Elbow - Leaders of the Free World

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Elbow - Leaders of the Free World

Free To Dream: The sunniest, least ambitious Elbow album yet—and it suits them

Elbow has released a string of ambitious albums, but no masterpiece.

Its 2001 debut Asleep in the Back evoked its title image by making you feel disoriented yet serene; the follow-up, A Cast of Thousands, coughed up bigger singles, louder guitars and a Gospel choir. Neither album put the band at the top of the British music scene—Radiohead strikes a better balance of mood and songcraft, and Coldplay’s Chris Martin gets The Girl—but Elbow’s unique atmosphere and creeping emotions always set it apart.

This time, the band has elected to not let great be the enemy of good. They’ve toned down their aspirations and settled for a solid, comfortable record, full of choruses that roll like hills, and love songs that coo and sigh. There’s no tension here, maybe because it’s a homesick album that’s already made it home; the band wrote the songs on the road, but recorded them in a cozy spot near its native Manchester, and you don’t listen to the result so much as put up your feet and lounge in it.

Acoustic ballads like “The Stops” and “An Imagined Affair” are languorously melodic, as relaxing as a deep breath and comforting as pulling your blanket over your head. On the loud end, “Forget Myself” is a chiming victory lap, though “Mexican Standoff”—which practically steals the bass line from Radiohead’s “The National Anthem”—crests ferociously, at least until it clunks to a sudden stop. (But cut them some slack: the members of Elbow aren’t accustomed to fast tempos.)

Leaders of the Free World would seem by-the-book Brit rock, if it weren’t for Guy Garvey. Gruff but generous, with a voice like Peter Gabriel’s minus the ego, Garvey masters the role of sensitive frontman by staying grounded; he sings as if he’d been grumbling, and then something wonderful startled him. This tone helps you forgive some obvious lyrics, like the lazy “love-you”s and “miss-you”s, or lines like, “You were the sun in my Sunday morning,” which—let’s face it—is just a bad pun. The title track declares, “The leaders of the free world are just little boys throwing stones,” which doesn’t begin to get its hands around my grown-up fears and anxieties.

On the other hand, it fits Garvey’s worldview. He’s the Everyman who shuffles daily to a job, who treats politics as petty rather than devastating, who’d rather volunteer to work at the polls than project himself on a giant TV and sing about government clones or the end of the world. But every so often, he has a dream about a sudden, gasping, all-engulfing love. And when that dream shows up, he diligently helps you see it.

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