Little Fictions


Polydor, 2017

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Fifteen minutes into a car ride, I asked my wife what she thought of Elbow’s new album Little Fictions. “It reminds me of prog,” said she, “the way it just kind of meanders.”

Bingo—the one thing that the music that lead voice and lyricist Guy Garvey himself has described as “prog without the solos” doesn’t ever do, is hurry. Elbow writes songs that unfold like flowers blooming in slow motion. They break many rules while adhering to others in search of their ultimate prize, which seems to be a vibe, a mood, an impression. You don’t listen to an Elbow album so much as you step inside it, a self-contained musical universe in which structure is less important than flow, riffs are less important than textures, and repetition of words is less important than the feeling with which they are sung.

Overall, Little Fictions seems to meander a bit more than previous outing The Take Off And Landing Of Everything. It can feel inscrutable at times in its gentle, studious insularity, but the moments it achieves make it worth the journey.

The first moment wastes no time in arriving, as Garvey and compatriots Craig Potter (keys), Mark Potter (guitars) and Pete Turner (bass), supported by session drummer Alex Reeves, lead off with the soaring, immediately appealing “Magnificent (She Says).” The basic Elbow approach is evident—limber, repeating bass and guitar figures providing propulsion as Craig Potter’s keyboard flourishes apply melodic color—but then the string section kicks in and the song lifts off into the sky.

The key, as it typically the case with Elbow, is that Garvey’s voice is indeed magnificent. It’s not the biggest or strongest or most unique voice I’ve ever heard (it’s evident he’s quite a fan of Peter Gabriel, for one thing). It’s just that Garvey’s voice has tremendous character; he sings with a smoldering passion without ever oversinging, and his voice has edges and quirks. It’s a warm, welcoming, deeply intelligent voice that invites you to get to know the singer better. As a bonus, he has superb diction; you can hear every word, and when you’re singing words that actually matter, that matters.

It must be said also that the other guys in Elbow are real team players, because while their playing is sharp and crisp and evocative and gives these songs a form and density that’s vital to their success, they don’t solo, ever. There’s no flash at all; the music really just creates layers of sonic texture upon which Garvey paints the foreground figures with his words.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Gentle Storm” is one of two songs where they forego live drums entirely, using a drum machine, and it shows—it feels like they’re playing to a metronome, perfect time, perfectly repeated. Fortunately that approach suits the song here, with Potter’s keyboards delivering warm strokes over a clattery, mechanical rhythm section as Garvey entreats the object of his affections to “Fall in love with me / Every day.”

“Trust The Sun” opens in similar territory, with guitar and then piano adding melodic color over a steady, deliberate backbeat as the brooding Garvey turns what initially feels like it might be a rumination into a song of devotion (“I just don’t trust the sun to rise / When I can’t see your eyes / You’re my reason for breathing”). “All Disco” surfaces an adjective that hangs around Elbow like fragrance in a rose garden: lovely. The ringing, resonant guitar playing is lovely. The circular, rippling piano melody is lovely. The female backing vocals by London Contemporary Voices are lovely. And Garvey’s phrasing choices and rising inflections are lovely. “What does it prove if you die for a tune,” he sings, encouraging a friend to let go of harmful obsessions. “Don’t you know it’s all disco?”

The middle section of the album slumbers along a bit at first. The rather U2-ballad-ish “Head For Supplies” is little more than an urgent monologue over echoey guitar, though the vocal chorus at the end is, well, lovely. “Firebrand & Angel” adds layers back into the mix with piano, loops and subtle synth effects; Garvey’s rhythmic lead vocals are at first hypnotic and then eventually rather propulsive as the song builds. Nothing is hurried, though; they take their time getting there, as always.

The rippling, echoing “K2” feels like an epic, cheekily British love poem full of lyrical nuggets like “I’m from a land with island status / Makes us think that everyone hates us / Maybe darling they do / But they haven’t met you.” The little bell chimes at the very end are just the sort of elegant touch that sets Elbow apart; they pay attention to detail, these guys.  

“Montparnasse” doesn’t offer much musically but the lyrics are again worth paying attention to: “Hurt and baffled / I simmer and freeze / I’m squeezing my words / Like I’m icing a bomb… Your heart could easily power three of me / Should my love get lost in the delivery.” Still, it feels like a lukewarm preface for the title track.

Said title track is Elbow at its finest: literate, clever, subtle, precise. “We protect our little fictions,” sings Garvey over a thrumming, subtly unsettled backing, “Like it’s all we are / Little wilderness mementos / But there’s only you and me here / Fire breathing / Hold tight / Waiting for the original miracle.” Six minutes in the song comes off its moorings and veers into near-psychedelia as Garvey soars over eerie synth effects, declaring “Love is the original miracle.”

“Kindling” closes things out in fine form, opening with a rather stately, elegiac feel. Then the strings come in to give the song extra lift, while effectively bookending the album; in fact, the use of a string section on “Magnificent” and Kindling” serves to emphasize the orchestral underpinnings of the group’s whole approach.

It must be said that it’s hard to think of Elbow as a rock band. They ruminate, they contemplate, they elevate, they illuminate… but they don’t really rock. And my sense is, they’re good with that.

The—yes, dear—meandering Little Fictions is more arty and less accessible than The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, but that’s about the harshest critique one could apply. It’s another collection of patient, subtle, deeply intelligent and frequently beautiful songs that casts nary a glance in the direction of pop music; Elbow is aiming higher, and once again reaching their goal.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2017 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Polydor, and is used for informational purposes only.