“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.