As someone who struggles to pick ‘favourites’ of anything, ‘Elbow’ was always my well-rehearsed, go-to answer when I was asked who my favourite band were. However, after feeling a little disappointed by both the band’s last album Little Fictions back in 2017 and also by Guy Garvey’s solo efforts, I listened to their latest offering Giants Of All Sizes with a little trepidation. Perhaps this would be the nail in the coffin and I’d have to think of another band with which to award this accolade.
Either way, I was excited to hear that familiar sound play into my ears. Guy Garvey’s vocals have an undeniable beauty. His northern charm and romantic view of the world are a combination that make for soothing and cathartic listening akin to sinking into a warm bath.
The album offers a modest and manageable nine tracks. Many of which are bound to keep loyal fans happy as they evoke memories of the band’s best work from a few albums ago. The first track Dexter and Sinister, for example, is musically reminiscent of one of their most famous records Grounds for Divorce though it, and many of the other nine tracks, do seem to be lacking some of the band’s trademark reflective yet optimistic vibes. Elbow like to open with an epic and, at almost 7 minutes in length, this is no exception.
Garvey’s feelings of despair surrounding Brexit Britain have heavily influenced this record and this can be seen here from the outset in one of Dexter and Sinister’s most memorable lyrics: “How do you keep your eyes ablaze in these faith-free, hope-free, charity-free days?” The backdrop of the record comes in the form of an angry and insistent beat as well as a powerful and bluesy baseline, helping to achieve the feeling of unease and despair.
This aura of hopelessness is only exacerbated within Empires, the band’s other single release from the album. Here, Garvey sings of the sudden loss of two of his close friends in cruelly quick succession. Again, the track is dominated by questions. “How can a bland, unremarkable, typical Tuesday be day of the dead?” Garvey’s use of multiple synonyms here only serves again to convey his feelings of desperation and despair. White Noise White Heat continues in a similar vain as Garvey tackles the feeling of a loss of faith in the world and in humanity. “I was born with a trust that didn’t survive” he sings, implying that this pessimism inevitably takes a hold of us all.
Garvey’s glum state of mind is made evident further in The Delayed 3:15. The song, with its understated monosyllabic lyrics and melody, is reminiscent of tracks such as Jesus is a Rochdale Girl, but its content is considerably darker. It deals with a suicide which delays a train Garvey is on. The simplicity and frankness of the lyrics is eerily beautiful as he asks “Sir. Why here?” among the “spray-paint swastikas and cocks” causing the listener to share in his bewilderment at the futility of this ending to a life. The band are known for making use of every aspect of the orchestra and, although a little jarring at first, the solo clarinet featured here effectively reflects the morose mood and Garvey’s clearly conflicted feelings towards this strange turn of events during the morning commute.
The album has perkier moments. Doldrums, for instance, is a little underwhelming but has Elbow’s signature infectious chanting which pays homage, but in no way lives up to, classics such as Neat Little Rows and New York Morning. “All of this stuff in our veins in the same” is the chosen sentiment, here. Also, On Deronda Road sounds more like a Fleet Foxes track. Whilst nothing memorable, it isn’t unpleasant to hear something which seems to be revisiting Elbow’s older style.
Elbow are no strangers to tackling the subject of love and, although this seems to be somewhat lacking in this album, one of the finer moments comes in the form of My Trouble. This track deals with both the mundanity “there’s oceans of tea and years of TV” as well as the peak of euphoria that come with it “just this morning alone with you worth a lifetime alone on this Earth”. Elbow are most known for their glorious orchestral numbers and this one does not disappoint. Similar to the nation’s favourite, One Day Like This, this track begins modestly but reaches a beautiful crescendo, violins and all. Here, Garvey’s often overlooked vocal talents are really able to shine.
The beauty of Elbow is their lyrics stay with you and must be interpreted and deciphered like poetry. The listener must delve a little deeper. This is what keeps me and many other fans coming back for more. In this department, I feel that this album delivers if the listener is willing to accept a view of the world that it a little bleaker than in previous albums. Overall, Giants of All Sizes has glimpses of greatness but, in my opinion, cannot compete with the Elbow of their heyday.