A radio station in Essex (England, that is, not Maryland) has been soliciting votes for listeners (and other fans’) top ten Elbow songs for an upcoming show. Naturally, as I have some small interest in the subject and I have opinions on the matter, I went to the website and voted.
The choices on the web form don’t, unfortunately, encompass the totality of the band’s work. The five albums are there, a few b-sides, and an odds-and-ends or two. The things that are missing, basically, are things that only completists and hard-core Elbow fans would be likely to know.
My choices for the top ten Elbow songs…
- “Fugitive Motel”
Cast of Thousands was the first Elbow album I bought. As I remember it, I bought it the same day I bought Snow Patrol’s Final Straw, at the Best Buy at Crossroads in Cary, North Carolina. Ironically, given my feelings on the two bands now, it was Final Straw that I listened to more, but I also burned out on Final Straw in a way that I didn’t burn out on Cast of Thousands. There were two tracks on Cast of Thousands that made me stand up and take note of the band, and “Fugitive Motel” was one of those two. What impressed me about the song was the poetic evocation of a lonely life on the road, away from the people and places that the song’s subject loves. “Cigarette holes for every lost soul” is a powerful line. If there’s a song that encapsulates Elbow for me, it would be “Fugitive Motel.”
- “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver”
I didn’t know that Elbow had released a new album. I happened to be at Best Buy, browsing through the music department, and I noticed that there was an Elbow album there I didn’t have — The Seldom Seen Kid. I bought it instantly, along with the digital converter box for my television (which was the reason I had gone to Best Buy). I took the album home, put it in the stereo like a totemic object, and… I didn’t like it. I took the album to work the next day, I put it in the computer, I listened to it through headphones, and, still feeling somewhat tepid about it, I reached “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver.” I’d already heard the song two or three times that day — I had it on repeat — but something about hearing it this particular time gripped me. There’s an instrumental passage of emotional catharsis that comes at about 3:40 into the song, where the weight of the subject’s loneliness gives way to the sunshine of hope, and when that wave hit me I was blown away. I suddenly understood The Seldom Seen Kid as a whole, and I’ve loved the album completely ever since.
- “Scattered Blacks and Whites”
I have to be honest, Asleep in the Back, Elbow’s first album, is an album that I have never really understood. I like many of the songs on it, but it doesn’t cohere for me in ways that the later albums do. (Cast also doesn’t cohere, but Leaders of the Free World is a break-up album, The Seldom Seen Kid is a falling-in-love album, and Build a Rocket Boys! is a going-home album.) But the songs that work for me on Asleep really do work for me, and “Scattered Blacks and Whites” is one of those. A song about memories of childhood, there’s a gentle, poetic spirit to it.
- “The Stops”
One of the break-up songs on Leaders of the Free World, “The Stops” is about Guy Garvey’s break-up with deejay Edith Bowman. I find the song very relateable; I think everyone has felt the feelings expressed here when a relationship ends for reasons not of their choice.
- “Open Arms”
Perhaps it’s unfair to list a song from the newest album, Build a Rocket Boys! in the top five. Yet, I think it’s a staggering song. On first listen, it sounds much like “One Day Like This,” the anthemic song from The Seldom Seen Kid about waking up in the flush of love. But when you get past the singalong chorus and delve down into the lyrics, there’s something far more interesting at work. As I mentioned above, BaRB! is an album about going home, and “Open Arms” exemplifies that with its story of a young man who has walked away from his life, turned his back on friends and family, and struck out on his own — and the people he left behind who are ready and willing to welcome him back, no questions asked. “Open Arms” may have sounded like “One Day Like This,” but it’s really “Tower Crane Driver” by way of The Beatles’ “Let It Be.” The verses paint a powerful picture of loneliness, the chorus paints a portrait of friendship and acceptance, and, I admit, this song hit very close to home for me.
An utterly gorgeous song on The Seldom Seen Kid about falling in love.
- “Leaders of the Free World”
I love this song because it rocks hard. I love this song because it’s an anti-Bush/anti-Blair/anti-Iraq War song — “Leaders of the free world are just little boys throwing stones.” It’s not a profound song like the songs listed above. It’s just a song that speaks to a time and a place.
- “Great Expectations”
I didn’t get this song from Leaders of the Free World for a very long time. It took the break-up of two friends of mine for me to really understand it — and, even then, I’m not sure that I really do. If “The Stops” is the reaction to an unexpected break-up as it happens, “Great Expectations” is the mourning after for what was lost, for the dreams that were shattered. It’s the gloomy feelings that seem to overwhelm the world and drown out the light. It’s a gentle song, and like Elbow’s best work the lyrics are poetic and moving.
- “Not a Job”
This is the other song from Cast of Thousands that made me sit up and take note of Elbow. To be honest, after seven years I still have no idea what this song is about. I’m sure someone can chime in and tell me it’s something obvious and that I’ve been overthinking the song all these years. But songs don’t have to mean anything; sometimes, you can love a song with inscrutable lyrics just because it’s awesome to listen to. And “Not a Job” is, for me, awesome to listen to. It sounds like nothing else.
“I’ll be the corpse in your bathtub — useless.” How can one not love a song that starts with a line like that? From Asleep in the Back, “Newborn” is a song that, like “Not a Job,” I don’t really understand but that I love the sound of and that I gained a greater appreciation of when I saw Elbow live a few years ago.
These were the top ten Elbow songs I selected for Phoenix FM. It’s completely non-scientific, and trying to figure out positions eight through ten proved more challenging than I would have thought.
If they had more options for b-sides, the list would have been slightly different — “About Time” would have made the top five, and “Theme from Munro Kelly” (an instrumental inspired by Ernie Hudson’s character from Congo) would have been in the bottom half, which would have pushed “Newborn” off the list entirely” and caused either “Great Expectations” or “Not a Job” to drop. (It would have come down to a coin flip.)
I’ve found that when I connect with an Elbow song, I connect with it in a way that it worms its way into my psyche and reaches emotional depths that I often keep guarded. I feel at times that Guy Garvey writes the lyrics and the band writes the music, if not just for me, then certainly for all the lonely INFPs in the world. Many of these songs do connect with me deeply.
I’m curious to see what Elbow fandom as a whole (or, at least, as much as votes for Phoenix FM) selects as the top ten Elbow songs. If you’re an Elbow fan, pick your top ten and vote. 🙂