Release Date: February 3, 2017
There is an apocryphal story that, in composing Bolero, Maurice Ravel made a bet with another composer that he could make a compelling piece of music that was just one long crescendo. Thus, was birthed his fifteen-minute epic. Its main theme is not developed in any significant way, but the orchestra gradually builds to a rousing climax by the end. Ravel noted that there was an “insistence” to the melody-line and it called for repetition. He was also especially self-critical of his work, acknowledging that the piece has “no contrasts, and practically no invention except the plan and the manner of execution.” Maybe that’s why I like it so much–I’m by no means a composer, so tracking the evolution of various musical themes throughout a work can be tricky, but building an orchestral arrangement–that’s something I can wrap my head around.
In some ways, Elbow’s recorded output could be said to mirror Bolero–one long-building crescendo with consistent theme. And I don’t mean that as a negative. In fact, it’s remarkable. Starting with their first albums Asleep in the Back and Cast of Thousands, the band cultivated a spacious, spare sound punctuated by moody drums, bass, guitar, and keys. There would be occasional stabs of a backing chorus at strategic moments, but things were left largely just on the edge of simmering. As the years have passed, with each new record, the band has slowly broadened its sonic palette and filled-in those empty spaces with more and more bouts of swooning grandeur. The guitar distortion and dissonant moments from previous albums has largely been stripped away in service of beauty. That’s not to say that Little Fictions is a monotone effort without texture or variety. Just that Elbow have always operated across a reliable spectrum–from the quiet to the grand. I can’t think of a band with more consistent output over the past fifteen years. Each record, you know what you’re going to get. And, for me, there is a lot of comfort in that.
On Little Fictions, one thing is clear from the get go–Elbow is head-over-heels in love. In love with people, the world, children, and more. Perhaps, it’s just lead singer and songwriter Guy Garvey. Sure, love songs and sentimentalism abound in their previous work, but it was always interspersed with songs like “Grounds for Divorce,” “Leaders of the Free World,” or “Charge” that exhibited undercurrents of anger. Little Fictions seems to ferret-out more optimism than many of the previous records. Here’s a line from the opener, “Magnificent (She Says)”:
“And there she stands, throwing both her arms around the world–the world that doesn’t even know how much it needs this little girl. It’s all going to be magnificent, she says.”
And here’s one from track two, “Gentle Storm”:
“I found peace in your arms. Gentle Storm rage my way. Fall in love with me.”
While these phrases are straightforward enough when excerpted, Little Fictions‘ songs are more often meditations, filled with impressionistic snippets of lyrics interspersed with bouts of hyper-lucidity. I’m one who tends to prefer more detailed, concrete lyrics, so you might think that this tendency wouldn’t be to my taste. But that’s not the case here. Though the lyrics might not tell a cohesive narrative, the specific details are so precise as to evoke little scenes from life.
“May brings a supermoon gold and relentless and the dog bats of Melbourne fall from the blue, swerving casinos and swatting at memories of you.”
I’ve never been to Melbourne nor seen its flying fox megabats, but when this lyric washes over me, I feel as if I have. (While the chiroptophobics among you might shudder at the thought, I’ve always loved watching bats swooping around in the twilight.) The vignettes scattered throughout Elbow’s lyrics provide the propulsive force–one passes, and the listener is left anticipating the next.
Each of their recent albums seems to have at least one stand-out 6+ minute slow-burning epic, and Little Fictions is no exception. The Takeoff and Landing of Everything had “New York Morning,” Build a Rocket Boys had “Lippy Kids,” and The Seldom Seen Kid had “One Day Like This.” Title track, “Little Fictions,” is the showstopper this time around. It starts with a reference to domestic tension (“A muffled battle cry across the kitchen table.”) and ratchets up to a cathartic finale (“All in. Love is the original miracle.”). The arrangement only enhances the build-up–a loping drum and bass-line that gradually unfurls to reveal piano, backing choir, careening synth, and an octave-jumping vocal-line.
I realize that in typing-out some of these lyrics, Elbow could seem like the most schmaltzy band on the planet, but it’s the undercurrents of tension that keep them from tipping-over into the saccharine. Take “Kindling,” which features one of the most disarmingly gorgeous turns of phrase on the entire album:
“Had a circular saw blade where I should’ve had a heart. I was trusted, I adored her, and I tore it all apart.”
It goes to show that with Elbow, despite the beauty, things are always threatening to fall apart at any moment.
So when the album ends with the following scene: “The silence and the waiting and the rush of all aboard. Fifty souls to a carriage and I’m trying hard to be ignored. Then my telephone shakes into life and I see your name and the wheat fields explode into gold either side of the train.” It’s the perfect coda. I know what that looks like. I know what that feels like. It’s one of those rare, fully-embodied lyrics that connects with me on all levels. This may not be the case for everyone–they might choose different lyrics, or even different songwriters, but I love being floored by Guy Garvey & Co.