We’re told never to judge a book by its cover, but we can sometimes get a good idea of its content simply by reading the title. Such is the case for albums of music as well. Case in point, the last two LPs from Manchester alt-rock quartet Elbow. Their 2014 studio effort was titled ‘The Takeoff and Landing of Everything’, which very appropriately foreshadowed the general grandiosity and broadly outward-looking perspective of the songs it contained. By contrast, the title of Elbow’s new LP ‘Little Fictions’ implies a more introspective and self-conscious songwriting approach.
Opening track ‘Magnificent (She Says)’ served as a striking introduction to the album back in December of last year. Its mesmerising guitar riff and uptempo skipping rhythm in the verses are punctuated by a swelling string arrangement and forceful piano chords in the chorus. Garvey’s warm tenor is light and flexible throughout, growing almost tangibly in strength as he sings of his character’s (and his own) powerful optimism: “It’s all gonna be magnificent, she says”. But as it turns out, the magnificence of this grand gesture isn’t quite enough to sustain the album’s momentum.
Lyrically, the focus of ‘Little Fictions’ is somewhat myopic, as might be expected from a lyricist who was at the time of writing consumed by falling in love. Garvey’s recent foray into matrimony is a central theme of the album, and it has inspired some characteristically poignant lyrics, including the sensual chorus of ‘Gentle Storm’ (“gentle storm / rage my way / fall in love with me”) and the lovely small-scale vignette ‘Montparnasse’ (“don’t talk like we were stuck in a lift / why would I be missing you so violently?”).
Garvey does glance up past the end of his own nose on a couple of occasions. The murky ‘K2’ ostensibly refers to the political isolationism of Brexit (“hands up if you’ve never seen the sea / I’m from a land with an island status / makes us think that everyone hates us”). And mid-album track ‘All Disco’ takes a good-natured and self-depracating perspective on songwriting itself, with the gentle admonition, “what does it prove if you’d die for a tune / it’s really all disco”. Indeed, ’All Disco’ is this album’s true moment of brilliance, its bright, kaleidoscopic musical arrangement centered around Mark Potter’s electric guitar and backed by a lush full choir of voices.
After ‘All Disco’, the album takes a self-described “dip in tempo” with ‘Head for Supplies’. Mark Potter’s guitar melody is again pervasive, but the uneven gait of the vocal melody in the verses is awkward in a way that is unusual for the poetically-gifted Garvey. The energy picks up a bit with ‘Firebrand & Angel’, until the verbosity of the repeated lyrics in its extended coda weigh it down again.
The album’s press release describes eponymous track ‘Little Fictions’ as characteristic of the album as a whole, “an eight-minute piece that is epic without at any point feeling excessive”. To my ears, the track does seem overly indulgent, but perhaps necessarily so, as the band struggles to define a cohesive direction in the midst of its members’ diverging musical interests. (Since ‘The Takeoff and Landing of Everything’, Garvey has released a solo album, Mark Potter has undertaken a separate blues band project, and Craig Potter has worked on albums for Steve Mason and Stornoway.)
The album closes with ‘Kindling’, where Garvey’s evocative poetic imagery makes a triumphant final appearance in warmly emotional lyrics like “I can still taste the heat of the sun on her skin in my arms”. The song fades out rather abruptly to a spontaneous clip of the band self-critiquing their take, and it’s this final impression that seems to sum up ‘Little Fictions’ most appropriately.
Elbow’s sudden self-consciousness might be attributed in part to the absence of former drummer Richard Jupp, whose subtle dexterity and dynamic sensitivity have been acknowledged by the band as impossible to replace. The remaining members have responded with a circling-the-wagons-style collaborative approach to the songwriting on this album which has filled the gap admirably well. But it has also diluted the individual strengths in the group, namely Garvey’s gift for rich vocal melody, Mark Potter’s vibrant lead guitar, Craig Potter’s sonic diversity on keys and at the production helm, and the organic momentum of Pete Turner’s bass grooves.
None of this is to say that ‘Little Fictions’ is a bad album. I’m not sure Elbow are capable of making a bad album. But neither is this a tour de force in the manner of ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ or a pièce de résistance à la ‘The Takeoff and Landing of Everything’. I’m inclined to say that ‘Little Fictions’ is a transitional album, one that gives precious little indication where the veteran Mancunians might turn next.
Elbow’s seventh studio album ‘Little Fictions’ is out now via Polydor/Concord. TGTF’s extensive back catalogue of Elbow coverage is right back here.