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Elbow
Build A Rocket Boys Mick Middles , March 8th, 2011 08:03

For a moment, they stood tentative at the crossroads. While the rush of gargantuan success blew past them, and 17 well-documented years stretched back through and beyond the austerity of Bury. For so many years, how lost they were. Almost perfectly aloof from any hint of zeitgeist, it seemed almost romantically hopeless, from days as Mr Soft through the growing cult success of their first three excellent albums. However, while they courageously emulated unusual areas – Pink Floyd, Genesis, Talk Talk – it all just seemed like a lovely lost cause.

The Seldom Seen Kid cracked into a welcoming mainstream and, frankly, only a hardened cynic and envious early convert could begrudge such success… such unlikely and majestic success, given the crass nature of the world they had wandered into. And then… that bloody crossroads. Such was the love for this band they could almost have been forgiven for following up with a stack of hollowed through anthemic stadium fillers. Life could be sweet and lucrative. An opposing path also beckoned, skimming into critical acclaim and lowering sales by producing an eclectic and insular stroll, pulling back to the core audience.

One had started to wonder if their wearying and lengthy spell at the helm of last year's I Am Kloot's Sky At Night album, might drain their energy, distract that muse even. It wouldn't have been the first time that a dithering nature would see a band losing the ball. The answer is here in this solemn backward glance. Guy Garvey, far from snapping the links to his roots, physically returns to the Bury of his childhood and teenage days. All he needs can be located within those tight Gothic streets, on the town's famous market, back in the old pubs, street corners and playgrounds.

Build a Rocket Boys sits back there… viewed from a place of strength and knowledge. For this is a compassionate album that refuses to patronise its subjects: here are the hoodies, gathered on street corners, demonised by media, elders and authority, and Garvey, seeing his former self standing among them. There is a Manchester here… a Manchester and Salford (and Bury, Stockport, Rochdale, Oldham and Hyde). This is a record that acknowledges the problems of street life without apportioning blame; on the contrary, even among those who appear discarded, Garvey sees a passion and promise. It is a Greater Manchester – and way beyond – of course, that still contains hope.

Build A Rocket Boys is possessed of the greatest Northern voice since Morrissey of The Queen is Dead vintage, and maybe even beyond that. For The Smiths singer had, in his true heart of hearts (and in his head) departed his locale. He may return, of course and Guy Garvey could be forgiven still for skipping off to a yacht in the Med (A la Bernard Sumner). But this is here and now and then and back, then, to a girl from his youth. The pivotal anthem for me – and many would disagree – is the achingly lovely 'Jesus is a Rochdale Girl', the present tense adding a touch of immediacy. You sit in her house, be it in Littleborough or Milnrow. You are 16 and you smoke and dream. You are a hoodie of the 70s.

While there are big, big tunes here, and some will flit away to take up lives of omnipresence (like 'One Day Like This', of course), many with remain, huddles from the northern chill, swishing through Autumnal leaves and drifting through a past that never dies.

They key word is subtlety. It is, literally, a dream of a record, where a swaying consciousness drifts back and forth, a montage of lyrical snapshot. Musically speaking, Elbow have taken just one careful and intelligent step back, but the production is luminous, the prevailing feel hymnal. Reflection rather than sadness and quiet weirdly at odds with the current call to arms. Or maybe not.

Of course, and for better or worse, much of this album will become altered by familiarity. One hopes, however, that there is an album beyond the oncoming favourites; an album that claws into an eclectic longevity. It's an awful lot to ask for… the marriage of the mainstream and the eclectic outbursts. But Elbow may be just such a band. One thing is clear, their time with I Am Kloot was not wasted. For the welcome spectre of Kloot's John Bramwell hovers over the album's more idiosyncratic moments. You can hear him on the perfectly named 'High Ideals', which struts along with swagger before introducing unexpected and powerful jazz tones. It's a Kloot trick, that blend of sweet and sour, of warmth and a deathly chill. It is also something that, and I know I will incur the wrath of Elbow-ites here – returns to the unfortunate chilly blast of brass that introduced 'Starlings', the first song on Seldom Seen Kid. I never liked that moment, believing it to be a step too far. Here Elbow have learned the lesson and have softened the attack.

Build a Rocket Boys is beautiful without being pretty. Its Bury lyrical paintings have metaphorical distance and, yes like The Smiths, easily transcend the geography. You don't have to have purchased black puddings on Bury market to understand this, although the occasional glance to the north may be of help. The rocket has returned.

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