Elbow | Build a Rocket Boys! (Fiction/Polydor)

It’s a yearning, stretching paean to youth, partially imploring hangabouts to do something magnificent with those meandering, formless teenage moments.

 

 

Each new Elbow album is another tough nut to crack. Their dense marriage of lush pop and ambling, rhythmic art rock makes for records that are, at once, both accessible and slow to unfold. Even in their loudest, most rambunctious moments there’s still a particularly English sense of reserve at play; they use strings and the simplicity of traditional pre-rock ‘n’ roll British pop to evoke the pastoral. Meaning, it can really take a while to get to know a new batch of Elbow songs. I’m convinced that this is one of the reasons the band is so perennially underrated in their native UK and bordering on unknown here in the States.

On Build a Rocket Boys!, the band’s fifth LP, Elbow continues to show their unrivaled knack for draping memorable melodies over multi-part, often brittle arrangements with odd time signatures. Languid eight-minute opener “The Birds” takes its sweet time going places; a painstaking, hypnotic build makes for an exacting payoff about halfway through as tasteful but towering Mellotron swells join a loping sequencer and Guy Garvey’s repeated, hands-thrown-up cry of “What are we going to do with you / same tale every time / looking back is for the birds.” It’s a marvelously symphonic explosion.

The record’s centerpiece arrives early in “Lippy Kids.” It hangs one of Garvey’s most remarkably descriptive lyrics on a sparse frame of piano, subtly accentuating it with backing choir vocals. It’s a yearning, stretching paean to youth, partially imploring hangabouts to do something magnificent with those meandering, formless teenage moments before they’re lost to the solidification of adulthood. But at the same time, it celebrates the joy of the freedom of doing nothing, of wasting days because you can, because there are still so many yet ahead. The way Garvey practically begs you to “build a rocket boys!” ought to be enough to move even the steeliest, inertia-filled soul to tears.

“Neat Little Rows” bounces between verses that resound with lumbering tympani drums and pounding, Doves-esque piano over screeching guitar in the loudly soaring chorus. It’s slightly menacing but uplifting in its discord. “High Ideals” employs more of that skeletal piano plunking, but shoves it beneath an oddly groovy bass line and the occasional swaying mariachi horn invasion. Finale “Dear Friends” is the record’s other true stunner, a worn-edged sepia photograph of a tune in the flowing, romantic vein of their debut LP’s “Scattered Black and Whites,” accentuated by the sorrowful wheeze of a distant bugle. Garvey summons forth the spirit of remembered camaraderie on long summer nights: “Dear friends / you are angels and drunks / you are magi / Old friends / you stuck a pin in a map I was in / and you are the stars I navigate home by.”

This album is, at its heart, resplendent with that type of sentiment; it’s a headfirst dive into the shimmering pool of nostalgia. That’s not to say it’s wallowing, but instead an exploration of rose colored glasses, of the past, and of how the past influences our futures. It’s filled, as ever, with Garvey’s meticulous yet wholly unpretentious poetry, sung in a tenor that can shift in a moment from sleepy wistfulness to lofty, deep-lunged resonance. Build a Rocket Boys! isn’t the crystalline, distilled essence-of-Elbow that its immediate predecessor The Seldom Seen Kid was, but it’s a worthy, fascinating successor. It’s detailed, non-cape-wearing modern indie/prog rock tempered with an uncanny pop sense, all made of skin and bone, with a pounding human heart. B+ | Mike Rengel

RIYL: Peter Gabriel’s fusion of rhythm, pop melody, emotion, and experimentation; Doves; the arty, adventurous spirit of Talk Talk’s later albums; Genesis, 1976-80

 

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