Few lyricists can perfectly describe the world around us quite like Elbow’s Guy Garvey. For over two decades, the Mancunian songwriter has been coming up with the most precise words to describe love, heartbreak, mortality and, at times, the politics of the day. Whether he’s imagining his future wedding with a woman who isn’t necessarily interested in him (“At the top is stopping by your place of work and acting like / I haven’t dreamed of you and I and marriage in an orange grove / You are the only one in any room you’re ever in / I’m stubborn, selfish and too old” from The Seldom Seen Kid’s “Starlings”) or describing the feeling of returning to his hometown for the first time in quite a while (“Coming home I feel like I designed these buildings I walk by” from “Station Approach” off of Leaders of the Free World), Garvey somehow always finds the exact phrase to lift a song to otherworldly heights.
That streak continues on Giants of All Sizes, though this time, the world he’s attempting to illustrate is a much darker one than in recent albums. On the storied British band’s eighth album—and first to fully comprehend Brexit and the national trauma that has followed it—Garvey sees “spray paint swastikas and cocks” while waiting for a delayed train on “The Delayed 3:15,” finds “No roses in this garden / No sun melting in the sea” on “Seven Veils” and laments that “I don’t know Jesus anymore” on lead single “Dexter & Sinister.” Coupling a post-Brexit malaise with a handful of deaths close to the band (including Garvey’s father), it’s no wonder why the celebrated frontman’s velvety voice feels a bit angrier than usual.
And unlike the last handful of Elbow releases—which all reached the same, downtempo and beautiful sonic conclusion without ever really pushing themselves—Garvey’s lyrical frustration with the outside world is accompanied by louder and heavier instrumentals than anything we’ve heard since The Seldom Seen Kid’s “Grounds for Divorce.” Take “Dexter & Sinister” for example: swirling synths and strings immediately usher in a more in-your-face era of the band before a dirty blues-rock guitar riff breaks through the mix and tears everything down that preceded it. Gone is the subtlety of “the birds” from build a rocket boys! or the gorgeous, but still tense, “This Blue World” from 2014’s The Take Off and Landing of Everything. Garvey and co. don’t care about easing the listener into the more menacing Giants of All Sizes—they’re here to make their point as forcefully as possible, even if it means they’re a little more brash throughout.
Weighty synths drive “Empires,” propelling Garvey’s voice to new heights as backup vocals compete for space. Though the band described the song as a contemplation on how commonplace death is on a societal level (“How can a bland, unremarkable, typical Tuesday be Day of the Dead?”), it’s easy to project that to the U.K. as a whole. The song’s refrain, “Empires crumble all the time / Pay it no mind / You just happened to witness mine,” may illustrate the aftermath of his father’s death, but—like most songs on this record—it works just as well in regards to what feels like the second disintegration of the British Empire, though this time it’s confined to just the British Isles. Empires have risen and fallen throughout human history, and just because it’s been decades since we’ve seen anything drastic on a geopolitical level, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen again with the wrong leader in power.
Though the atmosphere surrounding Giants of All Sizes is much heavier than on any of the band’s other records this decade, Garvey still finds some hope through it all. The final three songs (“My Trouble,” “On Deronda Road” and “Weightless”) are optimistic as he discovers strength in his loved ones and friends in the reverberation of all of the recent negative events in his life. On album closer “Weightless,” he describes the idea of seeing his recently-deceased father in his newborn. “Hey, you look like me / So we, we look like him,” he croons over backing instrumentals led by a hypnotic piano and drum combination.
So much of the album is dogged by a heavy weight that all of us are constantly grappling with in such a pessimistic age. But the record ends with the line “He was weightless in my arms,” showing that there is still hope yet, and all it takes is falling back in family, friends and perhaps, a new generation. It’s easy to be negative in 2019—and Elbow certainly are throughout Giants of All Sizes—but it doesn’t mean that good things can’t come out of this cursed age. It’s the simplest of relationships, events, friendships and love that will get us through it.