By Ryan Leas
To the surprise of many, Elbow won the Mercury Music Prize in 2008 for their album “The Seldom Seen Kid.” It wasn’t that they didn’t deserve it — they very much did, as it is an excellent album. It was that they were up against the tough competition of Radiohead’s critically adored and headline-stealing “In Rainbows.” It was a major moment, one that came after almost 20 years of being a band, only seven of which had been spent actually releasing albums.
With such a stunning success behind them, their new release “Build a Rocket Boys!” is in many ways one of the first true turning points in the band’s career, a moment in which they could have rested on their laurels after the successes of 2008 or could have reacted with a drastic stylistic left turn that distanced them from “The Seldom Seen Kid.” As it turns out, they did neither, but managed a compromise through which they have created one of their best albums.
The album’s insistent beginning proves the band has become anything but complacent with their new success. Stellar opener “The Birds”propels itself along on a groove that is both inevitable and methodical. At the very moment it might start to feel monotonous, the band shocks with the sudden introduction of a bizarre, oscillating synth that dominates the middle section of the song. The end surprises yet again, sliding into a climactic third part featuring a gorgeous, psychedelic string arrangement.
The multipart exploration of “The Birds” hints at the subtle psychedelic strains running throughout the album. Lead single “Neat Little Rows”kicks off with a heavy riff before settling into the spacey keyboard line of the chorus. Two-thirds of the way through the song, the band embarks on a cerebral detour centered on lead singer Guy Garvey remaining calm and detached amidst the maelstrom of crashing piano chords and sound effects before it all comes tumbling back into an intensified chorus. Later, the elliptical “High Ideals” slips in and out of Middle Eastern textures and mariachi-quoting horn parts, all over a tight trip-hop influenced rhythm.
The other distinguishing characteristic of the album is its focus on youth, nostalgia and remembrance, none of which are foreign themes to Elbow’s work or Garvey’s lyrics, but are perhaps more sustained here. “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl” is a beautiful acoustic song built on finger-picked guitars and understated vocal effectively conveying both solemnity and comfort with age, making the song a fond bit of nostalgia rather than a pained romanticizing of the past.
The marriage of psychedelia with nostalgia is an odd one. Poignant tracks like “Lippy Kids” or “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl” are what one would typically expect from songs about memories and stories of youth. In the other songs, Elbow make an interesting decision by filtering nostalgia through little textural gestures, themselves often spectral, like memories. The overall effect is something that renders the whole album sort of dreamlike, as if it is one amalgamation of Garvey’s present reality and how he perceives his old reality. Once the album sinks in, it’s a stunning effect, and one that exposes the strength of Elbow as a band.
In the era of buying music song by song on iTunes, it’s refreshing and inspiring to see a band that still cares about producing a cohesive statement for an album, a band that still believes in the album-as-artwork approach. Garvey has often commented on how he thinks albums should take the listener on a journey. “Build a Rocket Boys!” does just that, drawing the listener in on the strength of its songs, captivating them with its constantly unfolding nuances, and enmeshing them in that dreamlike journey through Garvey’s memories. As a result, it’s one of the finest albums of the year so far, and another impressive album from one of Britain’s most engaging bands.