Reviewed by: Geno Thackara
Following Elbow’s career often feels like checking in with good friends you don’t get to see often enough. It’s great to enjoy familiar faces each time and share some jokes other people just won’t get, and at the same time it’s a bit odd finding that someone might have gotten a new tattoo or developed a strange unexpected taste for sushi. In the same way, each of the band’s releases is essentially them – that smart, vaguely Brit-poppy “prog rock without the solos” songcraft is distinct as ever – but there’s always some gradual change each time around. Hey, none of us are really the same people we were a couple years (let alone decades) ago.
You’d almost expect Little Fictions to be one of the downers. After Richard Jupp’s departure from the drum stool (the only lineup change in their 27-year history), Elbow is figuring out how to adapt to unsettling shifts in their existence as well as the world at large. Their response? To start with a gorgeous opener as effervescently hopeful as anything they’ve ever done. “Magnificent (She Says)” gives a blissful massage for the ears with charming strings and a radiant groove to die for. If life is uncertain and scary, it makes the bright spots that much sweeter.
Not everything can or should hit with that same immediacy, but the album continues unfolding itself with more spins as Elbow’s music always does. The tweaks are small but noticeable: more prominent electric guitar tones, a little dreamy psych-synth background here or vocal chorus there. With a new approach to filling in the rhythm part, the angular R&B of “Firebrand & Angel” or the gently coasting beats under “Gentle Storm” show them drifting closer to dance-floor shuffle than they have before. “All Disco,” on the other hand, is a sweeping chorale that doesn’t sound like disco (or anything danceable) at all.
The songs and structures err on the side of less rather than more – as always, the band spins out ideas whenever and however they simply feel right without feeling pressure for unnecessary embellishments. Two and a half minutes is enough for the wispy “Montparnasse” to almost wrap up, while with the title track it’s barely time for the first chorus to start. That one drifts from sparse to lush before sprawling to a grand cinematic finish, offering some fitting musings on love in its good-and-bad messiness along the way.
Little Fictions doesn’t flinch away from sadness, but overall the band is noticeably bouncing back from the bittersweet The Takeoff and Landing of Everything. Guy Garvey, now happily married, focuses his lyrics on enjoying the bright side of things and at least looking for silver linings in the rest. He’s in excellent vocal form as well, able to deliver lines like “you’re my reason for breathing” with disarming honesty and zero schmaltz, while the other elements (Pete Turner’s solid bass and the Potter brothers’ guitars and keys) find their new configuration loosening and liberating. The result is a beautiful achievement for any group past the quarter-century mark: they’ve made a natural yet surprising jump forward and hit another career high.