A Dog for the End of Days: Elbow counts the cost


“For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.” – W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

You only have to listen to a few seconds of Giants of All Sizes, the eighth and most unsettled Elbow album, before the Son of God makes an appearance. He’s here not as the object of worship but the casualty of apostasy; “I don’t love Jesus anymore,” growls singer Guy Garvey, his voice betraying nary a trace of lingering faith or affection. His is a deconversion story born of sorrow; belief battered and buffeted and gradually whittled down to raw fatigue. It’s a fitting opening confession for an album besieged by trial— by death, crumbing relationships, collapsing empires, governmental dysfunction. “You’ve been all over, and it’s been all over you,” Bono once observed, and he might as well have been writing a review of this Elbow record; it sounds like the work of men who’ve been through the wringer, whose very bones now shudder in weariness; a bruised admission of surrendered ideals and depleted optimism. “I was born with a trust that didn’t survive,” Garvey sings at one point, an admission of innocence lost. Elsewhere, he asks: “How d’you keep your eyes ablaze/ in these faith-free, hope-free, charity-free days?” It’s not a rhetorical question. Elbow never offers an answer. 

Take all of this as evidence of what a special band Elbow is, and always has been. It is difficult to imagine an album quite as candid, doleful, or meditative as this coming from the band’s forefathers, nor their contemporaries. Bono’s troupe has doubled down on their inclinations to be all things to all people, to offer anthems of revolutionary fervor and messianic intent; they require of themselves a brave public face, and you’d have to go back decades for any real acknowledgment of the toll it’s taken. It is impossible to imagine U2 ever making an album about how tired they are. Radiohead is better at acknowledging malaise, to the point of almost fetishizing it, but their music revels in the alien whereas Elbow is unerringly terrestrial, neighborly, friendly. Coldplay has a gift for euphoria, which they conjure to fill stadiums or light up the dance floor, but Elbow alone wields majesty with humility, patience, and restraint; the grandeur of Giants of All Sizes is designed not for maximum populism but for quiet moments of solace and introspection. For an antecedent, look not to Elbow’s fellow rock and rollers, but to Over the Rhine’s Love and Revelation. Nick Cave’s Ghosteen. Albums that abide grief without trying to revolve it.

They are a rock band like no other, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that, on Giants of All Sizes, they never really rock in any conventional sense at all. It’s an album that favors refined tempos and leisurely sprawl,which is not to say that it resists noise or abrasion: “White Noise White Heat” cranks up the guitars with lurching, mechanical riffs, while “Empires” bristles with an itchy, restless energy, as though Garvey’s anxieties have spread across his body like an outbreak of hives. Elbow albums have always gestured toward their love of prog rock, and here they get good and crunchy on the shape-shifting opener “Dexter & Sinister,” a snake that sheds its skin again and again, ultimately revealing a soaring vocal hook from Jesca Hoop. “The Delayed 3:15” is a study in permutation and build, winding its way from a slinky clarinet solo into a cathartic swell of strings. More typical of the album’s warm, genial ambiance is “Seven Veils,” wispy and unforced, a swirl of ethereal keyboards that ratifies Elbow’s easeful way with melody. “Doldrums” stutters and sways, and Garvey leans into its tipsy cadence with a jumble of fast-talking bravado. “Weightless,” a particularly diaphanous take on the band’s rafter-raising balladry, lives up to its title.

