AFTER the surprise success of Elbow’s fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, the quintet of care-worn Mancunians has been careful not to squander the good will. They constructed a poetic ode to youthful waywardness on 2011’s Build A Rocket Boys!. Now, with their 40s knocking, they have recorded a moving meditation on age, loss and the strange ebbs and flows of life. It’s The Take Off and Landing of Everything and they are confident it’s their best LP.
“Usually, at the end of making an album, you feel a bit lost,” says guitarist, Mark Potter. “You have this attitude of, ‘oh, I don’t know what people will think’. It’s an uncertain period. You are about to put your hard work before the world and be judged. This time, we are quite happy. We really believe in it. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. It is unusual for us to be this at ease at the start of the process.”
The Take off And Landing Of Everything is a triumph — full of the stirring anthems for which Elbow are adored (with a hint of middle-age ennui). But will it be a commercial success? Potter says the band wants to sustain their popularity. When you’ve played arenas (including Dublin’s O2), you don’t want to go back to clubs.
“It’s important,” he says. “We had a really big album with Seldom Seen Kid. Build a Rocket Boys was well-received, though it didn’t sell quite as much. Nobody likes to be thought of as on the way down. It’s important to stay up there — to be able to do big slots at festivals is amazing. That being said, it’s not something you can have in mind as you are writing. It’s a distraction. You don’t go into the studio thinking, ‘we have to sell x number of records’. That would not be healthy.”
The making of The Take Off And Landing Of Everything was tumultuous. The band’s frontman, Guy Garvey, split from his long-term partner, writer Emma Unsworth. As the group’s chief lyricist, he reworked many of the songs, so what started as a rumination on growing older became a break-up record.
“Things definitely took a change of direction,” says Potter. “Guy had a break-up and that affected us. Certain themes have come out of the album, yeah.”
Garvey is the public face of the group. That’s fine with his bandmates, who are happy to be successful and anonymous. When they walk into a bar and Garvey is mobbed, they think, ‘thank God it’s him, not us’. “He gets it constantly. And it’s tough at moments. There are certain places he can’t go. Things won’t be relaxed. At the same time, if he’s a regular… it’s not a big deal for Guy Garvey to walk in the door. He’s made it work fine. It would be odd, I think, walking down the street, having people shout your name.”
Following his break-up, Garvey temporarily relocated to Brooklyn. This created unusual working circumstances. Previously, songs had come from studio jams. Now, Garvey was presented with semi-finished instrumentals, over which he laid his lyrics.
“Guy tends to work quite slowly,” says Potter. “We wrote stuff at home and tended to come in with nearly-complete pieces. That had not happened before. It definitely brought a different vibe. The dynamics of the record are quite distinct.”
Potter had just left school when he and Garvey formed Elbow. They’ve been through a lot since. There has been success — Seldom Seen Kid was a popular winner of the 2008 Mercury Music Prize — and set-backs. Before their commercial breakthrough, they’d been dropped twice. The consensus was that, with their silly name and gushing sound, they were destined to remain nearly-rans. But the dark days made Elbow stronger, Potter says. “One of the reasons we are still together is that we’ve been through so much — losing our record contracts, fighting back, having big success. The gradual rise has helped us immensely. It wasn’t as if we were suddenly in everyone’s faces. It happened for us slowly.”
When a North of England band has success, the response is to hot-foot it to London (see Oasis). However, Elbow remain rooted in their home town, Bury. For the past decade, they have maintained a rehearsal space and studio at a converted church in Salford, where much of the new LP was recorded. “Has Manchester shaped us?” says Potter. “I don’t know — it’s a tricky one. In the early days, it was definitely an advantage. There is a very supportive music scene in Manchester. It’s a great place to be in a band. Also, the physical environment has to inform the music, doesn’t it? You look out the window and it’s always raining. I would imagine that has had quite a big impact on what we do. So, in that respect, of course, it’s an influence. Everything you go through influences you.”