Elbow - Cast Of Thousands
Only a lucky few music artists are given the chance to develop their sound over a number of albums. This is a time where The Polyphonic Spree are dropped after one release due to poor sales despite phenomenal fanbase build up, and both Ryan Adams' simultaneous album releases of 2003 fail to breach the Top 40.
Northerners Elbow spent nearly ten years recording and releasing their debut album Asleep In The Back, delayed due to label issues and various other problems. When it finally reached record shops, and you play it for the first time on your stereo, you wish you could have had it sooner. Unnervingly bleak and drenched with doomed resignation of hostile narcotic despair, Asleep In The Back deservedly gave Guy Garvey and his fellow bandmates a Mercury Music nomination and immersed them headfirst into critical appreciation.
Their approach to the second album was equally as tough, but for different reasons. Elbow were pressured to deliver an album just as epic in its championing of the normal and the mundane, but in the fraction of the time it took them to perfect Asleep In The Back. Somehow, they managed it, and Cast Of Thousands is the evolution of the Elbow sound at a higher level than ever previously.
Cast Of Thousands is on the surface more joyous and uplifting when compared to its predecessor. Even the album cover has a brighter ambience than usual for the band, and yet still a dark and unsettling undercurrent runs beneath the surface. Whereas you sensed the debut album documented one person's retreat from the world, this second album feels as if this same person is still hiding, but has found themselves a partner for accompaniment.
It's the type of album in which the smaller number's shine through stronger than the bigger ones. Whereas singles Ribcage, Fallen Angel and Fugitive Motel open the album and display that trademark Elbow-type sound, it's the Pharaoh-In-The Desert style funk of Snooks and the brooding morning-after reflection of I've Got Your Number that threaten to steal the show.
Garvey's vocals have that ethereal tone that almost creates a reverb of its own. He sings like he's torn in the no-man's-land of heaven and hell, as if his voice is a barrier between what is angelic and demonic. Whilst Not A Job is a perfect encapsulation of uplifting calm, Switching Off is poignant merely due to its stark beauty and lyrical nothingness. Has a song so majestic ever contained a chorus so meaningless as "Is this making sense? What am I trying to say? Early evening June this room and a radio play, This I need to save, I choose my final thoughts today switching off with you" On the one hand it says nothing, but on the other, it could say almost everything.
In essence, Cast Of Thousands is a collection of directions that Elbow could pursue in future and still maintain their appeal. Considering most of their fanbase feature on the record - singing the simplistic yet effective message of "We still believe in love so fuck you" from the crowd at Glastonbury in the finale of Grace Under Pressure, you could argue the fans were already converted. Easily one of the best albums of 2003, let us hope that Elbow can harness all the inner strength of Cast Of Thousands and deliver a masterpiece third album.