There's quite the selection of records cited by Elbow's leading man Guy Garvey as inspiration for the band's ninth studio album, including PJ Harvey's Is This Desire?, Chet Baker Sings, The Blue Nile's Hats and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks – all that's missing is Abbey Road for the complete sweep of records you should never compare to your own for fear of failing in comparison. Elbow have never shied away from their influences, nor from their desire to write big, anthemic hooks designed as festival-stage earworms. Love them or loathe them, odds are you could comfortably recall the opening riff from 2008's Grounds for Divorce.
This album, Garvey says, focuses on the gentler side of their music. The band, separated by you-know-what, took to their home studios to write, sending each other “hushed night-time missives”, before coming together to record Flying Dream 1 at the then-empty Theatre Royal Brighton.
The result is a soft-spoken collection of vivid vignettes, driven by warm piano and Garvey’s well-honed sincerity. Wilson Atie, Adeleye Omotayo, and Marit Røkeberg from London Contemporary Voices are beautiful additions to the album’s opening title track, while Sarah Field adds something special on clarinets and saxophones on After The Eclipse and The Seldom Seen Kid.
The band avoided discussing their personal lives during the writing process, instead speaking to one another through these snippets of songs. The album is full of solitary figures looking out onto something vast and unknowable; “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or is it a jettison, beautiful warrior’s soul?” Garvey wonders (Is It A Bird), while elsewhere there are “skies that open out to flooded water” (Six Words), and “low, bright February shadows” that fall as a woman hums a tune from the radio, while in the distance we can “hear a school” during “dark and bitter days” (Calm and Happy).
Absent from the album are the bombastic anthems Elbow are probably best known for. This is a welcome breather, which allows the band’s musicianship to shine. These 10 tracks are melancholic without slipping into tedium, harmonically interesting without over-complicating the sound, and the recording space gives weight to how well the band’s members sound together – big and bright when they need to be, but mostly contemplative, spacious and warm.
The cited influences are everywhere – Chet Baker’s balmy piano tones endure throughout, and there’s an occasional hint of Van’s harmonics. The band never quite manages to slip into greatness, however, and relies too much on these previously established modes. There is more mood than melody here, but while the band never manages to match their divine influences, there are moments when this newfound restraint pays off.