As a foolhardy youth, many years ago I tackled the age-old tradition of the model rocket. It’s something that not many young people still do today, which is a shame. I only made a single rocket, painted it up and then launched it in the middle of a massive field. It was a rather shoddy design and it tooke a handful of tries to get the launch to actually work, but it was exhilarating to see that thick cardboard tube soar to the point where it was barely visible, then deploy a parachute and sail safely back to Earth. That I remember spending that one day making and launching the rocket at all should give a fair indication of the memory it planted within me. Perhaps the gentlemen in Elbow feel the same way, titling their fifth record “Build a Rocket Boys!” and putting a bunch of songs on it that pertain to the exciting times of being a kid, along with the sadness of not being able to return there.
Elbow is not exactly an upbeat band, and chances are if you’re listening to them your mood isn’t either. What they’ve lacked in positive vibes they’ve more than made up for with smart songcraft and honest lyrics. While they’ve not achieved what could be considered wide commercial success in America, chances are you heard the songs “Grounds for Divorce” or “One Day Like This” in an ad or on a soundtrack somewhere. Their last record “The Seldom Seen Kid” won them the prestigious Mercury Prize, and honestly after all those good things it’s just a little tough to write songs about how depressed you are. If you can’t find any dark material in your present, there’s always the past to mine from.
“Looking back is for the birds”, Guy Garvey mopes on the lengthy 8-minute opening track “The Birds”. That’s kind of what the song itself is like too, not doing a whole lot of anything for the first half except exploring darkness and minimalism. A guitar crunches and keeps crunching, electronic blips twinkle in the background, and a cello pulses before finally giving way to a rather beautiful rush of symphony in the final 3 minutes. The song does have a storyline, and it concerns a man looking back on a past relationship and how birds were the key witnesses to the best and worst moments of it. They are the silent keepers of our memories, holding “those final kisses in their tiny racing hearts”. While the very spare first half of the song builds towards the soaring second half, there’s not much else to help justify the 8 minutes it takes to run its course. Things would probably have been equally effective at 5-6 minutes. That’s how long “Lippy Kids” takes, and it’s just one of the reasons why the song is one of the album’s best. The rushes of strings amid the spare guitar, sparkling piano and Garvey’s impressive vocal make for one serene and gorgeous combination. The story here is about kids hanging out on the corners in urban areas, and how it’s always assumed they’re up to no good. If you’ve ever seen the HBO show “The Wire”, you’re well aware of what corner kids tend to be involved with. But rather than labeling them criminals or just plain troublemakers, Garvey is suggesting that some of them are there for lack of anything better to do. Of course this song also refers to a past era when video games and other distractions weren’t options. The main point is one of positivity and warmth, a message of encouragement to try and use those times of boredom and confusion to the best of your abilities.
The optimistic approach continues thanks to “With Love”, though the message gets lost in an attempt to do too much. A full choir is employed simply to repeat the song title at several points in the song, nevermind the melee of instruments popping in and out of the mix along with multiple vocal parts as two or more band members sing different lines over one another at the same time to help form some intricate harmony. Really it’s a mess, and completely overblown for a rather basic subject. Elbow does go epic on first single “Neat Little Rows”, but that exposition is both earned and justified. It’s one of the few songs on the album that actually sounds like rock music, complete with full-on guitars and a martial drum stomp . The piano uplifts along with Garvey’s voice and the result is nothing short of grand. The band was smart to avoid trying to one-up it with “Jesus Was a Rochdale Girl”, which is all barely strummed acoustic guitar and a splash of mellotron. The point is less how it sounds and more about what it means in tandem with the rather dense lyrics that reportedly inspired the rest of the record. It comes across as one of the smallest, least ambitious tracks on the entire album, but it holds the most meaning and emotion within it.
If things started to slow down on “Jesus Was a Rochdale Girl”, they roll to a complete stop on “The Night Will Always Win”. It becomes the second track in a row to rely far more on lyrics and Garvey’s dynamic vocals than an actual full-bodied melody. He’s barely able to handle the load, and it puts the whole band on unstable ground. This trend drags onward through much of the album’s middle section, only picking up again once “Open Arms” lands like a breath of fresh air. This time a choir of voices is used in the exact right way, providing the voice of all your family and friends with the reminder that you can go home again. They’ve got “open arms for broken hearts” and want to embrace you to help heal those wounds. Yes, it’s a little cheesy and super uplifting, but after slogging through the mud of the middle of the record, it’s a celebration of reaching the other side. “Dear Friends” finishes the album off perfectly, a beautiful ballad showing appreciation for those that mean the most in your life – your friends. The way the light electric guitar and piano work in tandem and the drums just kind of skitter along is really lovely, but Garvey’s voice gets one last chance to shine, followed by some intense harmonies that truly give you the warm and fuzzies. It plays out like the teary-eyed conclusion of that Oscar-winning film you enjoyed so much, though your eyes may not well up with tears upon hearing this song.
Mercury Prize or not, Elbow has never been a great band. They’ve been a very good band for a very long time, and just to keep up that sort of track record is tough. The most disappointing thing about “Build a Rocket Boys!” is how subdued and unadventurous it is. There may be guitars on a majority of the songs, but most of the time they’re used in the most sparing way possible and are rarely given the chance to “plug in”. The whole rock side of the band seems to be on vacation, and in the case of some songs, entire band members. That middle part of the record becomes pretty tough to get through unless you’re in the right mood for it, and the over-reliance on Garvey’s voice can only take them so far. When they do seem fully alert and at the wheel though, this record has some genuinely special moments that are among the more impressive parts of Elbow’s catalogue. That slight imbalance, the lack of a fully formed record due to highs and lows but no in-betweens, is what’s once again keeping this band from becoming truly great. Instead, here’s another very good effort, filled with just enough incentive to keep us on the hook for the next one.