Considering that Elbow formed in 1991 and then waited 10 years to release its debut album — 2001’s Asleep in the Back — it’s no surprise the band sounds so damn patient on record. And in the wake of the break-out success of 2008’s Mercury Prize-winning The Seldom Seen Kid, that approach has helped the Manchester outfit well. Build a Rocket Boys! shows no anxiety at following the band’s most successful record, no stagnant need to repeat that success or tense urgency to top it. Elbow is, as always, confidently striking out into its own sonic world and returning with another set of slow-building but never plodding tracks, songs for us to dig into and pull apart even as, on the surface, they glide along so beautifully.
This patient approach is a tricky one, of course, and the margin for error is slim. In the hands of a lesser band, Elbow’s songs could sound dull, self-serious in their slow pace, even pretentious. But Guy Garvey and company manage to shrug all that off mostly by not caring about it. Of course, it also helps that, as a band playing together for 20 years, they’ve figured out their strengths and how well they mesh together. The 8-plus-minute opener, “The Birds,” shows us right off that they’re not rushing anything. Floating keys, the faint chop of guitars, spare percussion — it all grows steadily behind Garvey’s drawn-out vocals, setting a dreamy landscape that you keep waiting to burst open. The keys form into punctuating riffs, the drums come alive, vocals pile on each other, and things get awfully big. But not in the crashing crescendo way you’re expecting. The climax here is just as subdued and patient as the road to it.
The rest of Build a Rocket Boys! follows that formula. It is often a quiet — almost barely there — record. The back-to-back “With Love” and “Neat Little Rows” pump the tempo up humbly, approaching more upbeat pop structures with the same attention to detail. As a lead single “‘Neat Little Rows” toes the line between the hushed feel of the record and a lean rock muscle. The bass buzzes away, and Garvey cuts his words rather than pulling on them, providing the most immediate tension on the record.
In other places, though, the tension is harder to spot right away, and usually comes from the gap between Garvey’s precise, even stately, voice, and the dark phrases he piles upon us. “Lippy Kids,” perhaps the best song here, is almost all keys and Garvey’s crooning vocals. But where at first he seems to be raging against the youth — “Do they know those days are golden?” he sings — the song turns on another phrase. “I never perfected the simian stroll,” he repeats, and you realize it isn’t that he pities their sluggish haze, he admires it. Elsewhere you get the same mix of nostalgia and frustration on the dramatic piano balladry of “The Night Will Always Win.” “I miss your stupid face,” Garvey belts out, more than once, and it’s both darkly funny and heartbreaking.
It’s in these small but jarring ways that Elbow defies our expectations. Build a Rocket Boys! sounds very much like an Elbow record, but it doesn’t sound like any Elbow record we’ve heard before. In all these hushed, careful notes, there’s a surging energy that steadily rises to the surface. Even when the songs seem too quiet — “Jesus was a Rochdale Girl” is in the running for quietest song ever not recorded by John Cage — they create their own sort of anti-tension, where the silence around the song is where all the noise is. It’s an album about build-up without pay-off. If the title’s rocket does get built, we never see it launch, never quite see it succeed. But that lack of resolution is what makes the album so great. In fact, its most triumphant moment, in the dubious redemption of “Open Arms,” actually seems to fit the least on the record. This isn’t about apogee, it’s about the tense pause around it, all the rising and falling we do, all the looking back at what we missed and the unbearable wait for what’s coming next.