The 10 Best Elbow Songs

Andrew Whitton

The 10 Best Elbow Songs

Andrew Whitton

After the collapse of Britpop’s ’90s heyday, there was a period of fragmentation. By the middle of the next decade, there would be a new generation of bratty, punk-inflected British rock bands of varying quality, from Kasabian to Libertines, Kaiser Chiefs to Arctic Monkeys. Before that, though, there was a moment where electronica was positioned as the absolute future, and the rock bands that did emerge immediately after the superstardom of Blur and Oasis and Pulp were of a distinctly different breed. Descended almost directly from Radiohead (as it seemed, at least), it was a group of artists that favored anthemic melodies atop atmospheric and rain-soaked instrumentation, inverting their pop sensibilities into a downtrodden meditativeness.

Of these acts, the most famous is, obviously, Coldplay — the band that went from overt (and yet effective) Radiohead ripoff to the only artist of this milieu to really cross over into international success, before they transformed into a straight-up pop behemoth almost entirely detached from the circumstances that birthed them. There were others, cult favorites like Travis and Doves. And there was Elbow, the band could’ve gone either way: Follow their muse down darker and weirder corners after Radiohead’s example, or soften the edges for a Coldplay-style takeover.

If there was any one moment when Elbow could’ve made that leap, when they could’ve ascended Stateside, it was 10 years ago this past weekend, when their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, was released in America.

There’s a whole history of bands from the Britpop and post-Britpop era attaining massive fame or at least substantial success in their home country while remaining a niche indie concern Stateside, if that. It applies to names like Pulp, who seem bigger in hindsight thanks to the internet, or the Verve, who are perceived as a one- or two-hit wonder here. It’s also true of a host of other names that only us Anglophile listeners would’ve gravitated towards, the likes of Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals, or Supergrass.

Part of the reason Radiohead became globally massive is that they were a once-in-a-generation talent that couldn’t be confined to any one scene or country. Part of the reason Coldplay had their pop crossover is that they weren’t exceedingly difficult, or exceedingly British. You look at a band like Elbow in comparison, and even at the moment where they could have crossed over, they’re maybe too of their time and place. They sounded (and mostly looked) world-weary and middle-aged in their 20s. They hailed from Manchester, and had the accents to prove it. From their empty one-word name to their fondness for including British terminology and slang in their lyrics, they were thoroughly of the late century Brit-rock from which they came.

On their preceding album, 2005’s Leaders Of The Free World, Elbow had begun to grow more direct. Their first two — 2001’s Asleep In The Back and 2003’s Cast Of Thousands — were firmly in that post-Britpop mold, both offering plenty of morose and emotive material, some of which still ranks amongst their best work. Leaders, in comparison, felt like a step back: There were still achievements like the remorseful “My Very Best,” but it was an album where Elbow had lost the mystery of their early work in favor of a more anonymous, down-the-middle Brit-rock sound.

The Seldom Seen Kid was something of a simultaneous course correction and extension of that album. It maintained the accessibility of Leaders while reclaiming the songcraft of its predecessors, combining the two into an ornate and dense sound that may have sounded very British, and yet could feel of a piece with the baroque chamber-pop phase American indie was undergoing. It had hooks, it had artiness, it had unusual but memorable lyrics, and it had plenty moments of completely striking beauty.

The band was rewarded for it: While Asleep In The Back had garnered them a nomination for the prestigious Mercury Prize, this time they took the award home. But the album also had two songs that would go on to become the closest things Elbow had in the realm of Coldplay-style crossover. “Grounds For Divorce” was the chugging, lurching rocker with the earworm riff; “One Day Like This” was the overwhelmingly expansive orchestral-rock opus. Both, in their way, were prime subjects for syncing for commercials, sporting events, movie trailers, whatever. And both appeared in those contexts, steadily becoming by far Elbow’s most ubiquitous songs. Each track also earned the band songwriting wins at the Ivor Novello awards in 2009 — a trophy they’ve just been nominated for again for the Little Fictions single “Magnificent (She Says).”

It’s a mistake to boil The Seldom Seen Kid down to just its accolades at the time or those two notable tracks, however. Arguably, it’s still the group’s best album. But it’s also a crucial turning point that sits right at the center of their discography at the moment, ever since last year’s Little Fictions brought them to seven full-length albums. After this, Elbow’s reach and scope would never go back to the truly interior and blearier places of their first two albums, and in a way the subsequent releases often seemed to be echoing what worked on The Seldom Seen Kid (much of its 2011 followup Build A Rocket Boys!, and a good chunk of Little Fictions), or actively departing from that collection’s template (2014’s The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, which did actually gesture towards Elbow’s initial aesthetic, but without abandoning their latter-day sensibilities).

