Radiohead‘s status as musical gods has been cemented for well over a decade, while Elbow, despite their length of service, have only been enjoying the label of being one of Britain’s finest bands for the last couple of years, and, halcyon indie days, both have dropped new albums in little over a fortnight.
Radiohead’s King of Limbs, their eighth album, is, well, it’s hard work. The hooks are minimal, while, for the first half, everything else is as dense as possible. The first three, seven, 15 listens leave little impression other than ‘Christ, that was short’, and the feeling of being short-changed: In Rainbows was released in 2007, and King of Limbs has eight tracks, which boils Radiohead’s writing output down to an average of two songs a year. Thanks, best British band of a generation, you’re spoiling us.
Coming after Amnesiac or Hail to the Thief, King of Limbs would have been less of a surprise, but following In Rainbows’ lightness, it feels like a wilfully obtuse caffeine headache of an album. But this is Radiohead: surely there’s some masterplan at work here, surely we’re just not getting it.
Give it time, and give it repeat listens, and it will sink in. Good Morning Mr Magpie’s claustrophobic rumble will make sense, Giving Up The Ghost and Codex will surrender their shivering charms and Separator will leave with a quiet optimism, and prompt the urge to press play and battle through it all once again. Maybe working so hard to just enjoy an album is ridiculous, but what other band would make it seem like a worthwhile pursuit?
Two and a half weeks later and it’s time for Build A Rocket, Boys!, the fifth effort from Elbow and a positive (comparatively) behemoth at 11 tracks. Debut album Asleep In The Back drew predictable comparisons to Radiohead, and 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid did what Radiohead have consistently failed to do: won the Mercury Music Prize. This, coupled with the misappropriation of One Day Like This as reality TV background music, saw Elbow suddenly a big name, and earned them the dubious Princess Di-ish nickname of the people’s band (seriously, what the hell is that?). Build A Rocket, Boys, is the first album they have made under the weight of mainstream expectation.
The good news is that, for the most part, there is no sign that this has been any kind of a factor: it’s only Open Arms that really does a One Day Like This, a to the roof chorus which cries ‘everyone sing’ rather knowingly. The album as whole, though, is very much The Seldom Seen Kid’s cousin: understated, stirring, all dynamic rise and devastating hush. When it’s brilliant, as it is on Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl (the devastating delivery of ‘nothing to be proud of/and nothing to regret’ is almost worth the price of the album in itself) and Lippy Kids, it’s something truly special, a reminder, were one needed, of why Elbow’s fans clutch to them the way they do. But, and perhaps because it has had less time to sink in than King of Limbs (it admittedly feels like it needs less work), there is a similar sense, initially, that some of the magic is missing: it’s only closer Dear Friends that really conjures something beautiful here, the shimmering sound of debilitating love. But again, once it dies away, the urge is there to be immersed in it all again. And that, perhaps, is what makes Elbow, and indeed Radiohead great: the compulsion to disappear inside their sonic worlds. Few bands provoke this kind of dedication; fewer still reward it.