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”.
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.