The Seldom Seen Kid is, really, where Elbow became Elbow in a truer sense: Some of the foundational aspects of their identity are at play on those early songs, but there’s a different sound they settled into as they aged. Sure, there’s probably still a love of Radiohead in there somewhere. But the Elbow we’ve come to know is one for grander brushtrokes, for sentiments that arc from longing to nostalgia to wistfulness and always in the most earnest and honest tone.

Despite all that, I can almost guarantee that on that day in April of 2008, I was the only teenager in Wilkes-Barre, PA who was excited about The Seldom Seen Kid coming out, the only one who bothered to go to the record store — because this was still a thing I did — to buy the CD and spend the rest of the afternoon driving around soaking it up. And after that, maybe a few more Americans were paying attention, but being at the center of the narrative critically or commercially would still evade Elbow to some extent. They fill arenas in their homeland; they play large clubs in America’s cities.

This has always seemed strange, considering Elbow often felt like England’s generational parallel to the National, a group that could patiently broaden their reach. Both took their time, starting in fertile yet more derivative territory before hitting their stride a few albums in, now (actually) middle-aged and wizened and paradoxically able to give voice to a particular experience for listeners just past coming of age. Both share an precise attention to lyrical content, at times cerebral and at times nakedly confessional. Both bands rely on progressive and carefully built song structures drawing upon unlikely influences and augmented with strings and horns. In both cases, these qualities cause their naysayers to write them off as “boring” while it elicits adoration from fans who instead find intricacy.

One place where the two depart, obviously, are the lineages they operate in. From their early post-Radiohead days, Elbow embraced a palette that had room for Peter Gabriel’s smoky-voiced pop and art-rock inclinations alike, for Talk Talk’s strange and adventurous later albums, for the desperate romanticism of the Blue Nile, and the open-heartedness of U2.

Throughout, Elbow’s had a musicianship that allowed them to pull off quoting such foreboding names while also streamlining those cues into their own identity. But the real connective tissue, the real vessel for the band’s impact, has always been frontman Guy Garvey and his rich voice — one that, primarily indebted to Gabriel, felt almost completely out of place from his peers. He’s the rare frontman who already seemed to have some inherent wisdom from the start — that voice was expressive, drenched in whiskey and graveled from cigarettes, only deepening with how many more places and people he’d come to know over the years.

And that, in effect, has become Elbow’s trademark in their art: They’re a band that’s adept at taking a fairly giant canvas and filling it with glimpses of characters and locales, of interactions minor and pivotal, that span chapters of a person’s life. Often, they are looking back and fondly remembering something. Often, they are looking back and mourning a loss. Often, they are looking at how all of these things mingle in the present, how the puzzle pieces start to fall into place even as the collection of those puzzle pieces becomes dizzyingly large. They don’t seem to fit into any one musical tradition anymore, but the tradition they do fit into is of the melancholic yet warm purveyors of a kind of nostalgia — not for a particular era or sound, but of the sort that takes you back and winds up soundtracking different chapters of your own life.

Bands like that might not always built for global domination. There’s something about Elbow that, even when they are letting those songs flow out over an arena crowd in their homeland, feels better-suited for the most sprawling, tangential pub conversations with very old friends. They offer songs that burrow into your life, that start to feel like old friends themselves.

Consequently, there are about 20 or 30 other songs I could’ve chosen for this list. The end result is, admittedly, a somewhat idiosyncratic take on their career: a glimpse at various strains of their songwriting, represented by some of their key, most beloved songs and a handful of deep cut personal favorites. Whether in the moments when Elbow’s reaching for the big emotion, the universality, or the moments when they tell a story closer to home, that’s what their music evokes — a deeply personal relationship to their work. And in that sense, these 10 are a good place to start.

10. “Grounds For Divorce” (from The Seldom Seen Kid, 2008)

Historically, rockers are not what Elbow do best, nor what they try to do too often. Yes, they have songs that move along, or that gradually build themselves into emphatic catharses. But a straight-ahead, riff-driven number? That’s unusual for them, which makes it all the stranger that “Grounds For Divorce” remains one of their most recognizable songs for the uninitiated, and one that fans can still expect towards the end of any setlist.

