When I interviewed Guy Garvey of Britain's acclaimed Elbow in 2011, he was amused by the fact he'd become something of a rock star.
He was far too old for that description, he felt – he was 37 and happily in a relationship (“trying for [a] baby”) at the time. I can't remember if it was me or him who noted he looked more like Ricky Gervais in The Office than Ricky Martin.
But his group had started at the top of its game a decade before (when he was of course the more dangerously deadly rock'n'roll age of 27) with BRIT and Mercury Awards for their debut album Asleep In The Back. The accolades just kept coming too – their Seldom Seen Kid won the Mercury in 2008 and the following year they got the BRIT for best group – and they bounced right out of the rock world into mainstream attention when the BBC commissioned Garvey to write the theme music for their 2012 London Olympics coverage.
Elbow – stupid name, right? – performed that song, First Steps, live at the closing ceremony. Their 2014 album The Take Off And Landing Of Everything gave them their first UK number one (it went to 12 in Australia). Although afterwards some of the band went their own ways and Garvey released a solo album (2015’s Courting the Squall), Elbow are now back with new album Little Fictions... and Garvey's literate writing and yearning vocals remain intact on songs which swell on crests of emotion (and are enhanced by the sound of the Halle Orchestra and a choir).
If they are new to you, then on first listen to this album you may be reminded of a more experimental Blue Nile – if you remember them – on the spare Gentle Storm, and they come with a similar Englishness to people like Ray Davies and Jarvis Cocker. Needless to say they remain a cult act in America and aren't a band which cracks hit singles. Not even back home, oddly enough. Yet Garvey can convey a sense of universal world weariness while also sounding vaguely optimistic.
For all that, Garvey is very much the adult in the room. He has – because of his tough Manchester upbringing perhaps – a sympathy with the troubles of young people, as on the track Lippy Kid.
Recently he also moved back to his home city – Manchester Metropolitan University gave him an honorary doctorate – and, after splitting with that formerly loved-up partner, he and actress Rachael Stirling (whose mum is Avengers star Diana Rigg) married last year in the Manchester Town Hall. All of which adds up to Garvey being in his happy place, and that spirit informs much of Little Fictions without slipping it into overt sentimentality.
He's also – and this evident in the social responsibility and good works of his life outside Elbow – a man with a political conscience and a sense of innate discomfort, which on Little Fictions seeps into the second verse of K2 (about the Brexit vote) and Trust The Sun, which despairs at the news cycle of violence and retribution we encounter when we look at the worst of the world around us.
So there is emotional breadth, thoughtfulness, community, optimism, humour (gentle, sly) and some superb singing (Garvey can croon with the best) on this release. It's an album which boasts the now-expected sonic expansiveness (orchestration, rock guitars, clattering percussion) from a band which has taken its audience on a wonderful ride for more than 15 years.
If Ray Davies of The Kinks can get an “Arise, Sir Ray”, then – if Guy Garvey could just crack those bloody important hit singles – perhaps one day we might hear from some currently ignorable Queen/King/Prince/Whoever the words “Arise, Sir Guy…”
On the back of the Elbow albums so far he's honoured in my house at the opposite side of the planet.
For more overviews, interviews and reviews by Graham Reid see www.elsewhere.co.nz.
Little Fictions is out now via Universal.