Garvey’s songwriting documents different forms of heavy-heartedness, often in compact, impressionistic stanzas. “Weightless” celebrates his new son but also eulogizes his father, whose loss looms large over these nine bereaved confessions, with a tight 25-word verse that’s sung just twice (“He was weightless in my arms,” Garvey remembers, a striking note of fragility). “The Delayed 3:15” is only slightly more expansive, taking two short verses to paint a picture of working class enervation so subtle, you can almost miss its surprise ending in suicide-by-train (“you’re just the man whose blues/ stopped his heart beneath our shoes”). “White Noise White Heat,” about London’s Grenfall Tower tragedy, quakes in impotent rage. “Seven Veils” is ravishingly romantic, Garvey singing in his most intimate croon, yet it’s the soundtrack not to a tender embrace but a final goodbye. So much of Giants of All Sizes is concerned with beautiful and sovereign things brought to ruin. “Baby, empires crumble all the time/ pay it no mind/ you just happened to witness mine,” one song goes; it’s a line loaded with Brexit fatigue but could just as easily be about bodies brought low by time and experience; good fortune plundered by entropy and inevitability. 

Maybe that sounds like a dispiriting turn for a band who told us, just one album back, that “it’s all gonna be magnificent.” But the point of Giants of All Sizes is not to revel in gloom so much as to bear a truthful witness. Garvey’s lyrics, so sensitive and terse, don’t linger or wallow in one place for long. What makes a bigger impression is the general sense of burnout. This is an album that counts the cost that comes with clinging to optimism in perilous days; it abides lost faith and dashed hopes on behalf of all who feel beleaguered, and it does so with integrity. (A single dip into “love is the answer” or “everything’s gonna be ok” cliches would have made this entire record ring phony, and Elbow seems to have recognized it.) “How can a bland unremarkable typical Tuesday be Day of the Dead?” Garvey wonders in “Empires,” suggesting the mundanity of rot, the casualness with which evil eras rise up like lions to devour us. And in “Dexter & Sinister,” he insists that he’s “not a dog for the end of days.” But that’s really not his choice to make. None of us get to choose the times we inhabit, nor our proximity to decay and collapse. We are beset with darkness and asked to make the most of it. Giants of All Sizes finds a band long known for its positive vibes admitting that it’s grueling to be a keeper of the flame. It’s consolation for days when it feels like hope has been extinguished. 

Still on the Borderline: The haunting of Baby Rose

to myself

There are no clean getaways. Take it from soul singer Baby Rose, whose transfixing debut album, To Myself, documents relationships that have collapsed, but still exert their own inescapable gravity. Over and over, Rose pledges that she’s making a break, turning a corner, starting a new chapter; and over and over— in fits and starts, broken intentions and faltering relapses— she finds that it’s not so easy. “Maybe if I could just stop/ thinking of him I’ll be fine,” she speculates in “Borderline,” a conclusion that’s simple in theory but seemingly impossible in execution; like willing yourself not to think about a pink elephant. And in “Mortal,” a junkie’s confession set to a punishingly slow beat, she admits that she’ll “pick the pieces up then come running back every time,” all too ready to revisit the scene of her trauma. These are songs that posit love as a kind of ghost story, a haunting that outlasts physical embrace. In “Artifacts,” Rose is a lovestruck amnesiac, sifting through the ruins and relics of a failed relationship, trying to piece together how it all went wrong and allowing herself the hope that next time will be different. Perhaps the entire album is a set of artifacts; scattered memories reassembled into a dazed testimony of love’s capricious grip.

