Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 55)
When considering Elbow’s debut album Asleep in the Back
, alot of adjectives come to mind that would be more suited to carpentry. Words like “craftsmanship”, “texture”, “sturdy” and “scaffolding” (Okay maybe not that last one). Part of this has to do with the albums 10 year gestation period but Asleep in the Back
is also a slow, nuanced piece of work. It manages to avoid sounding over thought while also displaying the full product of its decade long work time. Asleep in the Back
favors texture over hooks as Elbow let each song unfold and bloom without rushing any elements.
Formed in 1990 as Mr. Soft (Which is, somehow, a worse band name than Elbow), Elbow signed a deal with Island Records in 1997 but were dropped when Island was bought out by Universal. By the time they got around to releasing Asleep in the Back
in 2001 on V2 the band had been kicking around some form of the album’s songs for a decade. The time and effort shows, each song feels fully fleshed out, nothing here wasn’t debated over at some point. Opener “Any Day Now” gets things going on a (very) high note with a crushing bass/percussion combo suddenly becoming light once lead singer Guy Garvey introduces a hypnotic refrain of “Any day now/Howsabout/Getting out of this place/Anyway”. Somehow, the album takes another step up with “Red”, an intense intervention for a friend’s drug addiction that sports a stunning melodic swell during the chorus.
Following “Red”, Asleep in the Back
veers away from the massive hooks of its opening duo in favor of patiently layered atmosphere. Nothing else on Asleep in the Back
is nearly as catchy as its opening duo. Instead, tracks like “Little Beast” and “Powder Blue” benefit from having nuanced tactile feel. Songs that have clearly definable destinations - in the case of “Powder Blue”, that final rousing chorus with added brass - but are in no rush to get there. Getting to know these songs is a rewarding experience, they reward patient listening with wonderful little details. “Bitten By the Tailfly” starts as a creepy voyeur’s anthem (“I’m a dog without a collar on/You’re a girl in this vicinity”) but once it breaks down into its rousing coda it reveals itself to be akin to a bit of roleplay between a happily married couple. The vast “Presuming Ed (Rest Easy)” boasts an amazingly orchestrated vocal harmony buoying a song that otherwise sounds like it was recorded on the ocean floor.
The production on Asleep in the Back
always feels hauntingly empty, as if each song had three more overdubs that the band decided to remove and replace with nothing. All this space allows the focus of these songs to fall on Guy Garvey’s finely textured voice. Peter Gabriel is the frequent comparison but there’s also a necessary amount of Thom Yorke in there and some Mark Hollis as well. Garvey has a capable range and indeed can slaughter the big notes when he needs too but he, like just about everything on Asleep in the Back
, exercises a cool restraint. The benefit there is that when he does unleash all he’s got, see the Ride-esque chorus’ of “Can’t Stop”, the effect is flooring.
Album centerpiece “Newborn” is Asleep in the Back
’s major mind blower. The 7 minute epic starts like another Elbow song but at the halfway mark, right when the song should end - and where the useless radio edit does - the song cocoons. It begins to simmer and grow while Garvey starts ranting about tasting tears and pulling blinds. Then, out of almost nowhere (listen for the subtle drum cue) the song absolutely ignites, burning off 10 tons of rocket fuel to break the atmosphere while Garvey leans hard into some of the most invigorating ”YEAAAAAAH!”
’s to ever grace a record. Right at the song’s peak, it cuts off with an abrupt “bleep”, leaving all that momentum to disperse into the atmosphere of the somber comedown “Don’t Mix Your Drinks”.
But if “Newborn” is the album’s obvious dazzler it’s closing number “Scattered Black and Whites” that’s quietly breathtaking. Asleep in the Back
is a very adult album, tackling firmly mature things like addiction, pregnancy, and marriage but doing it compellingly, one that makes the stresses of these events seem worth sorting out. So closing the album with a rumination on childhood and the comfort one can take in these memories feels perfect. Garvey weaves the scene with a Van Morrison like clarity. “Crosswords through the bathroom door/While someone sings the theme-tune to the news/And my sister buzzes through the room leaving perfume in the air/And that's what triggered this.” The song streams along on fingerpicked guitar and brushed drums as swirling piano arpeggios fill the air. It’s beautiful but Garvey is wise enough to know that nostalgia can be toxic in heavy doses. So he tempers his journey with the chorus, “I come back here from time to time/I shelter here some days.”
Asleep in the Back
set Elbow’s reputation in the UK, but in the US they’re still basically unknown. This is a blessing to the music fan that delights in turning his friends onto obscure music. Push a copy of Asleep in the Back
into the hands of your perennially stressed, alternative rocking, late collegiate friend and he will never know how to repay you. Elbow’s stunning Asleep in the Back
is the perfect early fall record. A time when the lingering warmth keeps you in the present, but every cool breeze sends you spiraling into memory.