It’s hard to be original. Three years ago, I was a stupid kid writing stupid rock songs, but then one day — BAM — I created a work of genius. It was catchy as hell, introspective, and the best music I’d ever written. I remember my friend’s validation: “Yes, Jon, this is the song that will get you laid,” he said, putting quite the hopeful smile on my awkward pasty teenage face. One lay-less month passed, and as I scratched my head, wondering why Miss Suzie Popular wasn’t ringing my doorbell, it hit me. The song was no work of genius; it was “Range Life” with different lyrics. And everybody knows there’s no chance for a Pavement poseur under Suzie Popular’s bed sheets.
Finding a personal, genuine voice is often the hardest thing for an artist to do. As Elbow confronts its expanding fame on its sophomore album, Cast of Thousands, the band seems tied up in the same problem. Are we Radiohead? Blur? Radiohead-lite Doves or Radiohead-lite-lite Coldplay? So many decisions. And Elbow manages to craft some good songs as they dabble amongst their influences, but they fail to reach any conclusions.
“Ribcage” opens Cast of Thousands with a blast of confidence. Minimalist clicks and beeps back Guy Garvey’s fine bluesy vocal line (which wavers between Thom Yorke, Damon Albarn and Chris Martin, depending on his mood), and Richard Jupp chimes in with some steady, inventive percussion. But as the piano slowly swells and the London Community Gospel Choir starts chanting, the Suzie Popular factor weighs in all too heavily: Elbow has produced a downbeat remake of Blur’s “Tender.” Hearing Damon Albarn and his choir optimistically sing “C’mon, get through it / Love’s the greatest thing” unfortunately dominates when compared to Garvey and his own choir optimistically singing, “We called that love / All you have is kisses / And all I need is you.”
That’s not to say that “Ribcage” isn’t a great song. It is, and so are many of the other tracks on A Cast of Thousands. The problem is that Elbow’s influences dominate the music. “Fallen Angels” and “Fugitive Motel” are both great Doves rip-offs. “Snooks (Progress Report)” is the mandatory Radiohead song. The numerous Coldplay-friendly pop songs, growing slightly louder into Electric Soft Parade territory, are enjoyable. Almost every song here triggers some part of the brain to say, “Oh, this is their (insert hot band name here) song.”
But you can’t be too hard on Elbow. Cast of Thousand‘s music develops the band’s influences consistently well, but as a result the album is, well, inconsistent. If these guys agree on a specific band “sound,” they will put out excellent work. And their voice is developing. “Snooks,” while aping Radiohead, plays with some startling dynamic changes and emerges as a superior song. “Whisper Grass” pulls a similar trick, with crashing drums and Mark Potter’s screaming guitars suddenly violating Craig Potter’s serene keyboards. “Grace under Pressure” is elevated from gospel pop-rock to the sublime by 10,000 Glastonbury fans singing, “We still believe in love so fuck you.” Give Elbow two more years, and you’ll likely find me complaining that some new band named Fibula is aping the “Elbow sound.” Suzie Popular? At first she didn’t dig Elbow, but they’re growing on her …