Leaders Of The Free World is the third album from Manchester-based
group Elbow and it is something beautiful. Not every day does
a record come out that is both a complex work of art and accessible
music that people will be singing along with at increasingly large
venues. Spanning the landscape of love, regret and drinking, the band
recorded Leaders Of The Free World over the course of a year
in its own Manchester studio while filmmakers The Soul Collective
captured it all on a DVD that will be released with the album. The
result is an album of such beauty and nuance that I can only believe
it is destined to bring Elbow into the big leagues.
The first time I listened to this album, Guy Carvey's voice
reminded me somewhat of Peter Gabriel. After several listens,
however, and particularly in the context of Elbow's textured, emotionally
evocative music, it reminded me also of a rougher, looser version
of John Grant of The Czars. There is a gravelly, lived-in
quality to Carvey's voice that draws the listener into an easily identified
with world of grown-up observations and experience. Even though there
are songs that raise the energy on Leaders Of The Free World,
overall the album is well suited for an introspective listen, preferably
whilst looking out the rain splattered window of a northern city bus.
"Station Approach" is an ode to coming home, depleted from
your life away, and taking strength from the familiarity of your city
- namely, Manchester. "Picky Bastard," which reminded me
of Talking Heads' "Take Me To The River" at the outset
with its plucking, percussive guitar, is basically about drinking
yourself silly to keep from thinking about how useless and small we
are. "Forget Myself," which has the potential to be one
of those festival sing-along crowd pleasers, captures the fevered
excitement of heading out for a night on the town. It has some great
lyrics, too, namely: "Do you move through the room with a glass
in your hand/ Thinking too hard about the way you stand/ Are you watching
them pair off and drinking them long/ Are you falling in love every
second song." "Leaders Of The Free World" is also a
rousing number, skewering our heads of nation by equating them to
"little boys throwing stones" against a driving musical
backdrop that builds on itself until reaching a crescendo with the
unflattering description of America's unfortunate dynasty "passing
the gun from father to feckless son."
My favorite songs on the album, though, are the slower, contemplative
ones, where the extent of Carvey's emotional rawness shines against
deceptively simple arrangements. "The Stops" and "My
Very Best" both describe failed relationships that the singer
isn't ready to let go. He knows they are over, but can't quite come
to terms with the loss. "Great Expectations" sustains the
melancholy, with acoustic guitar and harmonies at the start as gorgeous
and affecting as Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair."
The vocals and overall tone of this one also call to mind Paul
Weller at his more introspective. Finally, the album closes with
a short, quiet song, "Puncture Repair," where, accompanied
only by a piano, our protagonist "leaned on you today,"
and "you patched me up and sent me on my way," presumably
ready to go back out and try some more.
1. Station Approach
2. Picky Bastard
3. Forget Myself
5. Leaders Of The Free World
6. An Imagined Affair
7. Mexican Standoff
9. My Very Best
10. Great Expectations
11. Puncture Repair
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