There’s another sense in which To Myself feels like a haunting: Shrouded in mossy atmospherics and submerged in deep shadow, the album is as murky and unsettled as a midnight seance, with Rose summoning to the table the rattling spirits of all the music that raised her— the church songs she grew up singing, the jazz and funk and hip-hop records she inherited from her parents. The production, mostly from Tim Maxley, is organic but not necessarily warm, earthy but also uneasy. It’s an analog sound built from humming keyboards, clattering percussion, and pulsing bass, its persistent dankness unifying all the ghosts Rose has conjured. Indeed, To Myself is a work of seamless synthesis, musical reference points channeled into something holistic and idiosyncratic: Just listen to the stalking R&B banger “Ragrets,” as crisp and propulsive as an Amy Winehouse song, as gnarled and wrinkly as a D’Angelo jam. “Artifacts” is even nastier, a racket of clamorous cymbals, multi-tracked voices, and speaker-rattling bass; George Clinton’s sludgy funk by way of Miles Davis’ 70s-era din. Far from being academic excursions into classicist song structures, these tracks are evocative and fully-embodied; listen again to “Mortal,” a slow-burning blues that dramatizes the agony of desire with bruising physicality. Or, to its tonal opposite, “In Your Arms,” which rides a trip-hop beat and gauzy synths into a weightless chorus, a dream of desire. Rose has obviously metabolized a lot of rap records (among her influences she cites Outkast and other southern eccentrics; she’s also worked with J Cole), and you can hear it in the easeful way she slips into clipped, percussive cadences: “When we were together/ I was like spouse/ right beside you/ playing house.” Her voice encompasses an entire vocabulary of rasps and moans, desirous coos and punchdrunk slurs; the quasi-title track “All To Myself” feels like the album’s beating heart precisely because it puts her weathered instrument at the center, accompanied by little more than piano and church organ.

Rose wrote the material on To Myself in the aftermath of a tumultuous breakup, one she says still holds her in its orbit; these 10 songs suggest someone who remains too deep in the shit to see the larger narrative, so instead she offers fragmented memories, conflicting emotions, shards of memoir and tatters of resolve. The album plays like an insomniac’s free-associative tailspin, veering sharply between anger and sorrow, an iron will to move forward and weak-kneed entreaties to go back to the way things here. “I’ll make it right until it all goes wrong,” she pledges on “Sold Out,” the spooky album opener; you can hear that same tension throughout the record, the push and pull between healthy intentions and inevitable self-destruction. Just because you’re through with love, these songs suggest, that doesn’t mean love’s through with you. It’s one of the oldest stories there is, but it’s also Baby Rose’s story. To Myself is a moody and masterful telling.

Love’s Like That, You Know: Nick Cave sees things as they are


“There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hands,” sings Nick Cave on Ghosteen, his doleful new album with the Bad Seeds. It’s as if he’s granting himself permission for the 11 stark, revealing confessions that occupy these 68 minutes—songs that cling tightly to vanished bodies and phantom limbs; songs that try to to wrap big bear hugs around ghosts and vespers; songs that pledge an intimacy that will last forever, in a world where moth and rust destroy. It’s the first album Cave has conceived since the sudden death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur. (Woebegone though it sounded, Skeleton Tree was largely finished when the accident occurred, its bleak lamentations prescient, perhaps, but not diaristic.) It is at once easy and right to hear Ghosteen as an extended meditation on grief, though it is also worth noting that Cave— seldom one to wear his intentions on his sleeve— never uses the word grief nor even death in these new songs. There’s another word that comes up time and time again, however. “I’m speaking of love now,” Cave sings in the title track, as if that’s not what he’s been speaking about this entire time. Ghosteen is an album about bonds that linger even when flesh and blood turn to vapor; and, about tending to the gardens of a marriage, even when both partners are hobbled by sorrow. You can hear the album as a collection of ghost stories, one in which the spirits themselves rarely appear; mostly we see frail humans going about their daily affairs, as though nothing’s changed, as though everything has. In one of many moments of heartbreaking candor, Cave sings about doing the laundry for someone you’ve lain in the ground. Life’s little rhythms, its daily devotions and acts of service, persist even through shattering disruption. “Love’s like that, you know,” Cave ventures.

