of their lives. Called The Blanket Of Night, it describes a couple adrift on a boat. Garvey says it’s a comment on callous immigration policies, but it also plays out like a simple metaphor for a love affair: two people swept along, thinly protected by hope against the treacherous currents ahead. The keyboard suddenly pitches and swells: “My angel, could I have steered us clear?”
Aiming to shake up the dynamic, the band deliberately worked in different combinations. Honey Sun, guitarist Mark Potter’s composition, is an ominous patter of Kid A codes and clicks, while the hushed reverie of keyboardist Craig Potter’s Real Life (Angel) is opened out by the Halle Orchestra‘s return appearance. Everything balanced, everything in the right place. Occasionally, Garvey nearly overplays his hand - “man having a smoke in pub car park experiences tipsy cosmic epiphany” is a down-to-earth shtick, but it‘s still a shtick - but even on My Sad Captains, another punch-on-the-arm Elbow song about the unspoken bonds of male friendship, precisely calibrated brass stops the slide into sentiment. The title track combines Pulp’s Party Hard with Tomorrow Never Knows for a sudden necessary blast of noise. New York Morning, based on a diary entry written at 6am in Manhattan’s Moonstruck diner, admires the city‘s democratising effects: “Everybody owns the great ideas / And it feels like there’s a big one round the corner.” The most overt crowd-pleaser, its salt-of-the-earthiness might cause a thirst for something sharper, were it not for the striking paraphrase of John Lennon’s reasons for moving there: “A modern Rome where folk are nice to Yoko”. For Garvey, who sees Britain’s treatment of the couple as “shameful”, decency is never boring.
The singer has more than a little side to him, though, and at times the barroom romantic switches into the outside-now scrapper. Over the terse, glowering organ of Charge, he imagines himself as an older ex-rock star, bitter in the corner with his bitter, railing at a new generation. “Glory be these fuckers are ignoring me /I’m from another century.” Fly Boy Blue/Lunette, meanwhile, addresses the real and metaphorical path-finding that comes with travel, the first part’s tetchy, hair-trigger chug dealing with home-land horrors - “Someone’s shouting on the box / A chinless prefect gone Godzilla” - before finally simmering down into a glorious domestic rapture: “But there isn’t words yet for the comfort I get / From the gentle lunette at the top of the nape of the neck / That I wake to.”
Plotting their course through these highs and lows - those take-offs and landings - Elbow are no clearer than anyone else about how they will reach the final destination. By sharing that uncertainty and navigating by what little light there is, artistically, at least, they never lose their way.
Watch Fly Boy Blue/Lunette...