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Elbow: Newborn

Updated: May 6, 2020

Richard Wetherell

When I Wanna Be Like You (I'm the king of the swingers) finishes in The Jungle Book one of King Louis’s henchmen/monkeys notices that Baloo’s disguise has been exposed. Henchmonkey No2 then says: ‘How'd that square get in here?’

Which is rather how I feel right now writing for this website. When friends at school were listening to David Bowie's prodigious output from the Berlin years I was memorising Abba songs. Things changed a little – if not my love for Agnetha – and I began to work my way through prog rock and beyond, steadily widening my knowledge and being caught up in the Britpop explosion.

If you think that introduction is weird, imagine how you would feel when, late in 2001, as I listened to a bunch of unknowns on track eight from a CD stuck on the front of a music magazine, a quiet voice emerges to say: ‘I'll be the corpse in your bathtub/ Useless.’

That voice turned out to be Guy Garvey, the band was Elbow and the song was Newborn from their first album Asleep At The Back. There were artists on that complimentary CD known to me and some unknown – big hello whoever you are to Roots Manuva – but this was entrancing, bold, different.

The early part of Newborn bobs along, showing the acknowledged influence of Entangled by Genesis, all strumming guitars, lovely harmonies, mellow keyboards and gentle drums. It builds and builds in urgency, lobs in a bit of jazzyness halfway through, a bit of Yes for the bridge, and then...

BANG. Thrashing guitar, clanging cymbals, urgent organ sounds, that voice desperately wailing, those lyrics. Sudden end.

In seven minutes 30 seconds can be heard everything that was to follow for Elbow. There’s the call and response in the (interesting, often longing) lyrics as in Grounds For Divorce, their fondness for the sudden blast that’s best heard in Starlings and their mighty musicianship that is most evident when playing live.

This square tends to be somewhat behind the curve so it was something of a bonus to be aware of Elbow long before they hit joyous, hands-waving, singalong status – altogether now: ‘Throw those curtains wide/ One day like this a year would see me right.’

At this stage I should be telling you how I became a devoted fan, travelled far and wide to watch them live but after two more albums – some good stuff, but not really going anywhere – I decided against buying their fourth album. I soon realised I was missing something and so did many others. The band were sure of themselves now and along came the 2008 Mercury Prize for The Seldom Seen Kid, featuring the still ubiquitous One Day Like This, the commission to write First Steps, the BBC's 2012 London Olympics theme, and No1 albums.

A huge part of their appeal derives from Garvey, with his cuddly drinking-buddy status now well established, and his way with words, part poetry, part storytelling. There’s sometimes a journalistic approach with an attention-grabbing opening line – ‘I've been working on a cocktail called grounds for divorce’. Then there is the picture painting – ‘I have a drop-leaf window/ With cats and broken yards/ Sunflowers and paint cans/ And stolen shopping carts’, but most of all he exposes his soul, sometimes heartbroken as on Puncture Repair, sometimes joyous with love, most recently in the opening track, Magnificent (She Says), on the latest Elbow album, Little Fictions, that was inspired by his honeymoon with his new wife.

Also present is a love of the north, mostly Manchester but occasionally with reference to towns around their hometown of Bury. Garvey emphasises this with a proudly Lancastrian pronunciation – ‘mother’ and ‘fucker’, for example, are replete with vowel sounds a long way from the Queen’s English or faux American.

They’ve come a long since 2001 when Newborn was part of a collection lobbed away for free, but that introduction to Elbow was priceless.

Richard Wetherell has been on the Observer sports desk since the year the members of Elbow met at a sixth-form college in Bury. He writes for and can be followed on Twitter @4ridings


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