Leaders of the Free World
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2006, Volume 13, #8
Written by John Metzger
Perhaps the biggest criticism that not only has dogged Elbow since its debut but also has kept it from reaching a bigger audience in America is that its melodic inclinations frequently have been undercut by its experimental tendencies. To that end, the group’s latest endeavor Leaders of the Free World is a fully confident attempt to meet head-on the charges that have been leveled against it. It would be easy to say that, in crafting the affair, the band essentially traded Radiohead’s intrigue for Coldplay’s mass appeal, but such a statement also would be too simplistic to ring true. After all, being overwrought with emotion can cheapen a tune just as much as an overabundance of technical tinkering can make a song sound sterile. Wisely, on Leaders of the Free World, Elbow opted to split the difference, and for the most part, it strived for and achieved a more accessible balance between its disparate agendas.
Although it continues to allow its artsy eccentricities to shape the mood of its material, Elbow now has provided them with a more euphonious set of structures upon which to cling. As a result, the peculiarities that initially might have sounded awkward, odd, or just plain cold on its prior efforts now develop so naturally that they are, at first, barely noticeable. In effect, the album just feels warmer, and, only upon closer examination does one discover that tucked inside Station Approach is an hypnotic, homesick chant or that many other songs, such as Forget Myself or the title track, are anchored by clattering, kitchen-sink-style percussion or imbued with a myriad of strange keyboard effects.
As all of its symphonic textures collide, Elbow’s inspirations bubble more profoundly to the surface. In the past, the band has had a tendency to try to obscure the striking similarities between the voices of front man Guy Garvey and Genesis’ Peter Gabriel, but on Leaders of the Free World, it plays them to the hilt. Elsewhere, the title track (with its aqueous keyboards, blend of acoustic and electric guitar, and choir-like backing vocals) is drawn almost completely from late ’70s-era Moody Blues, while the quaint folk of The Everthere slips comfortably within the post-Syd Barrett, pre-Dark Side of the Moon musings of Pink Floyd, though it also is briefly graced with the wispy atmospherics of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Aesthetically, plenty of gloom remains embedded within the dynamics of Elbow’s work — the grey skies of its home in Manchester, England seemingly are quite difficult to shake — but rather than the claustrophobic desperation of its predecessors, Leaders of the Free World exudes a gentle, bittersweet sorrow that is lined with just the right amount of romantic optimism. Mixed in amongst the murderous rage that is directed at a girlfriend’s ex on Mexican Standoff and the frustrations over the state of the world that are expressed on the title track are several odes to lasting love, such as Great Expectations and The Everthere. Admittedly, there is a slight decline in quality during Leader of the Free World’s latter half, though this is due more to the band’s recycling of its ideas than it is to a fault with its actual execution of them. In the end, Leaders of the Free World undeniably is a bold step forward for Elbow, one that finds the group turning its ambitions into a luxuriously lovely outgrowth of its own underappreciated Cast of Thousands.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box