Elbow - Leaders of the Free World

Elbow, like Doves, are never going to be as big as Coldplay or Keane. They don't inspire the sort of mass hysteria that Tim Rice-Oxley and Chris Martin do, but that's no bad thing - and it certainly doesn't make them any less successful in their own right. They seem like ordinary blokes rather than pop stars – the sort of people you might bump into down the pub or sit opposite on the train – and they're capable of producing epic, masterful songs, as their Mercury-nominated debut Asleep in the Back (2001) and its 2003 follow-up Cast of Thousands proved. After a triumphant showing at Glastonbury 2004, Elbow return with their self-produced third album Leaders of the Free World, which was recorded in Manchester, the entire process captured on film by the Soup Collective (available in a DVD accompanying the album).

Elbow have never claimed to be revolutionaries, and to a certain extent you know what you're going to get here. Bittersweet homecoming hymn Station Approach opens gently, building gradually to a soaring, glorious crescendo, drums and electric guitars kicking in as the song picks up the pace, layering itself on top of a repeated line in which Guy Garvey sings "I never know what I want but I know when / I'm low that I need to be in the town / Where they know what I'm like and don't mind." It's a sentiment anyone can understand, and it's this sort of immediacy that gives the band their appeal.

Picky Bugger's gradual build-up works in a similar way, beginning with a staccato guitar and softly-spoken vocals that take off into a hoarse, yearning falsetto. There's an undertone of menace here and the song stops abruptly before the album swerves into Forget Myself, an obvious, upbeat choice for the first single. A wittily-observed tribute to a night on the town in Manchester, it could have been about anywhere; its vignettes are universal.

The Stops – originally the title for the album – brings the mood right back down again, Garvey's world-weary voice lamenting the end of a relationship ("These are sober days and I know it can’t be," he sings). These sad, gentler moments are Elbow at their finest, and the album returns to this sort of territory on An Imagined Affair and the beautiful, defiant My Very Best, a song wallowing in its own misery, Garvey pleading "Keep your sympathy / Don't need the healing to start … You've gone / Gone and made a beautiful hole in my heart."

Elsewhere, the album is energetic, almost animated: it's pretty obvious what the title track's all about, and Mexican Standoff is an amusing, self-effacing account of that awkward moment when you and your partner meet your partner's ex ("..he’d look ideal 'neath the wheels of car / Oh Mexican standoff I wish I was hard."). You can't help but like a man who writes lyrics like that.

There's much to admire here, but Leaders of the Free World falls short of the heights that Asleep in the Back and Cast of Thousands reached. The upbeat songs (and there's more of them this time) are rousing, but there's nothing quite as stirring as Any Day Now or Grace Under Pressure, and whilst the gentler tracks are certainly emotive, there isn't anything as affecting as Powder Blue, Switching Off or the lovely Scattered Black and Whites. This is a solid, heartfelt and at times inspired piece of work, but it's nevertheless hard to escape the niggling feeling that Elbow have something better than this inside somewhere - and when they release that album, they really will surpass themselves.



out of 10
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