[ Universal / LP ]
Release Date: Friday 18 December 2020
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Well, by now it's pretty much official: after 40 unrivaled years, the reign of The Beatles' idyllic melodies over British Rock has been usurped by Radiohead's cathartic explorations. A glance at the current UK album charts confirms it: Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head, David Gray's A New Day at Midnight and Muse's Absolution all topple Britpop's old school. The Stereophonics are the only band in the entire Top 40 that arguably aim for a Beatlesque sound, and they're more a poor man's Manic Street Preachers, anyway.
It's still surprising, though, that many of Britain's current taste-making bands have been able to find such contemporary success abandoning The Beatles' formulas. At one point, Blur encompassed the very essence of British rock's pop-heavy exuberance; who'd have thought that, in the ensuing years, Damon Albarn would strike critical gold with alternative hip-hop experiments (Gorillaz) and dumbfounding collaborative world music projects (Mali Music) that adhere to little of Britpop's confining tenements? And what of one-time Blur nemeses Oasis, whose seemingly endless cache of anthemic choruses, "psychedelic" nonsense lyrics, and saccharine bombast made them, for better or worse, 90s rock legends? In recent years, their Beatle-cribbing has only led them into semi-retirement and complete creative bankruptcy.
When the Manchester five-piece Elbow released their 2001 debut, Asleep in the Back, it was but one more successful debut from a British band drawing more inspiration from OK Computer than Sgt. Pepper. Reportedly three years in the making, the record made good-- at least commercially-- on the heaps of media-buzz that greeted its release, but ultimately proved anything but an uplifting listen. Bogged down in unassuming gray tones and irrepressible cynicism, the album's songs traveled on ominous basslines and nerve-wracked, guitar-based atmospherics. It was a record whose protagonists not only longed for escape from their surroundings ("Any day now, how's about getting out of this place anyways"), but also for liberation from themselves and those around them ("You're a tragedy waiting to happen").
Even before one can wrestle Elbow's new Cast of Thousands out of its shrinkwrap, the record seems a completely different story. Its cover is strikingly white (serving in contrast to their debut's gothic blacks and midnight blues) and depicts crude statues of a man and woman standing side by side. For all of Asleep in the Back's romanticizing of escapism, Cast of Thousands' overtly optimistic themes of togetherness will likely have more than a few fans' eyes rolling. Even the title is a statement of inclusion, referring to the thousands of fans at Elbow's Glastonbury show that acted as an impromptu chorus for this record's celestial denouement, "Grace Under Pressure" (the band even went to meticulous lengths to credit each of these fans in the liner notes).
Fortunately, Cast of Thousands rides the borders of sentimentality expertly-- Elbow's new-found hope in unity may seem like idealistic drivel on paper, but is carried off on record with refreshing determination. Opener "Ribcage" ebbs on Ben Hillier's patently ambitious production work, which marries seething basslines to looping bouts of percussion and admittedly excessive vocals by the London Gospel Community Choir. However, the song is importantly as volatile as it is uplifting: Elbow frontman Guy Garvey's lyrical musings run the gamut from explosive ("We blew the doors, didn't we?/ We pissed in their champagne") to confessional ("All you have is kisses/ And all I need is you"). This dualism haunts most all of Cast of Thousands, providing each number with an unstable elemental charge.
The record is at its best when the band is at their most unassuming. Garvey may populate Cast of Thousands with "fallen angels" and "fugitives," but his protagonists always remain likeable, and simply put, normal. On the string-laden acoustic ballad "Fugitive Motel", Garvey is "tired" and insists, "Not 'til I can read by the moon/ Am I going anywhere." Elsewhere, "Not a Job" may not be rock music's first stab at capturing the frustrations of a day job, but is probably one of a very few that neither advises its characters to quit nor exact sweet revenge on unfeeling supervisors. Garvey's lyrics avoid quixotic fantasizing and are all the more compelling for it: he temperately advises "Not a Job's" aggravated subject, "You have to give yourself a break."
If Cast of Thousands is largely inspired, the album's grand finale, "Grace Under Pressure", is damn near revelatory. Over a rollicking, cymbal-heavy drumbreak seemingly lifted from DJ Shadow's sampler, Elbow are joined again by the London Community Gospel Choir and the thousands of their fans from the Glastonbury show, as they all sing in unison, "We still believe in love, so fuck you." It's as an incredibly moving moment; a wash of rebellious uprising over the sound of a band at the height of its creative powers.
7.8 / 10 Pitchfork.
2. Fallen Angel
3. Fugitive Motel
4. Snooks (Progress Report)
5. Switching Off
6. Not a Job
7. I've Got Your Number
8. Buttons and Zips
9. Crawling with Idiot
10. Grace Under Pressure
11. Flying Dream 143