‘You little sod I love your eyes,’ sings Guy Garvey in Elbow’s ‘Station Approach.’ When I heard this line only a few days ago I was so struck with it I fell in love with the entire band on its account. I’ve never heard a rock lyricist prise open a cliche in quite that way before: ‘I love your eyes’ is bland and empty, but that ‘you little sod’ puts a match to it and a stick of TNT. ‘You little sod’ is so northern: it’s a phrase that I’ve heard used many, many times by people I knew back home in Bolton or Manchester. It expresses a whole vortex of emotions: from affection to irritation and exasperation. It could be a tickle under the chin or a drunken headlocked hug on a rain-battered streetcorner at 3 am. It’s not wanting to be soft enough to say what you’ve got to say and to say what hurts. It’s reluctant, you-fucker-why-do-I-have-to-feel-this-way love.
And, yes, I know Elbow have been around forever. And I’m sure that you’ll imagine you hear the rattle of a Mercury Music Prize bandwagon in the distance. So what kept me? I’m not entirely sure: I’ve read how great they are so many times before I collided with them a week or so ago but just hadn’t got round to listening to them. In any case, I only ever filter bands in very slowly, one at a time–otherwise music is simply wallpaper to me and I always want it to be much much more than that. But still, it seems inexcusable now that I’ve missed out on so much Elbow. Why?
Perhaps it’s their Hawley-like modesty that stopped them from intruding hitherto into my earspace ; perhaps it’s just the fact that they’ve gathered such momentum that they can no longer pretend they’re just a handful of ordinary blokes from Bury. There is nothing ordinary about what they can do. Sweet Jesus they’re on fire…
Firecrackers, Elbow often light a fuse with a song, stand back and let it blow wide open. You can hear the fuse burn and you know, just know as you listen there’s going to be one almighty burst of flame and colour. Pleasure waits in the explosion but also in the anticipation. Garvey and the band might play guitar, piano and all the usual instruments, but they’re best at playing you. Listening to the piano on ‘Station Approach’ you feel as if you are the piano; you are ‘everything to them’ somehow as you listen. All music should feel like this really, but listening to The Seldom Seen Kid is a reminder of the rarity in our musical experience of sound becoming touch.
Precision characterises everything Elbow do, and that’s why they manage this feat. Garvey opens you up as if with a scalpel, and it hurts. It hurts to hear those piano chords on ‘Mirrorball’ zooming in on the ordinary words ‘everything has changed’ and they suddenly ripple with an unbearable wonder; it hurts to hear ‘be everything to me tonight‘ because you suddenly feel that truth of which Berryman speaks- ’empty grows every bed’ (tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow?)- and your belly twists as you know your own desire for the desperate, fragile, beautiful thing it is. Oh yes, this hurts, but I submit. Garvey, you little sod, what are you trying to do to me?