What is customary here is that “Grounds For Divorce” is a drinking song, not just because of its shout-along refrain, or the quintessentially Garvey line “There’s a hole in my neighborhood/ Down which of late/ I cannot help but fall” somehow contorting itself into a pre-chorus line, but because it feels like a depiction of cycles, self-destruction or sheer listlessness unwinding into that thick, serpentine riff. And if there was a moment where Elbow wanted to write a riff-rock song, well, they certainly proved they could bring a hell of a memorable riff for it.

(For what it’s worth, the contenders for this spot included two other somewhat uncharacteristic songs in the grand scheme of Elbow’s career. One was the haunting “Brave New Shave,” a B-side to the similarly excellent uptempo number “Fallen Angel” from Cast Of Thousands, but that song is available neither on YouTube nor Spotify. You should seek it out anyway. The other was “Forget Myself,” a lovable Brit-rock anthem from what is otherwise Elbow’s weakest album.)

9. “The Bones Of You” (from The Seldom Seen Kids, 2008)

One reason The Seldom Seen Kid still looms over Elbow’s catalog is that it is nearly perfect front to back. (One fan-fiction change I’d make: The band should’ve left off “An Audience With The Pope” in favor of the shape-shifting and hooky “Hotel Istanbul” as the album’s totemic centerpiece.) There are plenty of gorgeous, ruminative moments across the album from “Mirrorball” to “The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver” to “Some Riot.” My personal favorite of the bunch, “Weather To Fly” — with its plaintive question “Are we having the time of our lives?” — approached mission statement status for The Seldom Seen Kid. But few felt as much like a mission statement as “The Bones Of You.”

“I’m five years ago/ And three thousand miles away,” Garvey sings throughout “The Bones Of You.” It’s a perfectly Elbow litany, representing a distance from friends and loved ones inherent to a traveler’s life while also summing up the headspace Garvey often likes to occupy. Living that way, on the road playing music and forging friendships around the world — that sounds like a dream, that sounds like a vein for writing you could never fully tap. And it is that, but it also leaves you little space to process and place much of it. A lot of Garvey’s lyrics allude to it, but few have done it so simply. The surroundings in “The Bones Of You” are as gorgeous and alluring as any other Elbow’s crafted, but Garvey walks through it with his mind fleeing elsewhere, trying to contextualize it.

8. “K2″ (from Little Fictions, 2017)

By the time you get to Little Fictions, that memory backlog that always simmers in Garvey’s writing is getting more and more crowded. It manifests in songs like “All Disco” or “Gentle Storm,” where lead and backing vocals wrap around each other like different phases of your life in conversation with one another, and subtly percussive backdrops try to find a way to push it all along into the future. Out of anything on that album, “K2″ was a clear highlight of Elbow’s recent years.

One less-fortunate ramification of the The Seldom Seen Kid’s success was that Elbow have at times tried to recreate those reach-for-the-sky sing-alongs and, if there isn’t the right impetus for them, they can start to feel a little staid. “K2″ isn’t that. It’s an unwavering yet elusive reverie, lulling you in from the start. The most notable flourish here is how Garvey’s voice is echoed, yet out of step with the main vocal melody, like his thoughts and memories are slapping back at him out of order, out of sense. The song feels like a steady, constant unraveling, verse and chorus blending together as a person lets themselves go into the currents of the past. In this case, though, the gentleness serves a purpose: “K2″ is less aggrieved or nostalgic than other times Elbow have traveled in this space, instead settling into a kind of immersive, dreamlike pattern, like memories both welcome and unwelcome flooding back unbidden but unavoidable.

7. “Buttons And Zips” (from Cast Of Thousands, 2003)

If you were to rank Elbow’s albums today, Cast Of Thousands would still sit towards the top. It continues the grey sky atmospherics of their debut, but clears away some of the murk, sharpening the songwriting without losing flashes of experimental textures. As a result, it’s one of their strongest collections front to back in terms of a complete journey, which also makes it difficult to excerpt highlights from. You could go with the across-the-world yearning of “Fugitive Motel,” the quotidian lament of “Not A Job,” or the fuzzed-out “Fallen Angel.” These songs often do quite different things than their counterparts, and yet it all feels in conversation, one track always flowing out of and setting up its corresponding neighbors perfectly.

But there’s an ostensibly quiet entry that has always resonated strongest. Arriving as the album enters its final stretch, “Buttons And Zips” is a restrained and half-lidded type of reminiscence, like a foggy daydream or a catalog of events that seemed titanic in the moment now being retold all this time later, just after closing time, as the sun threatens to rise on another day that takes you one step further from the tales unspooling from your mouth.

