Mainstream success is, and always has been, a strange and difficult thing for bands to deal with. For some, success is a poisoned chalice, an albatross around their neck as they struggle to grapple with the increased expectation and demands of a new rabid fan base. For a band like Elbow success is the realisation of over a decade of struggling to sell records and struggling to even exist consistently making great records but to ever diminishing returns.
2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid saw Elbow finally achieve the mainstream success that some felt was a long time coming. Ivor Novello’s, Brit Awards and the Mercury Prize were garlanded on the band and they entered the national consciousness as the media’s self appointed “Peoples band.”
Build a Rocket Boys!, their fifth album, arrives three years later as the first Elbow album to ever be truly anticipated beyond a loyal fan base. Therefore, you would imagine the pressure on the band to create a masterpiece to follow The Seldom Seen Kid would be immense. On the contrary, Guy Garvey has spoken of the success of The Seldom Seen Kid freeing the band from the pressure of wondering whether or not they could actually release an album. Before their move to Fiction records in 2007 and their indian sumer of 2008 they suffered from the constant fear of being dropped from their label. The whole band have proclaimed Build a Rocket Boys! to be the easiest and most enjoyable record to make of their career and it is another outstandingly coherent and excellent Elbow record.
There is no grand reinvention here or a desire to challenge some of their new found fan base. The hallmarks of all of Elbows records are present. A sense of subtlety and intimacy coupled with wonderfully evocative lyrics and imagery and Guy Garvey’s age-weathered but glorious croon.
Thematically the album is about looking back rather than looking forward. Guy Garvey reminisces of his youth and the simple joy’s of childhood and the thrills of first love in Lippy Kids and Jesus is a Rochdale Girl. It is his skill as a writer that allows the listener to imagine perfectly being a teenager on the streets of Bury and all the possibilities of youth “Do they know these days are golden?” The title track of the album comes from this track as Garvey exhorts those lippy kids to “Build a Rocket Boys!” It is a truly heart-warming track.
While there are no obvious anthems in the style of “Grounds for Divorce” or “One Day Like This” Build a Rocket Boys! sonically is slightly more adventurous than The Seldom Seen Kid. The album is once again expertly produced and crafted by keyboard player Craig Potter and it is his twinkling piano’s and soaring strings that feature heavily on the record, never overpowering and always fitting the mood perfectly. This album has more akin though to Elbows debut Asleep in the Back with it’s nods to electronica in eight minute opener The Birds and Dear Friends wistful address to friends both present and departed evoking the sombre understated beauty of Scattered Black and Whites.
Dear Friends, the albums final track perhaps encapsulates the human quality that has endeared Elbow to so many people. In the final verse Guy Garvey eloquently and beautifully expresses his love for his friends and it is this human touch that underpins Build a Rocket Boys! as another heartfelt and subtly beautiful record.
“Dear Friends/you are angles and drunks/you are maji/old friends/you stuck a pin in the map I was in and you are the stars I navigate home by.”
Despite now being a bone-fide star and gazing out from the cover of music magazines throughout the nation Build a Rocket Boys! shows that Elbow and Guy Garvey have not been changed by success. Elbow are a band grounded in the knowledge that while commercial gain and fame and fortune is nice, it is the real things like home and friendship that are really important. Elbow are a perfect example of a band that have grappled with the conundrum of success and won.