Even though Elbow are always dodging comparisons to that other big British piano pop-rock band, they’re truly one of a kind. The Manchester group, founded in 1997, match gorgeous orchestral strings with distorted bluesy guitar riffs and Guy Garvey’s poetic ruminations about love, loss and aging. But they stand alone in a sea of bands who might vaguely fall under the “adult contemporary rock” category. Much of their popularity can be traced back to Garvey himself: Dubbed “pop’s everyman hero” and always one of the nicest guys around, he’s magnetic, lovely, wise, romantic and bubbly—everything you’d want from the friend you meet at the pub for a few pints. As clever as Nick Cave, as heartfelt as the late Scott Hutchison and as able to write as many emotional crescendos as Sigur Rós, Garvey’s in a league of his own.
And it’s no wonder Elbow are superstars in their native U.K., where they won the prestigious Mercury Prize in 2008 for their near-perfect The Seldom Seen Kid (they’ve been nominated two other times as well), and performed in the Closing Ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics. They also remain festival heavyweights 20-plus years into their career: If you ever get the chance to see them at Glastonbury or some other British festival, you’ll understand. They’ve never quite crossed over to the United States, but they do sell out mid-size venues with a devoted fan base here. So whether you’re a big fan or are looking for an introduction, here are Elbow’s 10 best songs, ranked, in honor of their newest release, Giants of All Sizes, out now on Polydor.
No one can sell a line quite like Guy Garvey. His husky, warm baritone can transform even the corniest of lines into grand statements that ring with more importance than the most profound lyric by virtually anyone else. Take “Mirrorball” from The Seldom Seen Kid: “We took the town to town last night / We kissed like we invented it” is about as cliché as it gets in the hands of any other singer, but it works perfectly here, as Garvey describes the morning after a life-changing first date. But the incredible phrases don’t stop there (“I plant the kind of kiss that wouldn’t wake a baby / On the self-same face that wouldn’t let me sleep” and the chorus, “You make the moon our mirrorball / The street’s an empty stage / The city’s sirens, violins / Everything has changed” stick out the most). It’s no wonder this was the song that soundtracked a marriage proposal when Elbow played Manhattan’s Webster Hall in 2014.
Elbow love to kick things off with a bang on their lead singles (think: “Grounds for Divorce” or “Neat Little Rows”), and the first taste of 2019’s Giants of All Sizes was no exception. “Dexter & Sinister,” which clocks in just over seven minutes, is a tour de force that showcases everything we love about the Manchester band’s heavier side in a single track. Swelling strings and swirling synths build up to a fever pitch before guitarist Mark Potter tears it all down with a punishing, bluesy guitar riff that recalls both of the aforementioned songs. Addressing the scourge of Brexit and a string of deaths that affected the band (including Garvey’s own father), there’s a certain rage in his voice that’s relatively unheard throughout their discography. “I’m a bird in a hurricane / With the heaviest heart jackhammering in me” is one of Garvey’s best metaphors in quite some time, perfectly summing up what it’s like to live through such a tumultuous era.
Who else could write a gorgeous ode to pub culture that references Shakespeare? Elbow approach “My Sad Captains,” a song dedicated to drinking buddies who have since moved away, passed away or stopped drinking, as a slow, mournful tune that laments the loss of late drunken nights and camaraderie. The title, which comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (“Come, let’s have one other gaudy night / Call to me all my sad captains / Fill our bowls / Once more, let’s mock the midnight bell”), depicts drinking and pub culture in a positive light, illustrating the fun nights instead of the hungover mornings. With a slow horn section mimicking the central melody, Garvey croons one of his best-ever choruses: “Another sunrise with my sad captains / With who I choose to lose my mind / And if it’s so we only pass this way but once / What a perfect waste of time.”
“Starlings” opens The Seldom Seen Kid on a beautiful, slow-building note, but “The Bones of You” quickly puts things into overdrive with a few guitar strums and in-your-face drums. Garvey has said it’s a younger and overworked version of the same narrator from “Starlings,” with “Overdraft speeches and deadlines to make / Cramming commitments like cats in a sack / Telephone burning and a purposeful gait.” Reflecting on a simpler time when he was still in a relationship (“And it’s you and it’s May / And we’re sleeping through the day / And I’m five years ago / And three thousand miles away”), the protagonist is manic, choosing his career ambitions over his personal life. But the decision still keeps him up at night, and he still loves her: “But I love the bones of you / That I will never escape.” And it all comes crumbling down with a somber horn solo that references George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess.
No disrespect to the tense “Fly By Blue,” but “Lunette” is the real highlight in this two-song package, featuring one of Garvey’s best verses to date: “I’m reaching the age when decisions are made on the life I’m living / And I’m sure, last ditch that I’ll ask for more time / But Mother forgive me / I still want a bottle of good Irish whiskey / And a bundle of smokes in my grave.” While the former depicts the period in which Garvey was going through a breakup and flying back and forth between Manchester and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on the latter he comes to grips with getting older, realizing this life as a pub regular may not be working for him anymore (the same internal conversation his friends had in “My Sad Captains”). Featuring blown-out strings and horn sections before settling into an acoustic groove on “Lunette,” this is something close to Fleet Foxes’ “The Shrine / An Argument,” jam-packed with pitch-perfect Elbow one-liners.