Akin to Arab Strap’s “The First Big Weekend,” “Buttons And Zips” is a matter-of-fact yet wistful document of youth lost to the quickly receding years. Theoretically, it’s a little less wasted than that song, and its pace adjusts accordingly. Rather than rushing through, trying to reclaim the highs of those days, “Buttons And Zips” ambles forward, tossing off names of people you don’t know, doing things in places you don’t know. It’s hyper-personal, and yet, in its way, hyper-relatable: Through the haze of “Buttons And Zips,” you can hear it, that sound of a time when every minute change in your life and the lives of your friends seemed to rewrite the whole world.

6. “Fly Boy Blue / Lunette” (from The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, 2014)

“Fly Boy Blue / Lunette” is actually two songs stitched together, but neither could exist without the other. The first is a loping and haggard Beatles impression, complete with sharp exclamations of distorted guitar and guttural brass. If Garvey was five years ago and three thousand miles away in “The Bones Of You,” “Fly Boy Blue” picks up a few more years and a few thousand more miles later, deep in the blur of a life spent in motion. So far, so good, but nothing too different for Elbow.

The thing is that “Fly Boy Blue” sets the stage for “Lunette,” one of the sparest and most affecting pieces of music in Elbow’s catalog, in which Garvey moves beyond the reminiscing and the nostalgia and starts to reckon with what all of this yields, where it all really leads. Once the song crashes down into “Lunette,” it’s mostly a vehicle for Garvey’s monologue, unfolding contemplatively as he muses on self-destruction, changing your life, not changing your life, giving into the notion that maybe this is just the man you are. It’s one of those songs where Garvey’s gifts as a singer and gifts as a writer are in perfect synergy. “What can be said of the cigarettes smoked/ A prop for a joke or a mark on the clock,” he begins, later adding “Perverse as it may sound/ I sometimes believe/ The tip to my lips just reminds me to breathe.” Then there’s this stanza:

I’m reaching the age when decisions are made on the life and the liver
And I’m sure, last ditch that I’ll ask for more time
But Mother forgive me
I still want a bottle of good Irish whiskey
And a bundle of smokes in my grave

In that moment, it’s as if Garvey’s come to terms: Some of us live a certain way, and that’s that. Then the final stanza upends much of the preceding song, with Garvey describing a sense of tranquility, of harmony, lying next to his partner at home. But the nuance of the whole song, its disparate urges and disparate musical identities, is that it leaves you with the sense that, really, the man’s made peace with the fact that life could very well go in either of these directions.

5. “The Take Off And Landing Of Everything” (from The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, 2014)

The title of Elbow’s 2014 effort came from a general sense of life arriving at those junctures, the beginnings and endings collapsed together. A large part of it was inspired by the conclusion of Garvey’s long-term relationship, a partnership that ended amicably. And as a result, it’s an album that may have recalled some of the textures and coloration of their earliest work, but with an older sense of resolve and something resembling, if not contentment, then a fresh start. A new, once more wide-eyed vision of the horizon.

Accordingly, there are moments of pure awe, like “New York Morning,” when Elbow manage to make you feel as if you’re witnessing a mythic place for the very first time again. But The Take Off And Landing Of Everything’s title track, the swelling epic of the bunch, was that album’s skeleton key.

It’s a towering, subtly weird piece of music, structured rather differently for Elbow. Instead of a giant string accompaniment or multi-part saga, the defining quality of “The Take Off And Landing Of Everything” is how it starts in one place, full of drones and insistent but controlled percussion, and just grows. The song piles on idea after idea, Garvey delivering the same lyrics over and over as if a koan in the growing storm. That storm, though, is a welcome one. Everything piling up, everything consuming itself, it’s the beginning and the ending at their collision point — which, as it turns out, sounds like a whole new world opening up before you.

4. “Newborn” (from Asleep In The Back, 2001)

When you hear the beginning of “Newborn” now, it can sound almost cloying — those lilting guitars, Garvey pushing himself into a higher register. It’s all almost excruciatingly representative of that early ’00s post-Britpop moment. Yet, this was one of their signature songs then, and remains so now. Back in the day, Elbow supposedly referred to themselves as “prog without the solos,” and there’s no better culmination of that on their early albums than on “Newborn.” From that simple acoustic rock beginning, the song mutates, blooms.

