‘It is a massive step forward for us. We had that feeling that was in the room when we were making ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’. It’s the sound of four people who love what they do and each other’. MARK POTTER
‘I always want new people to find our music, to appeal to new people and to move forward with what we do’.PETE TURNER
‘The songs worked in a very natural way from the beginning. We wanted them to work in a stripped down form and anything that wasn’t working was set aside, the album flowed really naturally’. CRAIG POTTER
‘It started with a week around the fire in a frozen Scotland in January and ended with a sleepless three day stint in Salford in November. In between, truly amazing things happened. It’s all here’. GUY GARVEY
‘It’ was born out of a massive shift for a band that had been a tight unit of five for two decades when drummer Richard Jupp departed just prior to the first writing session. This brought a change of dynamic that marked out a series of new approaches and practices for the four remaining members.
‘It’ is a distillation of all that has made elbow remarkable since their first ‘moment’ in 1999 and, for all the band and those who have been privileged enough to hear it at this point, a move forward into new musical territory.
‘It’ is ‘Little Fictions’. elbow’s seventh studio album and, at the time of writing at least, the four band member’s favourite.
Lead single ‘Magnificent (She Says)’ encapsulates many of the changes in attitude that the band identify as this new approach to their music. A life affirming, unapologetically joyous piece of music, it is the kind of tune that, on previous elbow albums, may have been worried over. Not this time. Sat in his producer’s chair, Craig felt ‘It came very naturally’; for Pete ‘it went to the only place it could go’. Mark regards it as ‘the songpeople have been waiting for us to do’ whilst its unashamed upbeat title and chorus refrain was ‘the first thing that came to my lips’ according to Guy. Opening the album with it is a further statement of intent for elbow, ‘our way of saying it is a cool song, that we’re immensely proud of it’ as Mark confidently states.
When the four first clustered around an open fire in Scotland in January of 2016, such clarity was far away. The album was a blank page and Pete reveals that the first few days were ‘booze fuelled and not very productive’ but as the band found the ‘creative space where we all meet’ that Mark regards as the core meaning of elbow, the music began to emerge.
Always keen to experiment with sound, the recording of kindling bags being dropped was looped to create the rhythm track and the title of ‘Kindling’. ‘Head for Supplies’ a muted musical accompaniment to the tale of the first flush of love, started to take shape in the same period.
To add to the newness of the process, this was the first elbow album where all four members came back to the table from side projects. Guy was in the midst of his solo album tour and curating Meltdown on London’s South Bank. Mark had formed blues band The Plumedores and was back playing small venues and electric guitars. Craig was producing Steve Mason’s solo album and Pete was writing music that has, as yet, not surfaced but, he assures us, will do at some point in the future.
Stage two of ‘Little Fictions’ saw elbow initially swerve their usual Blueprint home for leafier environs with Craig, Mark and Pete basing themselves with Guy at his home studio. From their perch North of Manchester, ‘Little Fictions’ really began to take shape. Whether it was those solo excursions or even a sense of freedom they had last felt when recording ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, all the band identify those sessions as being‘joyful’ and ‘free’.
Past practice of trying to make songs work was junked, if a song didn’t flow it went into the cull folder, if the demo sounded best, it stayed. There were no preconceptions and no grand plans. All previous certainties, all past ways of working were off the table; ‘Magnificent (She Says)’ gained its swelling strings because they worked, copied from Mark’s original guitar parts, not because they had to be on there. The backing vocalists, three members of ‘London Contemporary Voices’ that grace ‘All Disco’, ‘Firebrand & Angel’ and ‘Head for Supplies’ were added with an express desire to ‘get in great singers and really utilise them, not put them into the layers of sound as we had done with our own backing vocals in the past’, as Craig candidly explains.
Never a band prone to rock star mysticism, or indeed rock star anything as evidenced by asides from both Pete and Mark retelling through storms of laughter their kids questioning of their ‘famous or not’ status, all four give an impression that this album came into being almost subconsciously at points. The rise of Mark Potter, electric guitar player, is one of the more immediate signals of change on the album, his playing front and centre for ‘All Disco’ and pervasive throughout much of the record. Yet it was a change of tone that the band themselves didn’t really consider too hard during the writing period. Indeed, it was only in the last week that the guitarist noticed ‘that there were no strummed acoustic guitars on the record.’ Again, musical necessity rather than a desire to tick boxes changed that in the final days when a strummed acoustic worked its way onto ‘Head for Supplies’.
