Leaders Of The Free World


Universal, 2005


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


I broke one of my cardinal rules on Facebook last month. I can skim past any number of political posts without feeling the need to add my own thoughts; as John Mayer said, “Is there anyone who ever remembers / Changing their mind from the paint on a sign? / Is there anyone who really recalls / Ever breaking rank at all / For something someone yelled real loud one time?”

Musical arguments, however, are another matter…

So when I encountered a Led Zeppelin fan making the gutsy but laughable assertion that they were a more influential band than the Beatles, I had to speak up. The Beatles are the single most influential popular music act of the modern era, period. It’s not even close.

I couldn’t help thinking back on this exchange when considering how to describe Elbow’s 2005 album Leaders Of The Free World, a decidedly ambitious set of songs that individually amount to a series of clever character sketches set to intricate, imaginative arrangements that bend and reshape standard pop-rock song structures while infusing them with a strong orchestral influence. 

If that description doesn’t immediately bring Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to mind, then please go do your homework. A group like Elbow, which blends folk, blues, rock and prog elements into a kind of dreamy stream-of-consciousness chamber-pop, simply wouldn’t exist absent the late-period experimentations of their Liverpudlian forebears.

“Station Approach” kicks off Leaders in formidable style. A solitary tambourine sets the beat, then acoustic guitar enters, then piano, then voice, then a second piano, then electric guitar, then a gentle blizzard of other soft, mysterious sounds in the background as the narrative gains steam, until the drums arrive and the guitar dials up and suddenly you’re scraping the clouds. The effect is like the opening of a rock concert, where they start the first song at a moderate sound level and gradually ease it up until four minutes later you realize your rib cage is vibrating.

Next up, “Picky Bugger” lives up to its roguish title with a spare, tension-filled arrangement of plucked guitars over pulsing bass and snare as vocalist/lyricist Guy Gardner sings of “Kicking up mischief, walking a wire / Kicking up mischief, feeding the fire.” The cheekiness of his tone suggests mischief of epic proportions, even as the music practices restraint.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Forget Myself” opens with clattery percussion anchoring a circular melody that establishes intensity from the start, adding and layering new elements moment by moment. The lyric is another sharp character sketch, starring one particularly memorable figure from a night on the town: “The man on the door has a head like Mars / Like a baby born to the doors of the bars / And surrounded by steam with his folded arms / He’s got that urban genie thing going on / He’s so mercifully free of the pressures of grace / Saint Peter in satin he’s like Buddha with mace.”

Brilliant, right? Six lines and this man is flesh and blood, standing in front of you big as life. It’s magic.

Late in the song, as it’s busy achieving final lift-off, there’s something that sounds vaguely like Sufi chanting going on in the deep background as the dense layers of sound finally cease building and begin to peel back again, like an onion. Again: brilliant.

Things quiet down for “The Stops,” a mostly acoustic number embellished with harmonies, bells and percussion. There’s a unique and often unusual architecture to each Elbow song; in this case, the acoustic guitar starts out as the rhythm instrument before it shifts halfway through, percussion coming in to anchor the rhythm as the keyboards provide a keening single-note backdrop. Oh, and the chorus has bass, but no drums. Sure, why not?

The title tracks arrives with a much heavier tone, a big dirty bassline doubled on muscular electric guitar, carving out a dense, sophisticated blues. The gist of the song—“The leaders of the free world / Are just little boys throwing stones”—is a passionate screed against the perils of apathy. As before, the song adds layers as it goes, thickening and gaining momentum as the guitar reasserts, the chorused background vocals add on, and the song crescendos before doing a slow fade.

The second half of Leaders features songs of nearly equal quality, if somewhat lesser memorability. The dreamy, rather Pink Floyd-ish melancholy of “An Imagined Affair” gives way to a complex bass figure over stuttering drums as “Mexican Standoff” intrudes, building into a rather aggressive guitar attack in the fourth minute before coming to a crashing halt; it’s a fun ride while it lasts.

Things go gauzy and indistinct again as “The Everthere” offers a sweet, slumbery love song before “My Very Best” dials it up to a gentle thrum, a lush string section accentuating a tune about wallowing in loss (“You’ve gone / Gone and made a beautiful hole in my heart,” sings the wistful Garvey). “Great Expectations” is similarly understated, modest and intimate in contrast with its title. Closer “Puncture Repair” is an 11-line, one-minute-and-forty-eight second blip on the musical radar, just Garvey and piano and a brief glimpse of a sad character getting a boost from a friend.

Elbow is in its own way a character, an iconoclastic, often melancholy but occasionally fiery group whose musical identity is firmly located within its arrangements, which are somehow both elaborate and simple, complex and elegant. Painterly, that’s the word; Elbow paints in layers of colored sound. And while Leaders Of The Free World tails off a bit toward the end of the rainbow, it rides high at its apex.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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