In that middle section, as the organ slowly builds towards the entrance of that cascading guitar part, it’s either a plunge underwater or the song beginning to take flight. But regardless of the direction, the song’s final climax, the crashing distortion and Garvey bellowing in the fray, sounds like rocketing up above, to someplace else. The thing about Elbow’s other epics is that there’s often an acute sense of control, a balance of poetic weight and orchestral bombast. “Newborn,” appropriately enough, is a document of them in a younger and rawer state — it’s one moment when you find Elbow unhinged, roaring away in whatever direction the song pulls them.

3. “The Birds” (from Build A Rocket Boys!, 2011)

After The Seldom Seen Kid, Build A Rocket Boys! felt like a continuation of sounds and themes — “Open Arms” was a pretty obvious post-script to “One Day Like This” — from its predecessor, with one notable departure. There was a light psychedelia that rippled across the album, whether in the ’60s-esque chant-along “With Love” or the desert strings of “High Ideals.” But that album also opened with a towering epic to dominate a catalog full of towering epics, an epic where that psychedelia was in full force.

There isn’t another song quite like “The Birds” in Elbow’s catalog, and its singular stature also marks it as one of their most surprising, exhilarating compositions. From the sinuous-yet-grinding guitar, into that middle passage fueled by that oscillating synth sound, to the technicolor sunrise release of its ending. The three sections feel like distinct chapters, logically building on each other but also discrete scenes that shouldn’t mesh this well. But they do, and the payoff is one of the best Elbow’s ever delivered: An enveloping wash of synth-strings erupts, like the sound of far away places tumbling onto your doorstep. Elbow often excel at illustrating the small beauties of the world around us. But this time, they created their own landscape.

2. “Scattered Black And Whites” (from Asleep In The Back, 2001)

At the end of all the darkness that permeates Asleep In The Back — from the brooding opener “Any Day Now” to the heroin comedown of “Red” to the aqueous oblivion in the final stretch of “Powder Blue” to the unnerving “Bitten By The Tailfly” or “Coming Second” — there is one of the cornerstones of Elbow’s catalog, one of their finest songs and one that in many ways feels like a manifesto for everything that came after.

“Scattered Black And Whites” is a simple composition relative to some of the more ethereal or convoluted tracks of Elbow’s early career. Fleet-footed acoustic arpeggios, an airy organ drone, piano interjections at the right points, and flickering, brushed drums. Like “K2″ or “Lunette” much later on, it’s a song that’s almost unchanging, a backdrop that showcases Garvey’s voice and story.

As for that story: For all the songs Elbow have written navigating the past and nostalgia and memory, “Scattered Black And Whites” might still be their masterpiece in that form. It’s an impressionistic portrait of childhood, snapshots of people fading further and further into the rearview. “I come back here from time to time/ I shelter here some days,” Garvey sings at its conclusion. This established one major strain of Elbow’s DNA: the wistfulness of recollection, the melancholia of time passing and things slipping away from your grasp, but also the comfort of memory.

1. “One Day Like This” (from The Seldom Seen Kid, 2008)

If “Scattered Black And Whites” represents one end of the Elbow spectrum, “One Day Like This” is the other. Elbow love to mull over time, and where it’s gone. All those whiskeys and smokes, spent looking inside and backwards and piecing it together. There’s often a sense of longing, like something was missed along the way and can never be gotten back.

“One Day Like This” is the other end of that journey. Musically, it’s almost like the “Bittersweet Symphony” of the post-Britpop era: From its beat vaguely echoing trip-hop, to its unashamed embrace of saccharine-yet-infectious strings, to the fact that it’s the famous song by a band that a lot of people otherwise don’t really know about.

There’s a reason for that, and it’s the same reason that “One Day Like This” feels like Elbow’s defining song, and it’s the same reason that they will likely close almost every show with it for the rest of their career. “One Day Like This” is the rebuttal to all the time this band has spent thinking about time spent. It is an avalanche of uncut joy, spilling out into that endless refrain.

“One day like this a year’d see me right.” That’s what they sing in that refrain. And maybe there’s some wistfulness still present there, too: If only it could always be this good. But that’s not the message of “One Day Like This.” All that matters is that today is that good. That the world outside feels as vibrant and unexpected as when you were young. This is the other side of what Elbow does, and perhaps the single thing they do best: They remind you that the possibility of actual wonder is out there, and then they make a song that sounds just like that possibility.

Listen to the playlist on Spotify.

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