Bliss at One's Elbow...
Forget the glib "Coldplay with beards" comments bandied about in assorted hipper-than-thou music pages whenever Manchester band, Elbow are mentioned. These guys are disturbingly good.
When my friend Ed Woltil turned me on to their 2006 release, The Seldom Seen Kid, I was floored. I just didn't think that I could be that startled by a band anymore. I mean, don't you usually have those apoplectic moments in your youth and carry them with you into geezerdom? Then you get to regale all young whippersnappers within earshot, with nuggets of wisdom like "Back in my day, you had to pay your dues" " or "The production on that album has never been bettered".
For me, listening to Elbow, is to be at once inspired and bewildered. Each song sounds like it's been lovingly arranged, performed and recorded. They sound like they really, really matter to the band members themselves. Now, they really matter to me, and inspire me to want to do better. No matter how many times I hear singer Guy Garvey deliver the tender opening line to Mirrorball (" I plant the kind of kiss that wouldn't wake a baby, on the self same face that wouldn't let me sleep") I'm in awe.
What's incredible to contemplate, though - and this is the bewildering part- is that over the pond at least, these guys are winning awards, having hit records and selling out major venues. How is this possible? It beggars belief that in the coarsened, celebrity gossip-fuelled morass of childish bad taste and mindless auto-tuned mediocrity that passes for pop culture these days, something so undeniably excellent can still make inroads. It's damn encouraging, I tell you.
If you ever listen to the affable Mr. Garvey's interviews and hear him wax poetic about Manchester, it quickly becomes apparent how much his hometown means to him and the music he writes. To be honest, it makes me squirm a little. Perhaps it's because it leaves me with a vague sense of melancholy, remorse, or even guilt about having left the place I was born. I mean, here's a bloke who undoubtedly has the means to move out if he wants to. Instead, he stays and champions the place where he lives. Grey skies and soggy climate notwithstanding, he feels like he belongs there, and he embraces the whole package, warts and all. There's a nobility in it, an authenticity that springs from it, and as much as it warms my heart to hear him speak of it, it also brings these strange feelings to the surface for me. Other than lard and incessant drizzle, I can't help but wonder if I might have missed out on something when I left.
It makes me think about the idea that the longer you're away from home, the more you gradually become aware of the fact that you've lost a fair bit of your accent, and it's easy to wonder if perhaps you've lost some of your identity along with it. While I occasionally feel a little jarred when I hear American-accented words tumble from my mouth, I've also felt the same twinge when occasionally retreating to heavily accented slang phrases from yesteryear. It's almost like I'm acting or stuck inside some weird cultural transatlantic no-man's land or something.
Being the transplant that I am, I suppose I suffer from a sort of envy of those who are so rooted in their surroundings, that they're able to deliver music that's pure, and seemingly devoid of artifice and pretense. If I listen to, say, an Irish folkie or even an Appalachian bluegrass band, I instantly envy their stylistic integrity, and musically, at least, it can make me feel like a bit of a phony. I mean, if I attempt to write a country song in the style of say, Lyle Lovett, it's going to sound like an exercise. I'm so obviously not from Texas, and to even try to approximate such stylings would be awkward and embarrassing.
Oh well, as one famous permanent exile once sang -"What can a poor boy do?". I suppose there's no shame in using these vague feelings of alienation and rootlessness as food for songs. Who's to say that it's not an equally valid muse from which to draw inspiration? Perhaps I need to stop being concerned with silly restrictions like geography and genre? Yeah, that's the ticket. You know, I'm feeling better about this all the time.
I'll bet it's pissing down in Manchester.