Ayo Jegede
reviews editor
December 01, 2005
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Elbow - Cast of Thousands
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Rock Music Reviews
Leaders of The Free World

I first need to bring it to your attention that Elbow, though they’ve released only three albums, have been together for over a decade. Sadly, however, they play music topically similar to Coldplay and Starsailor, and tenure means nothing when you still sit at a table for minor gods. Asleep in the Back and Cast of Thousands were massively counter-articulating structures, the former—because it came almost midway through the band’s career—became a condensed (and some critics deign as being lengthy) representation of their artistic potential. Cast of Thousands was a riposte of sorts, built with the same care and complexity, but instead reaching for the sun rather than dark blue brushstrokes.

I haven’t been myself of late/I haven’t slept for several days/But coming home I feel like I/designed these buildings I walk by

But it’s on Leaders of The Free World that the band have touched on a node of such engaging emotional resonance, one that exposes far more and far deeper levels of human expression than what they previously exposed. In essence they speak of nothing that owes to great novelty and, indeed, about all of the album inhabits a seemingly common space. Guy Harvey sings of being tired (“Station Approach”), trying to wrest the affection of a girl from the hands of another suitor (“Mexican Standoff”) and trying to forget the obsolescence of work (“The Stop”). But what he and the band do gloriously is reveal the idiosyncratic designs to perfectly indistinct and uninteresting episodes. It requires an especially intelligent, emotionally attuned set of performers to do so and Elbow have on Leaders of The Free World with such munificence.

Coming only a little over a year after Cast of Thousands, Leaders of The Free World offers a somewhat improvised counterpoint to their prior two albums. You can hear band members counting off before and after each song, instruments being tuned and moved around, and a stochastic sense of the recording environment’s very energy. There’s a romance surrounding the album that’s implicit but not ephemeral and adds a sense of positive exigency to the album, as though they’re telling you everything with the utmost honesty.

Somewhat toned is also the music itself as they’ve turned down their more progressive proclivities, this time sticking firmly with shorter but nonetheless satisfying ballads. The album is marked by a naturally ornate tone whereas their prior productions often played with foreign instruments and light studio wizardry. Instead they play with what they have, educing different and sometimes more complicated emotions by altering time signatures or switching between acoustic and electric elements. “Mexican Standoff’s” guitar sets the comical pace of an amorous Western, Harvey sizing up his opponent as though they’re about to duel only to utter the words, “Mexican Standoff/I wish I was hard,” undercutting the seriousness of the event. Better yet is the title track where he sings, “the leaders of the free world/are just little boys throwing stones” as a political indictment that moves beyond left-wing polemics to almost patronize the puerile antics of our supposed political superiors.

Perhaps it’s the immediacy of this recording or even the immediacy of the subject matter to the musicians involved, but Elbow have accomplished an exhilarating artistic presentation. Equally humble yet expressive, smart but not overly preened, Leaders of The Free World is a worthy artifact for a band that comes excitingly close to hitting all the right spots. Some may consider them minor gods, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of their supernal abilities.

Release date: October 18, 2005
Label: V2
Rating: 9.2 / 10

On the web: http://www.elbow.co.uk