Few bands this side of Noel Gallagher can write cathartic, hands-in-the-air-inducing songs like Elbow can. Go to a festival in the U.K. and you’ll get it: Hearing tens of thousands of people singing “It’s all gonna be magnificent” from Little Fiction’s “Magnificent (She Says),” or “So throw those curtains wide” from The Seldom Seen Kid’s “One Day Like This,” makes you think, well, “one day like this a year will see me right.”
Each of the Mancunian band’s eight previous albums all feature at least one song (and typically many more) with a soaring chorus that aims for the last row in the arena or the stragglers at the back of the festival crowd. Be it 2014’s hopeful “New York Morning,” 2011’s inviting “Open Arms” or even 2019’s muddy, bluesy “Dexter & Sinister,” which recalls the dirty guitar line on 2008’s “Grounds for Divorce” that routinely gets sung back to the band by the crowd, these anthemic tracks are Guy Garvey and company’s bread and butter. It’s their calling card, and their claim to fame.
But dig deeper on every Elbow album and you’ll find gorgeous acoustic gems that always seem to end up getting overlooked. Every now and then, they end up as singles (“Lippy Kids” from build a rocket boys!, for instance), but the others rarely make the concert setlists and exist solely as deep cuts for hardcore fans. “Jesus is a rochdale girl,” “Weather to Fly” and “dear friends” come to mind, all dazzling, downtempo and beautiful, the kind of tracks that could soundtrack any emotional moment in a given movie or TV show.
That’s long been the secret to Elbow’s growing discography: Beneath all the massive-sounding singles, their best work lies in the brilliant acoustic and piano-backed tracks that strip away their music to its barest bones.
So, if anything, it’s kind of a surprise that the band waited until almost a quarter century into their existence to write a record like Flying Dream 1, an album that leans wholly on the band’s quieter side. It sounds like the band held a competition during quarantine last year to write the prettiest songs they possibly could, ranked the 10 most beautiful ones they came up with and packaged them into a single record. These types of songs have always been lurking in the background of each Elbow record, but they finally decided to make it a full album’s sonic mission statement. And the results are stunning.
Like past Elbow records, Flying Dream 1’s most serene moments come from Garvey’s musing about the little, almost forgettable moments where love lives. And for all the awww-inducing beats throughout—and of course there’s loads, as Garvey has time and time again proven that he’s a special lyricist when it comes to love—they’re a little more opaque than usual on Flying Dream 1. With a few notable exceptions, “Six Words” being a big one, it’s frequently unclear whom these lyrics are directed toward: Garvey’s wife, actress Rachael Stirling, or their young son, now four years old.
That’s a marked departure from Elbow’s last record, 2019’s Giants of All Sizes, which was notable for its anger and despair. That release, also the band’s loudest to date, was inspired by the death of Garvey’s father and Brexit, with muddy guitar tones and a hurried (for Elbow’s standards) pace throughout. But despite Flying Dream 1 being written during the COVID-19 pandemic, Garvey’s return to finding happiness in his family and friends means the rest of the band’s instrumentals are toned down to match, leading to their most serene—and musically coherent—full album to date. If Giants of All Sizes is the chaotic and angsty first half of The Take Off and Landing of Everything’s “Fly By Blue / Lunette,” Flying Dream 1 is its unhurried, acoustic second-half counterpart.
Take lead single “The Seldom Seen Kid,” itself a tribute to the inspiration behind the band’s Mercury Prize-winning record of the same name—the band’s late friend Bryan Glancy, who passed away in 2006. On top of a soft drumbeat and a mournful, yet lovely bed of woodwinds, Garvey imagines Glancy getting to meet his now-wife. “Then he’d steal you for dancing / And you’d lend him your arms / And I’d stooge for your laughing / And you’d twirl in a chaos of charm,” Garvey sings in his velvety baritone as a gorgeous piano line flutters behind him, not too unlike the piano in Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool version of “True Love Waits.”
Musically, the rest of the record follows suit. The drums rarely rise above a pitter-patter, as piano and acoustic guitar take center stage. It doesn’t sound all that different from Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call, another largely piano-driven record. Hell, there’s even a song on here called “Calm and Happy” that sounds like a lullaby.
This is an album that aims more for an overall feeling than for some larger-than-life singles sprinkled throughout. As a result, it remains unknown which songs will become fixtures in the band’s concert setlists past their next tour or two. Venturing a guess, it’ll likely be “Six Words” and “What Am I Without You,” the two most lyrically straightforward and immediate songs of the 10.
In the press release for “Six Words,” Garvey compared the song to fan-favorite “Mirrorball,” the band’s most famous love song. “I’m falling in love with you / Six words released like birds / Into the brightening ether / And oh to read those words returned / I’m fuzzy, I’ve stumbled onto some heavenly escalator,” he sings on top of arpeggiated piano chords. Few musicians can pull off a verse like that without sounding corny or cliche, but Garvey’s voice and the intimate backing instrumentals give the song a hard-won credence that it wouldn’t have had coming from virtually anyone else. After all, he somehow made “And we took the town to town last night / We kissed like we invented it” from “Mirrorball” actually work well enough that a couple got engaged seconds before the line was sung when I saw Elbow live at Webster Hall in Manhattan back in 2014. “Look who loves me / Look who loves me, I know / I know the view from up on top of the world / Now I know your songbird soul” rivals anything from their entire discography.
Perhaps the most surprising song on Flying Dream 1 is closer “What Am I Without You,” the only track that rises above an unhurried tempo. Propelled by a peppy organ, punchy drums and a backing choir, it’s essentially Elbow’s take on The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” Garvey’s voice, unlike anywhere else on the record, is sent skyward like in all of those aforementioned anthemic festival mainstays, singing, “The last eyes I wanna see / Are yours / Are brown and diabolical blue / They never once cried without laughing baby / So I’ll line up a zinger for you.” But unlike past Elbow records, “What Am I Without You” is an outlier, not the album’s selling point, let alone a single.
Flying Dream 1 is in no rush to get anywhere. Its lyrics and music are more lovely than ever before, chock-full of gorgeous piano lines to match Garvey’s husky croon. The record’s overall vibe is perfectly encapsulated by the first lines of “The Seldom Seen Kid,” when Garvey sings, “The roses are heavy / With rain and for ages / Veil after veil / And the pictures are whispering.” It’s the sonic equivalent of a warm blanket to wrap yourself in, only to sit and watch the rain or snow outside, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. It’s an album that will see you right.
Steven Edelstone is the former album reviews editor at Paste and has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and more. All he wants is to get a shot and beer combo once this all blows over. You can follow him on Twitter.