Ghosteen is singularly sad, a season of fathomless lament and senseless tragedy preserved in amber; and yet, it’s nowhere close to being the insular downer that you might anticipate. Cave is essentially sitting shiva here. Rather than holing up in a dark room, he’s opened his doors and peeled back the curtains, inviting us, as though we were his very kin, to sit with him in his hour of crisis; to honor his loss with the fullness of our attention, and to receive the generosity of his unmasked witness-bearing. Like the recent Over the Rhine record, Love and Revelation, Ghosteen displays a real wisdom in not rustling for answers, nor reaching for platitudes to tell us everything will be okay. It won’t be, these songs suggest, and there is therapeutic value in simply abiding that truth together. The plainspoken need in these songs reflects the transparency of Cave’s Red Hand Files newsletter, and his ongoing questions-and-answers tour; and, it is reflected in the music itself, as starkly beautiful as anything in the Bad Seeds catalog. Cave says this album completes a trilogy that began with the murmuring Push the Sky Away and reached a harrowing level of low-key abrasion in Skeleton Tree; Ghosteen takes the weightlessness and perspicuity of those recordings and stretches them to their logical extremes. It is the most ambient Bad Seeds album, the most quiet, and the one most demanding to be played loud. Almost entirely drumless, the album wafts and pulses with the sound of analog synths, occasionally rusted over in dirty feedback loops, anchored here and there by Cave’s piano. “Waiting for You,” crisp and romantic, recalls the formal precision of The Boatman’s Call, but more characteristic of the album is “Spinning Song,” which heralds the earthy rock and roll swagger of Elvis Presley above the drone and hum of an vintage keyboard. The record sounds wispy, at times spartan, but it’s also disarmingly beautiful: “Bright Horses” builds from the hymn-like austerity of the piano and the twinkle of a vibraphone into cathartic swells of wordless human voices. It is to the eternal credit of the Bad Seeds that they mostly let their leader hold the spotlight here, though Warren Ellis brings his film scoring bona fides to bear in songs like “Night Raid,” so atmospheric, so drizzly and damp that when Cave’s lyrics reference rainfall, it almost feels superfluous; it’s a perfect concert of dank sound effects and muggy imagery. At the center of all of this is Cave, confessing, confiding, consoling; no, he has never sounded older, but neither has he ever sounded more open or free.

Not for the first time, we hear Cave searching for God from the depths of the abattoir; and just like last time, the results of his questing aren’t entirely conclusive. In “Fireflies,” a spectral spoken word piece toward the album’s end, he scavenges in vain for any sign of the Master’s hand. “There is no order here, nothing can be planned,” he confesses, his divine discontent no less pious than that of the blameless and upright Job. But his struggles for belief seem underscored with an implicit cry for the Lord to help his unbelief. In “Waiting for You” he turns his gaze to a priest and a Jesus freak, both surrendered to the idea that all the present heartache will lead eventually to Christ’s glorious return; Cave isn’t quite there, but he’s tantalized by the solace that a faith vocabulary can bring. Jesus himself is invoked throughout the album, never riding a white horse in victory but only ever lying in his mother’s arms, a crucified son; the Jesus of the downtrodden and the persecuted, the meek and the disinherited. Meanwhile, Cave envisions in “Sun Forest,” we’re all swaying alongside him on some manner of hanging tree. There’s a similarly grim picture painted in “Bright Horses,” where “we’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are.” The self-evident cruelty of the physical world makes him all the more eager to take up the vision of faith, and for half an instant, it lets Cave see past the abattoir and into the highlands, his voice curling however briefly in tantalizing joy (“I can hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord”). But the song ends as Bruce Springsteen’s “Tucson Train” does, with the protagonist waiting at the railroad station for an absent loved one to return; in both cases hopes run high, and in both cases it’s unclear whether the holy fool will see his good faith rewarded.

