Elbow (photo courtesy of High Rise PR)
The sudden departure of a founding bandmember after 25 years is unsettling, and it was especially jarring when Elbow’s drummer Richard Jupp abruptly quit the Manchester band last year. For a group that's been tightly bound in their long-lived, Bury-bred brotherhood, Jupp’s decision startled Elbow’s fans and his former bandmates too.
Thrown off balance but not deterred, Elbow’s remaining members—singer and lyricist Guy Garvey, bassist Pete Turner, producer and keyboardist Craig Potter, and his brother, guitarist Mark Potter—decided to take a prearranged writing trip to Scotland anyway. The four mates settled down in a cavernous, too-chilly house, built frequent fires in the fireplace, and began writing their seventh album with a new identity as a quartet.
The result of that year of change and adjustments, Little Fictions, is a marvel: a gorgeous collection of songs that simmers and soars with unfettered tenderness and joy. Ably compensating for the loss of their drummer, Elbow has released a percussive, rhythmically inventive album, cleverly building and framing songs with loping loops of cowbell (“Gentle Storm”), rippling pulses (“Head for Supplies”), and a polyphonic dialogue of spare piano chords, grumbling guitar and brushed beats (“Trust the Sun”).
Garvey, an affable Mancunian bear of a man, has a remarkable voice that can be as drowsy and soothing as warm honey and brandy. He has always laid out his heart—and his heartbreak—in both his lyrics and nuanced vocal delivery. While the band’s 2014 album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, and Garvey’s 2015 debut solo album, Courting the Squall, prodded at the dissolution of relationships and loneliness, Little Fictions is steered by love, reflecting Garvey’s recent marriage to actress Rachael Stirling (yes, his mother-in-law is Diana Rigg). While the album isn’t a nonstop love letter to Stirling, gentle billet-doux like “Gentle Storm,” “Kindling,” and the heavenly “Magnificent (She Says),” inspired by a little girl spotted on a Sardinian beach where Garvey and Stirling honeymooned, gaze at the future with newfound hope.
Craig Potter's production is, as always, adroit and intuitive; while Garvey often gets the lion's share of press attention, it's Potter's refinements (as well as the nimble guitarwork of his brother Mark, and Turner's supple basslines) that also elevate Elbow's songs with an arresting confidence.
While Garvey’s head-over-heels romance is the river that flows beneath Little Fictions, he's too smart a songwriter to surrender to sentimentality. Even the epic title track, which movingly declares that “Love is the original miracle,” also acknowledges, with a gruff vocal caress, the “little tremors that are ripping through our rituals/That friction up the interaction.”
There’s a murmur of politics too, via tracks like “K2,” a vexed response to Brexit and the fate of an isolationist Britain (“I’m from a land with an island status/Makes us think that everyone hates us/Maybe darling they do”) and a dismayed look at developments Stateside too. Little Fictions was completed in a three-day juggernaut in Salford this past November, with the American election very present in the bandmates' minds.
Elbow’s success, especially in Britain where they sell out arenas, has had its peculiar drawbacks. Nominated for the Mercury Prize three times and a winner for 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid (which forever altered their fortunes), the band has set a very high bar of artistic expectations. The pressure of suddenly becoming a quartet in middle-age, with rules and relationships changed, was daunting. Yet with the release of Little Fictions, Elbow has hit upon a pop trifecta of inspiration, beauty, and humanity.
And in an anxious year, desperately seeking an oasis of kindness and a reminder of true love, it comes not a moment too soon.