This looser, more reactive way of working found shape in a wider musical palette. The rhythms that permeate ‘Gentle Storm’, whose propulsive percussion could have been a soundtrack to a street corner in peak Washington go-go era 80’s, reminds us of the band’s long standing love of hip-hop. The imperious opening of ‘All Disco’ echoes late 60’s US psyche and mid period 80’s alt rock, two touchstones that Guy observes elbow may have shied away from in the past as these genres previously ‘carried so much ‘cool’ musical baggage for us’. The band’s love of groove and soul bleeds throughout ‘Firebrand & Angel’. It is the broadest and most expansive statement of elbow’s music recorded to date filtered through a willingness to go with their gut at all points and a studio full of laughter, joy and fulfilment in a shared endeavour.
Similarly, the grand vision of the album title track, ‘Little Fictions’, now officially the longest song in the elbow canon, was a product not of forward planning and scoring but, as Craig explains and his bandmates confirm ‘this desire to let it gradually develop as we played and allow it to go where it should’. It is a remarkable piece of music, encapsulating so many facets of the band from their ability to use space to create drama in the sparse chorus to that joy in experimenting with sound and structure that has punctuated their work since ‘Newborn’. Heralded by one of Guy Garvey’s atypical domestic life in miniature opening lines, ‘a muffled battle cry across the kitchen table’, it is an apt title track, covering much of the musical landscape that encapsulates the entire album in one song.
Yet not all has changed. The album transferred from that attic room to the band’s spiritual home within Blueprint studio, Salford. String players from The Hallé Orchestra, fast becoming a spare arm of the band, were back to add their particular version of dazzling brilliance to ‘Magnificent (She Says)’ and ‘Kindling’ whilst local roots were also represented by the Hallé Ancoats Community Choir on ‘K2’. Guy’s lyrics once again riff around familiar themes but contain wider perspectives. ‘K2’ was inspired by his first trip to India,‘stunned by the beauty and shocked by the poverty’, but focused equally on recent political upheaval in the UK, the Brexit vote represented by verse one prior to the vote being angry and verse two, post that moment, responding with increasingly surreal and farcical imagery, ending with our hero deep in South America swathed in local knitwear to escape the awful reality. Few commentators have provided a better short hand explanation of that political shock than his observation that;
‘I’m from a land with an island status
Makes us think that everyone hates us’.
Guy’s continued love affair with New York led to the mythical (ok, fictional) addition of two streets to the city’s grid in ‘Firebrand & Angel’. Guy’s view remains that of the optimistic analyst, seeing the bad but relentlessly focusing on the positive, on love and friendship and the innate goodness of people to make the world better; as he is keen to remember of 2016, ‘amazing things have happened to me’. Little wonder that the album title track ends with the bold assertion that ‘love is the original miracle’.
It is in keeping then that the response of the whole band to the oft mentioned perceived bleakness of much of the year in which the album was recorded is humour, albeit darkened. All four return the answer that they are ‘lucky bastards’ to the question of how they see themselves. Lucky to still be making the music they love, lucky to be with their friends of decades past in this continuing adventure, lucky to still feel that‘buzz’, the touchstone word of Pete Turner to describe the moment when the tune works, that their music gives them and so many others. But there is more than luck here. There is desire. Mark, always the most optimistic member back in the days of no attention and local audiences according to Guy, states that he wants to make ‘big albums that mean something to people and echo through the history of music, the kind of albums we grew up on and that we still look at today as something to aim for’. There is no dimming of the creative fire.
Guy summarises the process of making the album as ‘dangling happily upside down from the ropes of a rogue balloon’; a perfect encapsulation of how elbow find themselves in this new incarnation in 2016. Their course is now mapped by their instincts, their music guided by their enthusiasms, their destiny assured by their love in each other and what they do together. In learning how to be elbow again the four have created something new and beautiful. As the opening song says, ‘It’s all gonna be magnificent’.
Lewis Jamieson, November 2016.