“When we won the Mercury I was walking down the street and this car slowed and the window wound down,” Guy Garvey told The Guardian in 2011. “I was semi-expecting something, because it was two days after we’d won it, and this guy just went: ‘Oi, Elbow! Get a fucking proper job! That’s a compliment in Manchester.”
That’s one of the things that’s always separated Elbow from much of the rest of the Manchester pack - a genuine affection for the city. The Smiths were plenty referential, but Morrissey’s lyrics were often laced with a sardonic quality that, admittedly, is not in short supply in that corner of the world. Joy Division would have you believe that out of the crumbling warehouses rises nihilism as standard, while Oasis couldn’t wait to get away from the place when they hit it big. Elbow, though, remain very much in love with their hometown after twenty-something years in the music business and seven on from becoming arguably the Mercury’s biggest success story. I remember him, strangely enough, being on The Andrew Marr Show around that time, and responding to a jibe about the rain in the city by telling Marr, totally honestly, how beautiful he thought Manchester looks in the rain. Marr looked at him as if he thought he might need sectioning.
Garvey has such a knack of staying just the right side of corny in his lyrics, though, that he could make pretty much anywhere seem appealing; this EP, designed as a farewell for the time being as the group embark upon various extracurricular endeavours, is named after the city’s symbol - the worker bee - and follows the lead of last year’s return to form The Take Off and Landing of Everything in its sonic subtlety. Listeners looking for another “One Day Like This” or “Open Arms” will be sorely disappointed; the title track here matches chirpy guitars with the horns that have become a standard part of the Elbow set up of late, as Garvey spins a tale of homesick romance - “all these promises of gold, but where is my soul? / Overseas, in England, I know”.
The six-minute “Roll Call” is the standout and the track closest to Take Off and Landing - the same driving percussion, the same reliance on nuanced group vocals on the chorus, even a lyrical nod to “My Sad Captains”. This is how the more upbeat Elbow tracks used to be - ambitious enough to aim for a sprawling sonic landscape, but restrained enough to avoid overblown, lighters-in-the-air climaxes.
“And It Snowed” is the EP’s most atmospheric moment - the guitar and keys both feel sparse, and a downbeat Garvey vocal smartly puts across his masterful way with metaphor; a bitingly cold Manchester day providing the backdrop for the breakdown of a relationship. “Usually Bright”, if we’re to believe the band - they’ve never had anything in the way of an extended break since The Seldom Seen Kid, really - is the last we’re going to hear from them for a while. If that’s the case, it’s a lovely acoustic note on which to sign off on, evoking the sadness of leaving town for an overseas tour - “at 30,000 feet / the saddest gins, the saddest tonics.” Garvey’s always had a way of making Manchester sound like Paris; on Lost Worker Bee, though, he goes a step further - he makes doing so seem easy.