There is an undeniable majesty to Guy Garvey’s husky, plaintive wave of a voice as it languidly sweeps across the expansive shoreline of Elbow’s astonishing fifth album, Build A Rocket Boys! This follow-up to the Manchester band’s 2008 Mercury Prize-winning The Seldom Seen Kid meets the best of all worlds; it retains Elbow’s poetic individuality and gentle, thoughtful complexion, yet it simmers with the bolstered confidence of a quintet who’ve finally attained the vast swaths of listeners they’ve long deserved.
Not that Garvey’s lyrical subject matter has turned from his intimately detailed ruminations of quotidian life; “sunflowers and paint cans” litter a yard in ‘Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl’, penned about a house Garvey and a girlfriend lived in years ago, and in the breathtakingly hushed ‘Lippy Kids,’ teenage boys hover on street corners, affecting “that simian stroll” and curse on cue on long June nights.
Avoiding saccharine missteps or clumsy cliché, Build A Rocket Boys! artfully tackles the tricky ache of youth-in-hindsight and the anxiety of middle-aged regret with wise, rueful grace. Skillfully self-produced by Elbow keyboardist Craig Potter, every carefully struck piano chord or fuzzed-out guitar strum is tangled in a delicate dialogue with Garvey’s sepia-toned tumble of lyrical snapshots. Whether sifting between the chiming choral gloss of ‘With Love’, the quirky mariachi-like shuffle of ‘High Ideals’ or drummer Richard Jupp’s tribal backbeat needling ‘Neat Little Rows’, Elbow have constructed an exquisitely arranged album beguiled with the most common of human predicaments, the pace of life’s passage, a transition felt acutely in all 11 tracks and ending most poignantly on the elegiac splendor of ‘Dear Friends’.
In songs like ‘Open Arms’, where Garvey muses, “The man you are will know the boy you were,” a listener is reminded a bit of novels like Leo Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth or even William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, which follows one man’s life from arrogant youth to fractured old man. Elbow has similarly created a mirrored, emotional soundtrack to a life with this album, brimming with extraordinary, ordinary, observations.