Elbow – Asleep In The Back (2001)

The first track I came across from this band is “Lucky with disease”, a B-side which was featured in the show Nip/Tuck at some point, if my memory serves. During the “Great German Depression of 2007”, as I affectionately call that time in my life, I was a temporary resident of Dortmund and, for various reasons, I had ended up watching Nip/Tuck on DVDs from a video rental store. The track really made an impact on me, with its subdued and yet intense emotional eloquence. The name “Elbow” swam around at the back of my mind ever since but only recently did I get the urge to really explore this band’s music, and boy was I glad to finally do so!

Being the disciplined little collector that I am, I began my intake of Elbow with their first album, hailed at the time as a stellar release by the British musical press. I couldn’t agree more – “Asleep in the back” is one of the most robust, convincing first-albums I’ve ever heard. Elbow sounds like a band on a mission on this record, boldly exploring wide ranges of influence and cutting swaths through the pop canon. It’s a wonder these guys have not caught my attention earlier… but being still young, I have good justification. In 2001 I was probably catching up to the late 60s and early 70s a maniacal level of involvement, so I’m not all that surprised contemporary stuff slipped past below my radar at the time. Suffice to say Elbow, subject to little expectation from me (after all, you can’t set a standard on only one track), has managed to raise the bar when it comes to music I’d love to hear on the radio.

“Asleep in the back” is not a “deep” album, a tortured, convoluted, complex, chimeric album. It’s just very good contemporary rock music. And when I say very good, I mean Radiohead good. OK, I realize that’s a mighty bold statement, but bear with me. The singer is no Thom Yorke, true, but Elbow proposed a level of polish and refinement back in 2001 which Radiohead themselves had only reached one year earlier, with Kid A. There’s control, sincerity, raw emotion and sonic youth in this album which rise to the challenge, no problem!

I realize I’ve been mentioning “patience” in music as a quality in quite a number of my posts so far, without thoroughly explaining what I mean. By patience I mean that there’s a element to the music that makes me feel that the emotion caught in the songs underwent a thorough process of filtering, they were distilled into this, the best of all possible manifestations. I appreciate this a lot. Sure, I love it when a band captures raw, unpolished feelings in notes, but it’s a very rare thing indeed that such an approach can trap vague, nebulous sentiments, the kind of sentiments writers spend volumes trying to describe. Patience allows for such emotions to be able to transpire through six minutes of sound, and that’s an ability I’ve only encountered in music as a means of artistic expression. Elbow walks these lines with steady feet.

“Asleep in the back” is a bit of a demonstration of ability. I get the sense the band were flexing their muscles here. The album is quite long and showcases songs which span from expansive, radio-friendly ballads to groovy, intense rock tracks which have an ominous, raging undercurrent marked by some truly feral guitar work. Listening to this album from beginning to end invokes images of a very full day for a certain individual, the kind of momentous day where a human being runs the gamut of emotions from the most delicate to the most ferocious, from dawn to dusk. It’s amazing music for jogging, for working, for any sort of activity in which there’s a deadline to be reached and definite progress to be quantified, and if that makes it sound like an accountant’s workday soundtrack, I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant at all. It’s music which motivates, drives, it’s a sonic impulse and a provider of solid support for mental and emotional focus. Yeah, I guess “focus” is the word which relates most to this album, at least from my perspective. Give it a shot, it’s really quite refreshing!

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