The Beautiful Ordinariness of Elbow, Part One

The Beautiful Ordinariness of Elbow, Part One

Written by Dan Schwartz

Throw those windows wide
One day like this a year would set me right.

…from “One Day Like This”

In ye olden days of 30 years ago, as a writer I would struggle to try to describe music. This was always a thankless task; imagine trying to describe the sheets and clouds of pure sound that comprised György Ligeti’s best work.

But a virtue, as well as a massive liability, of the modern age is YouTube. And YouTube makes this job much easier. I’m talking about attempting to describe the music of Elbow, an approximately 20-year-old band from Manchester, England. Vaguely like Radiohead or Coldplay (as if they’re similar), but not quite – although they manifest a similar melodicism.

Let me begin by sharing the track in which I “discovered” them:


I heard this track on a pretty lousy station while driving in Los Angeles, while channel hopping, and I was fairly riveted. I pulled over to listen and waited to find out who they were – I was that enthralled. It had been years since I had found a band that I liked that much.

Although we have a few friends in common, as they’re from Manchester, what I know about them I’ve mostly found out online, like from Wikipedia:

There’s this, a playlist of an in-studio gig with an orchestra at Abbey Road that blows my proverbial socks off:


And there’s this live show:


As to whether they’re good musicians or not, they’re certainly good enough to play their music – there’s nothing dazzling here, except the band itself. And who writes it? I’m not going to find out – I’m deliberately keeping it mysterious.

It occurred to me while listening to a few concerts of theirs that are on the YouTubes that in weird ways they remind me of late 1970s Genesis, and Talking Heads at the beginning of the 1980s (and those bands were nothing alike). They’re like Genesis in that, once Peter Gabriel left the band and they turned in a decidedly pop direction, one could sense that they could really play, but quite often they simply didn’t, and left it to the music or to the song to speak for itself (E.G. “Entangled*”, from A Trick of the Tail) – which is a hallmark of maturity, not having to always show “your stuff.” And Elbow demonstrates this maturity even on their early albums, though much more so on the ones from 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid onwards. But: they also remind me of Talking Heads, circa their (and Brian Eno’s) shockingly brilliant Remain in Light, in that the music is made up of broken-down modules of repeating figures – which sounds real pointy-headed when I write about it, but it’s what I mean.

(*Okay, this is weird. I just found an online radio show and interview, in which singer Guy Garvey says that the one Genesis song that everybody in the band agrees that they like is “Entangled.”)

If you have Roon, you’ll find more contemporary comparisons in their descriptions of the band – to Coldplay, and Talk Talk, and Supertramp, and Superchunk. But this is on their early albums, which were…more conventional? I don’t hear Elbow as a radical band – in fact they’re comfortably un-radical. Their early albums were a bit more conventional (and yes, they have gotten more Elbow-ish in their self-defined sense). The rhythms and arrangements are more spacious and fragmented, and their anthemic-quality has gotten bigger and more ambitious. They’ve evolved from a great worn jacket to a massive comfortable sweater. (As I struggle to describe the music, I take some comfort in the writers that Roon takes their stuff from having just as difficult a time.) Comfortable, familiar music and vocals – that nonetheless are unique and new. And vocalist Guy Garvey has a rough/smooth delivery that’s very comforting and familiar.

If I find any fault with their early albums (which I sometimes do), it’s that the tunes sort of shout “art-rock” without transcending the form, as their later work does – the band has definitely grown as writers/arrangers. (Of course, that’s my taste; you might feel differently.)

In any event, in Part Two, witness me struggle to again describe the indescribable.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Evita wiki.

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