Many assumed Elbow had taken a few years to luxuriate in some deserved time off between now and their 2005 release, Leaders of the Free World. However, their latest album, The Seldom Seen Kid, was busy in the making, and needed that long stretch to be pondered and perfected, like a fine wine, before the band was ready to deem it finished and let it go.
Singer/guitarist Guy Garvey explains, “We had a lot of time, enough time to live with several different versions of the record before deciding on what it was. Long enough to say, ‘you know, I don’t think it’s quite balanced enough. We need another song that’s more like this…’ And we had actual time to write another song.”
The band also made sure to concentrate on things like the artwork (the painting and design done by a longtime friend) as well as all the final, finely-tuned details of the production. Garvey adds, “It was an amazing day when we could actually step away from it and say, ‘yeah, that’s done.’ It was a great feeling. Also, with it being something we’ve made completely ourselves… it was just a joy to make from start to finish.”
Garvey admits he wasn’t sure what to make of Leaders of the Free World when it was first finished, yet with this album, the feeling was immediately positive. Garvey says, “I’m a very proud father with it, we all are. I guess you strive to make the best stuff you possibly can, and we have.” Working out the kinks of the album obviously worked wonders both for the band and their art. The Seldom Seen Kid has already been praised by international press as their most ambitious, epic album to date, and proves Elbow to be at the top of their craft.
Garvey was happy to lend extra time to his lyric-writing as well, since he’s a fan of multiple edits. “Some songs had whole different themes at some points,” he says. “Exhaustedly, right ’til the last moment, right ’til the final vocal, I’ll change words. I just try to get them better and more succinct. The game, to simplify what it is I try to do… is to express as much as I possibly can in as few words as possible.”
Sometimes, words aren’t needed at all. The Seldom Seen Kid opens with a bombastic brass passage that acts like a herald, cleaning the slate and calling all to hear the new album for what it is. Garvey laughs, “It was even more exaggerated than that at one point. We actually had to tone it down… We deliberately did the part before it quietest, so when those horns came in, they really properly did you some damage.” He adds, “We toned it down very slightly, but if it was up to me, we wouldn’t have. I just really wanted that ‘what the fuck is that noise?’ for the first part of the album.”
After this initial onslaught, the album flows as a coherent, many-layered, emotional experience, which is what listeners most appreciate about Elbow’s revelatory music. Songs from the towering “The Bones of You” to “Grounds for Divorce” reveal a band that revels in exploring countless styles outside of rock, from flamenco to blues, waltz and beyond. “It’s all fair game,” Garvey says. “We never try to force it though. We don’t say, ‘okay, now let’s write a song with a waltz bit.’ We’re doing what we always do; someone comes up with something and then we all work on it…” He adds, laughing, “We’ll probably never write a reggae tune though… To tell you the truth, I can’t stand The Clash.”
Though Garvey and the band are known to be opinionated gents, to the point of brutal honesty, that’s yet another part of what makes this Manchester band so intriguing and beloved. To explain where he was coming from in a song like “Audience With the Pope,” Garvey lets us in on a little secret: his Catholic upbringing fell by the wayside quite a few years ago. He laughs, “I discovered sex and it was like, ‘Well, I’m sorry. This can’t be wrong.’ [The Pope] was nudged out of the picture, I’m afraid. For ‘Audience With the Pope,’ I imagined this lusty, hairy-palmed albino of a man waiting for this woman to come around and do all kinds of wrong to him. There’s a very strong element of truth in the relationship, though I can’t say about who. Let’s put it this way: at one point, I was in this relationship that was nearly entirely based on the physical side. It changed later and became a very emotional, heavy thing… It was a very happy ending.”
For this album, Garvey often found himself turning aspects of his personality and past into characters, and says he enjoyed amplifying and exaggerating “simple traits of mine into steroid case versions.” He admits, “I’m prone to be a little arrogant from time to time, but never in a ‘rude with other people’ kind of a way, though I can be a little over-confident…”