Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!

The artwork for Elbow’s new album, Build a Rocket Boys!, left me disappointed when I first saw it. Disenfranchised, perhaps. Maybe even upset. Not because I dislike it on any kind of aesthetic level – I’ve almost been unable to consider its aesthetics – but because of what it signifies, potentially, to me, someone who’s bought every album since their debut on the day it was released (I got the debut about a month after its release).

This is because Build A Rocket Boys! (which I’ll refer to as BARB from now on) continues the design scheme established on The Seldom Seen Kid (TSSK), which we now have to refer to as “Elbow’s breakthrough album”. Not only does BARB feature another painting by Oliver East, it uses the same font, the same text arrangement, the same strike to either side of the band’s name on the cover. The colour palette, though shifted to blues from browns, is muted, watercoloured blues, the way that TSSK’s browns were muted, watercoloured browns. (Partly of course this is due to East’s style and mediums of choice.)

What this means, of course, is that BARB is recognisably another Elbow album in the visual vein of TSSK. What this means, of course, is that Elbow have, several years down the line, recognised that a consistent visual identity (fonts, colour schemes, design motifs, photography styles) is a necessary requirement for any band that understands its status as a brand.

Which is fine and dandy, and necessary. Liking a band reinforces identity. Liking a band acts as a shortcut signifier that tells people a little bit about who you are, especially in your youth. I spend increasing amounts of my time talking about brands and branding and saying things like “white space defines who we are”. I may have, in the past, got upset when a record label used Arial in bold instead of Arial Bold (or vice versa) (or something) for the font of a band’s name on a particular record sleeve. Because these things matter. Massively. That record, in a line with all the others, using the correct font consistently, suddenly looks and feels wrong, inauthentic, like a dodgy market knock-off, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why, and as a result, regardless of the music contained therein, gets pulled out and played less. These things matter. Design affects us.

So bands, or record labels, or incompetent designers, suddenly changing tack, offends me greatly, and not only me. Remember when Oasis picked a new logo for Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants and people went mental? That was a rebranding exercise, and Oasis’ fanbase didn’t respond to it very well at all. Sometimes you can manage it – Ash change their logo for every album – but if you establish something consistent and then change it, it raises doubts, asks questions, prompts uncertainty.

Doubts, questions, and uncertainty all being key constituent parts of Elbow’s music up till now. And reflected in their artwork, their font choices, their branding, by that artwork, those font choices, and that branding being inconsistent from album to album. Sometimes similar, usually recognisable as Elbow, always kept unified across the singles that surround an LP, but changing, evolving. BARB maintaining the exact same stylebook as TSSK says, in no uncertain terms, that the Elbow brand is established.

Given that Elbow are now in their late 30s, and making music that speaks to people of a similar age by and large (music of regrets, of passion shorn of aggression but imbued with affection, of location, of friendship, of missed chances and seized moments and remembered feelings), they don’t need to establish a brand in the way that a young band does. They don’t need to appeal to the reinforcement of anybody’s adolescent identity. Establishing a brand four or five albums into a career doesn’t proudly command “believe in this” but rather timidly asks “more of the same, please”.

Doesn’t it?

And the music must surely pander to that request, mustn’t it? Play it safe, give the public what they want, see what got airplay and incidental TV usage from the last one? I mean, they’ve roped in a choir, haven’t they?

This is still Elbow. Guy Garvey still has the same voice. The band, broadly speaking, still play the same instruments and make the same kind of noises. But no album that features such a minimalist, elongated opening pair of songs, that twitch and squirm and swell and swoon, is playing it all that safe. If you liked Elbow’s other albums, you’ll like this one. If you were hoping for 11 slices of anthemic rock, you’ll be disappointed. If you soak it in on its own terms, you’ll be rewarded. At a guess. I’ve had the album for 3 hours, listened to it twice. It might radically change with familiarity. But I doubt it.

Quick impressions. No stompers; no squalls of noise; no sinister scratching and no burn wounds. One big singalong chorus. Astonishingly detailed sound; huge dynamic range. Minimalism; some songs barely there at all, but still oceanic and full of detail. A choir; deployed in interesting ways rather than for bombast. Bits and pieces throughout the record that could easily be seen as redolent of other moments from across their whole career, from the crawling grooves and shattering glass of the debut to the melodic circles of the TSSK, the delicate second half of Leaders Of The Free World, the slowly defeated triumph of Cast Of Thousands. Nothing new; nothing exactly the same.

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12 responses to “Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!

  1. This is similar to what I thought the first time I heard it, when I asked if Elbow have finally made a great album. I thought Seldom Seen Kid had songs that were dull and songs that were horribly brash, with a only couple that were genuinely good. But they’ve always been that sort of band for me, one that releases a CD with disparate good songs and bad songs rather than an actual decent album. I think – think – they might have done it this time, by combining the brilliant stateliness of tracks like Scattered Black & Whites, the big heart of Grace Under Pressure, the swoon of Fugitive Motel, but avoiding the glaring lack of subtlety of ones like Tower Crane Driver or Mexican Standoff. BARB is recognisably a sum of the parts that have gone before, like a plan that’s finally come to fruition.

    And I fucking love the fact they put an exclamation mark in the album title.

    • Sometimes I wonder how useful it is to get close enough to a band’s music that you can find some songs in an album context annoying, brash, subpar; I’m sure we’d both have been less precious about certain artists if we could remove that fastidiousness and just take an album as a whole; some flawed pieces, some gems, and a unifying impression of enjoying it, liking it. Rather than wishing Liars Tears had been switched with Get On Board. Or whatever.

  2. well said nick, well said.

  3. Pingback: Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys! « Sick Mouthy | Elbow

  4. My 11 year old son is in love with “Lippy Kids”. I don’t know if he understands the lyric, but the stanza “Build a rocket boys!” seems to have touched something deep down in his young soul.

    I’m a big Elbow fan and my son has all of their albums and EPs on his iPod. I never listen to them album-by-album, but rather on shuffle. You never know what you’re going to get and this method seems to smooth out some of the rubbish bumps in their musical road.

    • I was going to say something about “11 seems a bit young to be into Elbow,” but thinking about it, I was obsessed with Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood album at that age…

  5. Is 11 too young to be into Justin Bieber? Or Rebecca Black, for that matter? Ugh.

  6. I love the glaring lack of subtlety in Mexican Standoff and in many of Elbows songs and I enjoy the songs that move in subtle steps like many on “Build a rocket boys!”. I have always felt Elbow made great songs and albums and songs that might appear weaker work well in the context of the album. Every time I get the new Elbow album might first impression is disappointment and then over time I find I love it more then the previous album. I think that’s why Elbow’s music never becomes boring.

  7. Pingback: My Type of Music: The Raveonettes, Jim Jones, Daft Punk, Foo Fighters, Elbow, Emmylou Harris | The FontFeed

  8. Pingback: Elbow artwork | Chazksolutions

  9. Like your comment – “And I fucking love the fact they put an exclamation mark in the album title.” do you have any opinion as to why they may have used the (!) I am writing an article about the use of (!) in music, band names and tiles. Thanks

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