Note: As far as this writer is concerned, the live version of this album, performed with the BBC Concert Orchestra, is the superior version of the album. All references to the album in this post refer to this version of it.
This is a love letter to the greatest love letter ever written, Elbow‘s The Seldom Seen Kid. It is an album, true, but it’s also a love letter to a jilted love, to a young love, to an old, comfortable love, to yourself, to the idea of others, to loneliness, and to company. It is one of my favorite albums of all time because of it. The music itself is also great: Elbow’s Brit pop/rock is of a rarified kind, still possessed of the verve and cheek which is those genres’ bread and butter. Or, at least, it was. Less angsty than punk, less sappy than pop, less hedonistic than rock, Brit pop/rock, at its heyday, represents a sort of aesthetic middle ground, an ideal from which to watch the world rot away but do beautifully.
But I digress. Back to The Seldom Seen Kid. Released in 2008, it is perhaps Elbow’s most optimistic and brightest albums. It has its dark, depressing moments, for sure. But, mostly, it is an ode to the joys of loving another person and the depths and heights to which that sort of love can drive you. The music communicates these ideas with upbeat guitars, agile, light-hearted drums, and plenty of choirs to back everything up. But the true genius of the album is Guy Garvey’s writing and vocal performance. Both are sheer poetry, turning the already magnificent lyrics into even better singing with his unique inflection and style.
Take “Starlings” for example, the opening track. The lyrics are already exceptional:
How dare the premier ignore my invitations?
He’ll have to go
So too the bunch he luncheons with
It’s second on my list of things to do
At the top I’m stopping by
Your place of work and acting like
I haven’t dreamed of you and I
And marriage in an orange grove
You are the only thing
In any room you’re ever in
I’m stubborn, selfish and too old
I sat you down and told you how
The truest love that’s ever found is for oneself
You pulled apart my theory
With a weary and disinterested sigh
So yes, I guess I’m asking you
To back a horse that’s good for glue and nothing else
But find a man that’s truer than
Find a man that needs you more than I
Sit with me a while
And let me listen to you talk about
Your dreams and your obsessions
I’ll be quiet and confessional
The violets explode inside me
When I meet your eyes
Then I’m spinning and I’m diving
Like a cloud of starlings
Darling, is this love?
Yeah, I copied the whole thing. How could I not? Garvey’s words are the perfect blend of low and high brow; opening with that odd sort of British political scene, the track is not worried to go from there to timeless declarations of love. And those declarations are so great: comparing the feeling of being in love to a cloud of starlings, their mass diving and spinning in the air, is such an incredibly convincing and relatable image to use.
And then you listen to the track itself and to how Garvey pronounces the words and how he sings them and everything is imbued with this even greater air of emotion and expression. His lilting tone on the opening lines, his breathless performance of “I’m spinning and I’m diving” and then, lastly, his almost whispered rendition of the last line. All of these transform the lyrics from “just” written words into words performed, imbued with meaning and empathy.
This happens constantly on the album but perhaps nowhere else like it does on “One Day Like This”. Oh god, “One Day Like This”! This track is one of the best songs ever made. When I need a break from the doom and gloom of metal, when I need positivity that isn’t the epic struggle of power metal, when I need to just feel that things will be OK and that the world around me is not, in fact, a cold, dead place, I listen to “One Day Like This”. The sound describes that same feeling of falling in love but it focuses on the way the world seems brighter when you’re in the presence of those you love.
And once again, Garvey’s voice is there to convey the feeling which the track aims at. His voice gains a sort of larger than life, theatrical quality on this track and you can just hear the sun shining through his voice. You can feel that elation, that sensation of wanting to open every window in your house (as, indeed, the lyrics command that you do) and just let the outside in, let things shine through you as you shine through them. Do I seem like I’m exaggerating? Perhaps but that’s just how this track makes me feel, as much in love with the music of Elbow’s magnum opus as I am with any single person in my life.
I could go on. “Mirrorball”. “Weather to Fly”. The somber “Friend of Ours” and “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver”, like ice cold water on a Spring day. But I won’t because I just want you to listen to this album. Please listen to this album. It has been with me for almost a decade now and it will be with me for many decades still, if I am lucky. It is truly one of the best examples I know of how powerful music can be, how powerful lyrics can be, and how powerful their expression can be. It is an album which, like no other, captures the emotion for which this column is named: love.