Suggestions that Elbow might have rested on their laurels since the success of The Seldom Seen Kid are not entirely justified. That said, they aren’t totally without merit either.
That particular record, their fourth, served as a spectacular riposte to the idea that winning the Mercury Prize tends to prove an albatross around the necks of the victors. When the Bury outfit clinched it in September 2008, the accolade went on to do everything it was supposed to; the £20,000 prize money surely paled in comparison to the way in which the associated press attention propelled the band to arena status, platinum sales figures and, thanks to the near-ubiquity of “One Day Like This”, considerable exposure on television and radio.
They went on to tour the LP for a good year longer than they normally would have, and by the time they finally followed it up with 2011’s Build a Rocket Boys!, their uncertainty was palpable. “Lippy Kids” and “Dear Friends” rang out with elegance, but in a manner that felt slightly studied, and elsewhere, there were unfortunate stabs at catering to the stadium audience - the apparently interminable “The Birds”, for instance, as well as a straight-shooting attempt at a successor to “One Day Like This”, the wildly overblown “Open Arms”.
Then, on The Take Off and Landing of Everything, they might’ve lurched a touch too far the other way. Again, there were moments to rank among their very best; “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette” lilted between belligerence and self-deprecation, and the title track felt epic enough to live up to its name. The prettiness of “Real Life (Angel)” and “Colour Fields”, though - among others - felt offset by their slightness.
All of which is to say that Elbow hadn’t quite packed the punch they did on The Seldom Seen Kid since. In retrospect, it might be true that they were crying out for something to change, for something to provide fresh impetus after twenty-five years of the same lineup, and more than ten working at the same studio. Last year, around the time they customarily decamped to Mull to begin work on their seventh LP, that dramatic alteration arrived with the abrupt departure of drummer Richard Jupp in what sound like less than amicable circumstances. The two tracks that made the cut on this new record from that trip, “Head for Supplies” and “Kindling”, speak to the uncertainty and quiet heartbreak that came along with Jupp being, in a manner of speaking, the first of the gang to die.
That isn’t, though, the most prominent way in which his departure has impacted upon Little Fictions. In his absence, the group’s approach to percussion has changed profoundly; they’ve never made a record as beat-heavy as this. The brooding “Gentle Storm” relies on a thumping loop, the skittering backing on “Trust the Sun” underscores the track’s quiet anxiety, and on “Little Fictions”, the drum track - provided in this instance by Alex Reeves, who played with Guy Garvey on his solo tour - is at the heart of what sounds like an eight-minute descent into chaos.
It helps, too, that Garvey is on the lyrical form of his life, which is saying something. He is a man of no little heart and his appetite for sentimentality on some of the band’s best known tracks has often seen him pigeonholed in recent years, especially given that his well-worn vocals, at their warmest, are basically the sonic equivalent of a big hug from an old mate. To hold that view unequivocally, though, would be to dismiss his pricklier side and it rears its head here on tracks like “K2”, a gorgeous, Rhodes piano-imbued cut that has the frontman railing against the current political climate and the complicity of the press with a genuine venom - "they're never gonna make an arrest on Fleet Street." Garvey married the actress Rachael Stirling last summer but the loved-up, arms-wide moments are kept to something like a minimum and when they are deployed, they’re on - for instance - “All Disco”, an irresistibly upbeat paean to songwriting itself that was inspired by a conversation with Pixies’ Black Francis.
Musically and thematically, everything about Little Fictions’ gestation has conspired to create arguably the most taut and urgent album of Elbow’s career. They’ve found room to push out and experiment, displayed the presence of mind to show restraint where they might have gone for bombast in the past - the understated drama of the strings on “Magnificent (She Says)” is a case in point - and, by finding opportunity for reinvention in their painful split with Jupp, they’ve turned something broken into something beautiful.
Elbow’s live shows often feel like an exercise in the anthemic and casual observers brought in by the sweeping, lighters-in-the-air emotional appeal of “One Day Like This” or “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver” might not find Little Fictions the easiest record to love, or to lose themselves in. The truth is, though, that this band do their very best work when they’re aiming for nuance over bluster, and that tends to be when Garvey’s words are at their most effective. The album’s closing lines see him at his most devastatingly romantic: “my telephone shakes into life, and I see your name/and the wheat fields explode into gold either side of the train.” That’s as poetic as anything anybody’s ever written about a long-distance relationship, in song or in prose. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that’s all that Garvey, and Elbow, have to offer.