Elbow – Asleep in the Back

Asleep in the Back

Elbow have done the unthinkable. Just one LP into their careers and already the Manchester based quintet have scaled the heights of creative vision crafting a work of such staggering heart-wrenching beauty and emotional complexity that it’s miracle that your CD player doesn’t merely stop functioning once it’s over. Such spectacular displays of songwriting prowess are usually reserved for a band’s third or fourth effort when focus and maturity have set in completely and all the unnecessary elements have been stripped away to reveal only the essential. But Asleep in the Back is just that – an absolutely essential piece of art – a dark, moody, hypnotic monumental masterpiece with songs that unfold subtlety from one elaborate texture to the next so that you almost don’t notice the marvelous hooks until they have dug their way beneath your skin and buried themselves in your soul.
The opening track, “Any Day Now,” is a good case in point. The jazzy, shuffle-funk drums and dub-style bass line march this song forward while ambient organs and keyboards weave a spider web of atmospheric grandeur with the occasional unobtrusive reverb guitar lead or piano note barely gnawing at the edges of your consciousness, lulling you in and leaving you transfixed so that vocalist Guy Garvey’s throaty vocals don’t register until they have wrapped their sinewy threads around you. “Red,” with its wounded strings and gorgeous piano spiraling and fluttering like windswept snow, is as bittersweet and affecting song you’ll hear this year. The angelic chorus feels as if it fell from heaven, with Garvey singing, “You burn too bright / You live too fast / This can’t go on too long / You’re a tragedy starting to happen.” Sure, Garvey is a dead ringer for Peter Gabriel, but with songs like “Powder Blue” and the majestic “Bitten By The Tailfly” delivered with such heartbreaking honesty and earnest yearning, can you really fault him for a trifling tonal anomaly totally out of his control?
Another standout track is the sublime “Newborn,” which features a stellar performance from guitarist Mark Potter. From the soft acoustic whisper of the intro to the Middle Eastern accents of the chorus to the rough and tumble outro, Potter proves that he is as versatile as he is gifted. But once again it’s Garvey who steals the show, singing with magnificent resignation and delicate grace, his fine, sorrowed voice softly stirring and mesmerizing. From there the album simmers down a bit, and although it never drags or falters, it never quite reaches the same radiant peaks of perfection either. But just when you think Elbow might relent and release you from their tenuous grasp, in comes the devastating closer “Scattered Black and Whites,” which absolutely just floors you with its simple understated elegance and haunting vocals, rendering any further struggle to resist or escape entirely futile.
Despite Elbow’s penchant for tragic, forlorn, melancholy post-dreampop, Asleep in the Back is hardly foreboding. The mood may be somber, but somehow it manages to remain a bright, crisp, inviting record, the kind that demands and deserves repeated listening. The pacing is a bit slow (but never grinding or overbearing), and it would help if they added some more guitar punch to alter the mood for a moment, but, still, it is never dull. So do yourself a favor and buy yourself a copy. Put it on when you go to sleep that night and then let the mysterious and murky production envelop you, let the spectral aura and poetic passion lift you up and spirit you away into the vastness of your subconscious, and allow the glistening harmonies and pristine melodies to gently wash over you and infiltrate your dreams. It’s like discovering some magic world we somehow always knew existed but never knew how to enter – a beguiling, abstract and surreal experience that gradually transforms and adds to our sense of reality. Starsailor may be stealing all the hype, but without a shadow of a doubt, Elbow are the real deal.