Shortcuts—Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid

By Ben Rossi

Elbow’s fourth studio album, The Seldom Seen Kid, arrives just in time for a spring love affair, for which it seems tailor-made. The album tells a vague story of new love mixed with a more than healthy dose of alcohol use: A natural combination. The music, at times almost mantra-like in its simplicity, is easily committed to memory, although every listen is rewarded with some new discovery. It’s undeniable—if you must fall in love and maybe get your heart broken this spring, make your soundtrack The Seldom Seen Kid.

The first track, “Starlings,” might sound like it’s better suited to the back of an album: A simple, hypnotic opening, consisting of timpani and keyboard interspersed with blasts of brass and strings, lasts for two whole minutes. The melody, when it finally begins, meanders up and down the scale with no apparent direction, backed by vaguely tropical-sounding harmonies. The song tells you two things: This album needs to be listened to as an album, not as a collection of unrelated tracks; and music is just as important as lyrics for Elbow—thus the musical digressions and elaborate instrumentation. At the same time, singer Guy Garvey’s lyrics show that he understands the charm of a poetic turn of phrase: “You are the only thing in any room you’re ever in.”

The second song couldn’t be more different from the first. “The Bones of You” features gypsy-style percussion and delicate acoustic riffs; the lyrics expertly conjure up the experience of being suddenly confronted with a memory of past love: “Straight to my head like the first cigarette of the day/ And it’s you/ And it’s May/ And we’re sleeping through the day.” “Mirrorball” is reminiscent of Zero 7 with its lush synthetic orchestration, but Garvey’s fine singing and some clever acoustic guitar and piano pairings that showcase Elbow’s affinity for jazz chords save the song from banality. So far, so good, although at this point you might wonder whether these guys can concentrate for long enough to write a punchy, traditionally structured song.

Then “Grounds for Divorce” hits you with its bluesy, driving guitars, clap-bang percussion and “ooh oohs”; it sounds almost like something from the first British invasion. Catchy as hell, with a verse-chorus-verse structure and effective guitar parts, this song could be a hit single. “Audience With the Pope” returns to the unusual orchestration of the other songs, employing coy Latin rhythms, a guiro, and some shimmering piano to evoke a sexy mood, if you didn’t get it from the lyrics: “And the things that she’d asked me to do would see a senior saint forgetting his name.” It sounds like Tom Waits, but with words that would please any lounge lizard. At the same time, we’ve heard this sort of song before; “Audience With the Pope” has the least replay value of any track on The Seldom Seen Kid.

As the album progresses, Elbow charts lyrically deeper waters. “Some Riot,” while suggesting something frenetic and loud, is actually a trance-like song about self-destruction (good for the post–break up slump). “The Loneliness Of a Tower Crane Driver” is a downbeat waltz that has a whiff of desperation about it, although I have no idea what the lyrics mean.

By the end of The Seldom Seen Kid, Elbow returns to its main preoccupation: the small, happy moments of a romance. “One Day Like This” ranks as the next best candidate for a single after “Grounds for Divorce,” with its almost deliriously upbeat melody, although the string accompaniment is a bit annoying. “Friend Of Ours” ends the album with a beautifully sad and serene lamentation for a lost friend. Its hopeful finale will prime you for your summer love affair.

Whether you’re in love with someone else or just with music, The Seldom Seen Kid should satisfy. Simply put, Elbow is a great reason to stop listening to Coldplay.