Elbow plant their feet and sing out defiantly with love.
Over the last few years, Elbow has pushed away from its home shores of sky-reaching, arena-filling songs that made them a success. The band always had much more working for them than just the anthems, but those tunes often used up most of the oxygen in the room. With Giants of All Sizes, the group has taken their furthest journey out into open waters. The result is their strongest work in nearly a decade.
Singer Guy Garvey called the new record “an angry, old blue lament which finds its salvation in family, friends, the band and new life.” You can hear that attitude all over the opener, “Dexter & Sinister.” It starts where Elbow’s last album, Little Fictions, left off, with glassy keys and electronic tinges shimmering into existence. But rather than building up, the track slams down into Pete Turner’s fuzzed-out bass riff. This is not the light, ascendant Elbow. It’s a twilight version of the band that stomps on pavement. Over this electro-blues landscape, Garvey sings with both personal loss and Brexit on his mind. “And I don’t know Jesus anymore/ And an endless sleep is awaiting me,” he sings, with the stress causing “the heaviest heart jackhammering in me.” The song chugs wonderfully along, adding touches like a grimy guitar here or a beautiful backing vocal by Jesca Hoop there.
“White Noise White Heat” has a similar rough-and-tumble sound. One of Elbow’s most enraged songs to date, it finds Garvey’s frustration curl into cynicism, as he sings, “(I was born with trust/ That didn’t survive the white noise of the lies/ The white heat of injustice has taken my eyes/ I just wanna get high.” Whereas the strings of Little Fictions fluttered, these strings slice and grind away against a motorik beat. “Empires” combines the personal and political, with individual rather than national kingdoms falling, but the treadmill shuffle keeps the tune in a standstill. Not every experiment works. “Doldrums” wastes a cool intro mix of female vocals and Garvey’s whispers, as the rest of the music is unmemorable.
More successful is the teased-out creativity of “The Delayed 3:15.” Garvey looks wearily at the rot around him, with “Powdered glass over everything/ Spray paint swastikas and cocks,” as acoustic guitars scratch away. Once the vocals end, the music continues on its own journey. Warped, filtered brass and whistles lead into a weaving string section that will hit all the right buttons in your brain. One of the most fascinating tracks on Giants of All Sizes is “On Deronda Road.” It begins with dusty country guitar plucks from Mark Potter, like something you’d hear in a desert town. Then it seamlessly transforms into a restrained electronic beat, the guitar entwining stunningly. And on top of all these elements? An otherworldly, powerful choir chant.
Elbow melds these new styles to their tried-and-true on “Seven Veils” and “My Trouble.” The former is a parallel universe take on “Mirrorball.” Alongside an electronic string arrangement, tambourines and hand claps, it floats with a gentle nature that focuses on Garvey’s excellent vocal. He’s expanded his impressive voice with subtleties that stick in your mind without him reaching for the rafters. But his usually romantic gestures are subverted for a song of resigned loathing, as he sings, “There’s no roses in this garden/ No sun melting in the sea.” The latter is a more traditional love song, but has more weight when it comes towards the end of an album of struggle, pain and rage. “Just this morning alone with you/ Worth a lifetime alone on this Earth,” Garvey sings, a great romantic couplet in a career full of them.
Elbow shows they still know how to dance on air like no other band can on “Weightless.” Piano chords made out of pure sunshine propel the tune forward. Potter plays an electric arpeggio that finds the spaces in between the keys to work. With direct lyrics on lineage, Garvey closes the album out by seeing his late father in the face of his son. It’s a song of both looking back on his upbringing with wisdom and acceptance, while also finding faith in the next generation.
Despite all the personal and political trials that Elbow have gone through in the last couple of years, they find a way to conclude on a note of hope. On an album filled with outrage, doubt and bitterness, that conclusion feels more earned than ever before. As Giants of All Sizes fades out, Elbow plant their feet and sing out defiantly with love.