Even in Ghosteen’s roaring quiet and its plainspoken candor, Cave never sounds like he’s alone. If loss has been a catalyst for faith, it’s also been an empathy generator; maybe that’s the point of “Hollywood,” which closes the album with an ominous 14 minutes of clattering low-end rumble. Toward the end of the song, Cave recounts the Buddhist parable of Kisa, who loses her son and is told by the teacher that she can revive him if only she finds a mustard seed from a household untouched by death. Of course, no such household exists; “everybody is always losing somebody,” Cave laments, death not just a momentary interruption but a continuous degradation. It’s a sobering reflection that Cave renders beguilingly beautiful in “Galleon Ship,” where he envisions himself taking to the sky in search of solace. “For we are not alone it seems,” he wonders, “So many riders in the sky/ The winds of longing in their sails.” Loss can feel isolating, but here Cave imagines his trauma as part of a great cloud of witnesses. There is also the witness of Cave’s lost son, manifest here as a fuzzy shape at the end of a corridor, as “a wish that time can’t resolve,” even as the wandering spirit Ghosteen who arrives with strange tidings of comfort and peace. His presence hovers over the margins of these songs, while Cave’s wife and Arthur’s mother, Susie Bick, often seems to occupy the center of the frame. The album is generous in remembering that the grief over a child is never proprietary, and unflinching in portraying the ways it can fray the bonds of marriage. “Ghosteen” alternates between the mundanity of loss and hallucinatory visions beyond the physical realm, at one point settling into a strange and unsettling scene of three bears in a post-traumatic funk: “Mama Bear holds the remote/ Papa Bear, he just floats/ And Baby Bear, he has gone.” In “Night Raid,” Cave looks back to the evening when his twin sons were conceived, seeing it now through a veil of tears; the suffering Jesus is there as well, promising hardship from the start. In “Waiting for You,”  husband and wife mourn in chilly silence; all he can offer her is time and fidelity (“just want to stay in the business of making you happy”). “Spinning Song” opens the album with scenes of Elvis and Priscilla, a rock and roll couple fated for tragedy— yet even facing down doom, the narrator has devotion on his lips: “And I love you, and I love you, and I love you, and I love you,” he pledges. It’s a promise he returns to in “Leviathan,” a subterranean trance that serves as the album’s fulcrum. “I love my baby and my baby loves me,” chants Cave, as though lifting up his daily prayers. It’s one sure thing he can lay his hand to— at least for now.

Riffs & Reveries: Guitar odysseys from The Messthetics, Tinariwen, and Bruce Cockburn

anthropocosmic nest

Just close your eyes and listen and you might almost convince yourself that The Messthetics were test tube engineered by some ax-obsessed mad scientist, designed to highlight every conceivable expression of electric guitar heroics. Novices should begin with the group’s self-titled 2018 debut, a library of riffs and a testament to the elasticity of the power trio. Then, when you’re ready for the real brain melt, dive into Anthropocosmic Nest, the wirier and more disruptive follow-up; an album that conveys the same technical prowess as their debut, but jolts it with the gutsiness and bravado that only a year of steady touring can bring. This is a band equally adept at building locomotive grooves and then ripping them open with crackling pyrotechnics; at crafting immaculately linear rock and roll songs, then allowing them to dissolve in bursts of static and noise. Anthropocosmic Nest is demonstrably more anarchic than its predecessor, but what makes it lovable is the ease with which The Messthetics shift between clean, conceptual playing and the biggest, dumbest, most lumbering riffs imaginable: check “Scrawler,” where a clattering countdown launches the band into throttling, in-the-red punk, then deep-space jazz noodling. “Drop Foot” thrashes and bashes but then takes a strange detour into junkyard percussion and knob-tweaking chirrup, as if the band is suddenly caught in a swarm of chirping cicadas. Don’t confuse it with “Insect Conference,” a weird minute and a half of twittering sound effects. And don’t let either of those songs fool you into thinking The Messthetics don’t do straight-ahead beauty: “Pacifica,” coasts through wave after wave of glorious melody, its moody atmospherics suggesting an alternate timeline in which The Messthetics play straight shoegaze; you’ll even hear an acoustic guitar in “Because the Mountain Says So,” as clarion as a folk song, as insistent as arena rock. These songs are epic in their build and patient in their pacing, and set the stage for at least one more curveball: “La Lontra,” the next to last song on the album, may be its sleaziest rock and roller of all. Scratch the shoegaze thing; maybe what this band was really cut out for is hair metal?

