Strange as it is to name a rock band after a body part, the origins of the name “Elbow” seem oddly appropriate to this band. The name is based on the idea that ‘elbow’ is the most sensual English word—not for its meaning, but purely for the way it feels to say it. Similarly, even if the lyrics on “Build a Rocket Boys!” seem incomprehensible, they are undeniably haunting and evocative because of their sound and complementary musical backing.
British alt-rock band Elbow have been critics’ darlings for years, but have rarely achieved commercial success. But “Build a Rocket Boys!” follows their fourth album “The Seldom Seen Kid,” which went double platinum. This success is unprecedented for a band that prizes intellectualism so highly, but the group’s signature strategy of combining poetically oblique lyrics with tastefully restrained instrumentals merits the attention they’ve recently garnered.
Lead singer Gus Garvey engages most frequently with emotional themes that could easily seem hackneyed. The true appeal of his lyrics is his ability to conjure powerful emotional responses through strange images and an intimately personal tone. On “With Love,” the band sounds happy and youthfully exuberant. Yet they do not express it through any of the obvious clichés, instead presenting the carefully crafted, “Best intentions bring joyless droughts / Pack your hacksaw, come push me out / When your dentures prevent your smile / These adventures will fill your eyes.”
The album is not confined to themes of love, and “With Love” is followed just a few songs later by the dolorous “The River.” The song derives its power from restraint, managing to stretch just eight lines of lyrics over three minutes of music. Garvey does so with confident rests between each line that are somehow more engaging than booming melodies or catchy beats ever would be. He seems unhurried as he delivers his choice few lines, frequently holding his pauses so long that the music completely fades to comfortable silence. The lyrical theme of regret—“I told him my sorrows and broken-down dreams / Confessed every lie, replayed every scene”—is supported by the spare and halting piano and guitar melodies.
Though the music is meant mainly to support the lyrics, the instrumentals resist stagnation through carefully controlled dynamic shifts. The eight-minute album opener, “The Birds,” is subdued for the first half, the percussion slow and unchanging, the words floating over it. About halfway through, however, the song adopts a sense of urgency, building tension through a balance of new instrumental layers. As the music shifts, the same lyrics that Garvey has been singing the whole time seem completely different: “Looking back is for the birds,” Garvey sings at the end. Though the meaning is vague, the weight of the music lends it significance.
Though the music frequently supports the lyrics, it sometimes serves as an intriguing counterpoint—“The Night Will Always Win,” one of the stranger tracks on the album, succeeds due to this tension. Throughout the song, Garvey sings in slow, longing verses, but the actual words he is singing seem to be ripped off of an emo, Dashboard Confessional-type album: “I miss your stupid face / I miss your bad advice.” While such lyrics are typically backed by thrashing guitars, when backed merely by a soft piano, they are oddly jarring and engaging. Instead of simply letting the song mellow with the piano, Garvey creates a noticeable tension between his lyrics and the music that keeps the song fresh.
“Build a Rocket Boys!” is a deeply evocative album, and it works off the concept that the power of lyrics lies not in their meaning but in their relationship with backing music and the vague images and emotions they conjure. This is haunting music that, while indirect in meaning, is potent in effect.