Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid

Helen Newbery 17/03/2008

Rating: 4/5

It's been over two years since Elbow's last album, 'Leaders of the Free World', making this, their fourth, eagerly anticipated. Opener 'Starlings' suggests that they've spent this time wisely. It begins, appropriately enough, with a swooping, swirling soundscape. Then the drums crash in, and this sets the tone for the song: exquisite lulls alternating with blasts of sound, with a subtle hint of horn and gently rolling piano. It also showcases singer Guy Garvey's gorgeous voice, with its rich textures and hint of Manchester accent to bring it down to earth. The lyrics are acutely personal: “I guess I'm asking you to back a horse that's good for glue”. This lyrical intimacy runs through the album - at times the lyrics seem so intense that listening almost feels like eavesdropping: “And the things that she's asked me to do would have a saint forgetting his name”, from 'An Audience With The Pope', for example. It also highlights the strong narrative drive present on many of the songs: “I have an audience with the Pope and I'm saving the world at eight / but if she says she needs me she says she needs me”. Perhaps the best example of this storytelling, however, comes with 'The Fix', a tale of a thrown horserace, in which you can almost smell the desperation of the characters who know that, finally, their horse is going to come in. Incidentally, Richard Hawley features on vocals on this song, and the laid-back rhythms suit his crooner's voice perfectly. There are even moments of wry social commentary, with pedestrians “cramming commitments like cats in a sack” from 'The Bones Of You'.

Musically, the album incorporates diverse influences; whereas 'The Bones of You' has a timeless feel, its rhythms almost Latin, 'An audience with the Pope' has a more Middle Eastern vibe. And if occasionally things start to wash over me, such as during the slightly lacklustre 'Mirrorball', I'm always jerked back in, as with the by-now-familiar “Grounds for Divorce”, the single which has been getting generous airplay. With its insistent beat and elements of woozy Americana it's easy to see why. 'The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver' has that anthemic build-up that Elbow do so well, and 'Some Riot' is simply stunning. It's the achingly personal story of an alcoholic friend, its haunting lyrics backed up by subtle piano and rich string arrangements. There are more strings and piano on 'On a Day Like This', although this time they are used to give a much more upbeat feel, and there's even a gospel choir on backing duties.

So, was 'The Seldom Seen Kid' worth the wait? Well, frankly, yes. The album as a whole feels lush, well orchestrated, and as if the band have taken their sweet time about it, giving them the time to get exactly what they want. There's a wide range of influences at play, from jazz to blues, but the sound they have generated is all their own. Each song feels as if it has a story to tell, with moving and evocative lyrics, and the album as a whole has a coherent feel to it: it feels like a complete work, rather than just a collection of songs. Perhaps tellingly, Garvey has recently spoken out against iTunes for allowing music buyers to download individual tracks, a stance which seems appropriate given the album Elbow have created.

Release date: 17.3.08