Garvey is a very specific lyricist, always finding the perfect phrase to convey his message. His words typically tell a story or make grand statements on love or heartbreak or somewhere in between. On “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl,” Garvey nearly whispers verses that paint a picture of a childhood in Rochdale, a town located within Greater Manchester. Over a quiet finger-picked guitar and an occasional soft keyboard line, this is the most simplistic thing Elbow have ever recorded, and the results are jaw-dropping. Garvey reminisces about what was most important during his first foray into young adulthood (“And Jesus is a Rochdale girl / And forty-five CDs / Got a house that you can smoke in / So all my friends found me”). But instead of harping on the “single heartbreak” and a relatively dire financial situation, he remains optimistic for the future, not yet allowing himself to define his life by what he has and doesn’t have: “And nothing to be proud of / And nothing to regret / All of that to make as yet.” It’s perhaps the most poetic thing Elbow has released to date—a beautiful and unadorned track that doesn’t try to be more than the sum of its parts, yet ends up becoming so much more on repeated reads of the lyrics.
While they’re more known for grand, mid-tempo ballads, Elbow occasionally decide to turn up the volume knobs and rock out. Once—maybe twice—an album, the Manchester band will lose the orchestra and acoustic guitar and just go for it, something they do best on “Grounds for Divorce,” the lead single on The Seldom Seen Kid. The track explodes with their heaviest guitar line to date, one that echoes Garvey’s “woah-oh-oh-oh” melody throughout the track, so catchy that crowds sing along with it on a nightly basis. Garvey, angry as ever, tells the story of an alcoholic drinking himself into a stupor on a weeknight: “Mondays is for drinking to the seldom seen kid.” But even when describing the downtrodden, Garvey still finds a way to incorporate beautiful phrases, depicting the protagonist’s inability to stay away from the local pub (“There’s a hole in my neighborhood / Down which of late I cannot help but fall”) and fix his relationship (“And I’d bring you further roses, but it does you no good”).
Few songwriters have described returning home quite like Garvey does on “Station Approach.” The album opener on 2005’s Leaders of the Free World describes the road home out of Manchester Piccadilly station when taking the train from London. “I haven’t been myself of late / I haven’t slept for several days,” he sings, before adding, “But coming home I feel like I / Designed these buildings I walk by.” Later, he repeats, “I never know what I want but I know when I’m low that I / I need to be in the town where they know what I’m like and don’t mind.” Moving away from home can be scary, and adulthood can be stressful, but oftentimes, going home to see mom (“I haven’t seen my mum for weeks,” he admits) can be the best medicine.
“Starlings,” the lead track on 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid, is Garvey’s finest moment as a lyricist. Every line in this song is quotable, and every word is of utmost importance. Describing the feeling of being madly in love with a woman who doesn’t love him back, Garvey details every thought running through his head when he meets up with her at her office: “At the top is stopping by / Your place of work and acting like / I haven’t dreamed of you and I / And marriage in an orange grove / You are the only thing in any room you’re ever in / I’m stubborn, selfish and too old.” But just talking with her is all he needs (“Sit with me awhile and let me listen to you talk about / Your dreams and your obsessions / I’ll be quiet and confessional”) as he tries to make sense of his thoughts even if he suffers from low self-esteem (“So yes I guess I’m asking you to back a horse that’s good for glue and nothing else / But find a man that’s truer than / Find a man who needs you more than I”). The song, which alternates between loud bursts of energy via a loud-as-hell horn section and downtempo acoustic grooves, resolves in one very lovely verse and string crescendo: “The violets explode inside me when I meet your eyes / And I’m spinning and I’m diving like a cloud of starlings… Darling, is this love?”
A perfect song on a perfect album: “One Day Like This” is one of those life-affirming, epic tracks that make you feel invincible. It’s their “Hey Jude,” their “Bittersweet Symphony,” their “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” It’s that song you can’t help but sing along to live, and forget everything else in the world. It’s no wonder they were asked to perform it when the athletes returned to London’s Olympic Stadium for the 2012 Summer Olympics Closing Ceremony: It’s one of those songs.
From the opening string suite to its belted chorus, the song keeps building and building, adding guitar here and piano there, until it’s pretty much just Garvey and a chorus. His voice has never sounded better, reaching towering heights as he sings, “‘Cause holy cow, I love your eyes / But only now I see the light / Yeah, lying with you half awake / Oh, anyway, it’s looking like a beautiful day,” perhaps doubly true when the “Throw those curtains wide / One day like this a year would see me right” refrain hits. This song is the culmination of all of Elbow’s strengths—lyrical prowess and grand instrumentals—set to one of the most memorable string motifs in years. It’s Garvey & co.’s entry into the all-timer club.
18 – San Diego, Calif. @ House of Blues
19 – Los Angeles, Calif. @ The Wiltern
20 – Oakland, Calif. @ Fox Theatre
21 – Santa Ana, Calif. @ The Observatory