The Messthetics’ restless spirit is more than equalled by Tinariwen, a caravan of literal nomads whose new Amadjar was assembled on the go, recorded guerilla-style at campsites throughout the Sahara. The album’s title is translated as the foreign traveler, and at first blush it seems like it could have been affixed to most any album the group has made since its 1979 inception, each one of them bearing witness to the roving curiosity and low-key political dissidence of these Tuareg exilees. Upon closer listen, devotees may find that Amadjar captures their rambling nature—the paradoxical way in which they sound so tethered to their particular part of the Earth yet also so defined by their transience and homelessness— as vividly as any Tinariwen album to date. The relaxed and intoxicating album, devoid of anything you could justifiably call a rocker, drones and swirls with loose guitar jams that stretch into endless night; campfire rags featuring call-and-response singing of hymnal austerity and pentecostal fervor. One thing that sets the album apart from other Tinariwen releases is how they’ve opened their caravan to other wayfarers, allowing a number of similarly restless non-African musicians to overdub textures, wrinkles, and vibes of their own. These post-production effects are so organic you might not be able to place them without consulting the album credits; the closest to being ostentatious is probably Micah Nelson, whose spritely mandolin on “Taqkal Tarha” finds the connective tissue between Tinariwen’s African traditionalism and American folk, gospel, and blues. Stephen O’Malley, of the band Sun O))), adds sinister cinema to the ghostly “Wartilla,” a minor-key lament where dexterous finger-picked guitar seems like it’s being sucked into a black hole of electric drone. Bad Seed Warren Ellis shows up several times to add mournful violin, and Cass McCombs enmeshes his own guitars with the band’s thick bramble. These guests all supply welcome accents and color, but they never steal the spotlight from Tinariwen’s endlessly hypnotic weave of guitars, hand claps, and community sing-along vocals. Those with a fluency in the band’s native tongue will identify plenty of agitation in their lyrics, but even if you can’t offer a literal translation, you’ll still feel like you’re basically speaking the same language: Theirs is a musical vocabulary of pilgrimage, of peace and community amidst rootlessness and upheaval. What could be more universal?

On the topic of pilgrims making progress, consider Canadian troubadour Bruce Cockburn, whose close to three dozen (!!) singer/songwriter albums document a lifelong wrestling match with the Almighty, plus an extended inquiry into pancultural musical traditions. Crowing Ignites is only his second album of purely instrumental acoustic guitar music, and what astonishes about it is how it conveys the same characteristics that make his sung poetry so compelling; these compositions are literate, questing, and mystical, seeming at once tranquil and disquieted. A couple of elegiac cycles come toward the front of the album— “Easter” is a contemplative resurrection reverie, “April in Memphis” a procession through actual funeral bells— but his pensiveness is offset here by a handful of earthy surprises. Cockburn doles out snarling blues licks on “The Moan,” but better still is “The Mt. Lefroy Waltz,” swingin’ after-hours jazz guitar complete with brushed cymbals and the sympathetic groan of a muted trumpet (the latter supplied by coronet master Ron Miles). All of this is recorded by producer Colin Linden in immaculate clarity, and suggests that Cockburn is as enraptured by sound and texture as he is high-concept songwriting; consider “Bells of Gethsemane,” where the rustle of acoustic strings stands out against the backdrop of haunted chimes and singing bowls, its very title evoking the Christ-hauntedness that’s always animated Cockburn’s music. There’s a resourcefulness of sound on other songs, too: “Pibroch: The Wind in the Valley” features guitar strings that thrum and drone in simulation of Scottish bagpipes, while “Seven Daggers” cuts a crooked path through chiming kalimba, the tactility of Cockburn’s playing shrouded in otherworldly mist. Such excursionary arrangements mirror the album’s probing spirit: His fleet-fingered playing keeps these songs in perpetual motion even when the mood is reflective, trying to lay his hands to revelation beyond words.