People often ask me why I buy so much music.
It always struck me as a strange question. I don’t think I buy nearly enough. I typically bring home between five and 10 new records a week, not counting all the online purchases I make to fill in my collection. But even if I bought three times that amount, it still wouldn’t seem like enough to me. When does one have “enough” music? For me, that’s like saying I have enough air. “I’m good. I don’t need any more air.”
It’s a journey that I expect I’ll be on my entire life. I’m ravenously searching for new sounds, new musical experiences, in the hopes of finding one that reorders my life. It’s been a while since that happened, but I know I can still feel it – Lost in the Trees proved that to me. And so I keep digging, following bands as they evolve, listening for a spark fanned into a blaze, hoping to catch my soul alight.
So I don’t have a lot of time for bands that play the same old same old. If you’re not putting at least some stamp of originality on it, be it a well-written lyric or a melodic turn I don’t see coming, then I’m not too interested in what you’re up to. I have a lot of friends who like the blues, and feel like music reached its peak sometime in the mid-‘70s. Nostalgia’s all right for a while, but not for a lifestyle. I’m all for a sense of history, but I wouldn’t want to set up house in the past and never come out.
What I’m looking for, put simply, is music that sounds like no other music. This is the ideal. It’s extremely difficult to find, because everyone is influenced by someone. But it’s what I want more than anything else – to hear a band or an artist step forward with an individual vision beholden to no one, singing truly new songs and igniting new emotions. I will buy 200 lousy records to get to the one that opens new doors in my mind and heart.
All of which brings me to Elbow.
I haven’t given Manchester’s finest quite enough love in this column. It took me quite a while to become a fan – the band’s first two albums, Asleep in the Back and Cast of Thousands, didn’t click for me at first, though I now think they’re marvelous – and for some reason, I forget about them when it comes time to compose my top 10 list each year. The problem isn’t just mine. Elbow is not an immediately memorable band. They’re a patient one, creating music that often sounds like stillness, music that doesn’t stick in one’s head.
But some of my very favorite bands have felt similar to me. Talk Talk, for instance, filled their last two albums with some of the most beautifully slow atmospheres one could imagine conjuring up, songs that stretched to nine minutes without actually doing much at all, except painting an entirely new world one delicate brush stroke at a time. Elbow takes a bit from Talk Talk, particularly the idea that minimizing the changes magnifies each one, so that when the chords shift it sounds like the earth trembling.
Aside from a couple of songs – “Leaders of the Free World” and “Grounds for Divorce” among them – Elbow has steadfastly resisted any attempts to speed them up and present them to the masses. Their sixth album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, follows the same path they’ve been on, moving from their guitar-led past to a more airy, more pure sound. Elbow is on a quest for beauty, and they’ve removed just about everything from their sound that does not contribute something beautiful.
The result, as you can imagine, is absolutely gorgeous, and like nothing else I have heard this year. Like all Elbow albums, if you’re the type of person who skips through songs looking for the “good parts,” this will leave you frustrated. For me, it’s an hour-long good part, every song contributing to a glorious whole. I’ve heard several people already describe this album as boring, though, and as it’s not an uncommon assessment, I’d recommend trying this: listen to the entirety of the seven-minute opener, “This Blue World.” If you don’t think this is one of the most lovely pieces of music you’ve heard in ages, Elbow is not for you.
Needless to say, I think “This Blue World” is wonderful. Consisting of little besides a quiet organ, gentle acoustic strumming, a chiming single-note electric guitar line and Guy Garvey’s extraordinary voice, the song floats 10 feet off the ground. Its melody is a gentle caress, that electric guitar a breath of cool air, and though the song picks up around the four-minute mark, it never tries to soar. (Elbow rarely soars, which only makes the moments in which they do mean so much more.) And yet, for seven solid minutes, there is nothing in the world I would rather be listening to.
Much of The Take Off and Landing of Everything strikes me the same way. Though there’s an insistent beat to songs like “Charge” and the epic “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette,” they have the same sensibility that Elbow is known for – slowly unfolding melodies, savoring each moment without rushing things. There’s so much space in Elbow songs, so much air – it’s almost an antidote to our oversaturation society. They require and reward close and careful listening. Plus, the spaces amplify what is there – when the big, bold strings make their entrance on “Charge,” it’s almost enough to knock you down.
“New York Morning” is, easily, one of this band’s finest hours. Blessed with a lovely circular melody, the song builds at its own pace, Garvey riding it like a wave, his voice coaxing it up and up, higher and higher. The final minutes of this song achieve orbit, and they’re magnificent. The song is a love letter to the city, which Garvey describes as “the modern Rome, where folk are nice to Yoko.” The follow-up, “Real Life (Angel),” may be even better – it shimmers in on a subtle beat, and within one minute, Garvey will have you in the palm of his hand. The chorus is a work of art, the words “hallelujah morning” perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve heard so far this year.
The second half of the album isn’t quite as striking as the first, but it’s still excellent. Many of these songs take the time to sprawl out, and half of them break the six-minute mark. But Elbow isn’t interested in prog-rock excess – their songs unfurl, filling the extra space with the simple and the pretty. The climax of the record is the seven-minute title track, on which the band crafts a spinning, thumping anthem, one that you wish would go on forever, and then they make it go on forever. There’s more clang and clamor in this one song than on the rest of the record, like they’ve been saving up their joy and they let it out in one sustained burst.
In some ways, the closing “The Blanket of Night” is a comedown, but it’s intended as one. A journey song, it tells of poor souls in “a paper cup of a boat” on the “heaving chest of the sea,” sailing by moonlight and “sewing silver prayers into the blanket of night.” Garvey sings over warm, rolling keyboards, wrapping you up and keeping you from the cold, and the song feels like being out on the ocean at night. It’s nice, but it doesn’t achieve the transcendence I wanted after such a gorgeous album.
But that’s all right. There’s enough wonder on The Take Off and Landing of Everything to keep me happy. There really isn’t another band that sounds like Elbow, and miraculously, they keep getting better at sounding like themselves. I hope they stay this course forever, deepening their work while remaining true to it, and I hope I have the presence of mind to remember this lovely disc when list-making time rolls around. The best praise I can give this album is that it finds Elbow sounding more like Elbow than ever before. That’s a rare and beautiful thing, and one worth treasuring.
Next week, my thoughts on the Veronica Mars movie, and maybe Foster the People’s second record. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.