Only a few people here and there have heard of Elbow in the United States. They got their start in 2001 with the excellent album Asleep In the Back, and have quietly put out three other albums during the noughties. It was only with The Seldom Seen Kid that they managed to start getting some dividends on their dues. That album won the prestigious UK Mercury Prize, which gained them widespread acceptance. It didn't hurt that the album contained the anthemic "One Day Like This", which ended up soundtracking several sports events, advertisements, and other mainstream items in Britain.




Needless to say, the new album was highly anticipated. There was discussion that Elbow might have let it all go to their heads, and that the record would be a repeat of "One Day" ad infinitum. 

I'm happy to report that that didn't happen. We should have known that the band had too much class for that. 

That's not to say that there aren't several anthem-oriented songs on the album, but in general, we've got a mostly quiet, confident follow-up to their past work. 

The record starts with "The Birds", which goes from a soft and subtle beginning into a strongly written and performed chorus. As always, Guy Garvey (the lead singer) has come up with turns of phrase and odd poetic juxtapositions that never fall into cliche : "The birds are the keepers of our secrets/As they saw us where we lay" . . . The song has an insistent guitar line, underlaid by another, fuzzier guitar, and clicking percussion that holds the tune together. Nice.

But it's nothing compared to one of the album's masterpieces, the beautifully constructed "Lippy Kids". Garvey posits the tune as a "defense of the British teenager", maligned for wearing hoodies and hanging on street corners : "Do they know those days are golden?/Build a rocket, boys!" The song is full of little touches, which is something that Elbow have always excelled. There's a tiny, quavering whistle that turns up every once in a while, and the chorus is replete with gorgeously hummed background vocals. Most of the instrumentation is based on soft piano and strummed guitar, counterpointed with a solidly plucked bassline. This is Elbow at its best. And it would work in a stadium. 

There are several other very good songs here. "Neat Little Rows" rocks a little harder, and Garvey does a Strokes-like filter on his vocals. It all sounds average until the chorus kicks in, with chimes and the words "Lay my bones in cobblestones/Lay my bones in neat little rows". 

"Jesus Is a Rochdale Girl" also appeals. The song has a tentative and quirky feel, with acoustic guitar and an electric piano that at first sounds as if notes are being hit randomly on it. By the second time that piano line comes along, you realize that it's not only purposeful, but perfect. 

"The Night Will Always Win" continues the understatement and beauty. Gliding in on a single organ chord and an accompanying single piano note, the song takes off into anthem territory the moment Garvey begins the vocals. 

Speaking of Garvey's vocals, I'm sure that many have noticed a considerable similarity between him and Peter Gabriel. I'd say that, if you're a fan of anything Gabriel has done, you'd love this album (and most of what Elbow does, really). In a way, Elbow are as progressive as Genesis ever was, and are successors to the best prog from the 1970s, peacefully carrying the torch. 

I wish I could say the album was perfect, but there are a couple of minor flaws. There's an over-reliance on a choir that can best be described as funereal. This surfaces in "The River", which should be pastoral, but ends up dirgelike. We get the same thing again in the one true misstep on the record, the mercifully short "The Birds (Reprise)". Here we've got not only the Walking Dead Choir, but for some reason the song's vocals (I'm not even sure it's Garvey) are affected and jarring. This one should have gone on the floor in the editing process. 

No matter, though, because it's made up with "Dear Friends", which features a lovely interplay between guitar and piano. 

In some ways, this is the most consistent album Elbow has made since "Asleep In the Back". It gives a band that not only has maintained cleverness and integrity, but that continues to add to its sonic palette in unexpected and beautiful ways. I'm also guessing the subtlety of the band has limited its expansion into an American audience; they keep themselves so low-key that even those listeners accustomed to the Decemberists and Arcade Fire haven't picked them up on their radar. I'm hoping that will change : Americans - check out Elbow! You're missing some great stuff!

On the England Swings scale of 1-10, I give Build a Rocket, Boys! an 8.5.

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