“We kept binning stuff that sounded too much like us… 10 albums in, it’s got to feel different”: Prog was always in Elbow’s music, but it’s upfront on Audio Vertigo

(Image credit: Future)

They've been around since the late 90s, but Elbow have come of (prog) age on their 10th album Audio Vertigo. Guy Garvey and Craig Potter map their evolution from a bunch of rock fans with lofty musical ambitions to award-winning, chart-topping art-rockers whose fans include Peter Gabriel.

By the time Guy Garvey joined his guitarist mate Mark Potter's band, Mr Soft, in 1990, his music-savvy sister, Becky, had already ensured the 16-year-old was schooled in the good stuff – from GenesisSelling England By The Pound onwards.

“I have a deep love of prog rock,” says Garvey, who turned 50 in March. “Mark liked more meat-and-potatoes rock back then, AC/DC in particular. He’d come around to my mum’s house, we’d sit in the kitchen and write songs on a guitar. Then one day – I’m still flattered by it – he said, ‘I get my wage this weekend. Can we go into town and will you buy me a record collection?’”

That Saturday the pair trooped around Manchester’s Corn Exchange and Afflecks Palace, sifting what gold they could from the markets’ second-hand music shops. “Close To The Edge was one of those records,” the singer recalls, “and Crime Of The Century and In The Court Of The Crimson King. There was some Pink Floyd and some Santana too – we used to cover Santana tunes early on.

“Starting out, we sounded just like what we were: a bunch of lads with only few hours of playing together. Then straight away we were writing songs with three movements in them: ‘This will be the fast bit, then it'll break down and come back to the first bit!' And of course, it was all awful, for fucking years.. But it was ambitious.”

Mr Soft would go on to refine their songwriting process and wisely rechristen themselves Elbow later in the 90s. Their stunning 2001 debut album, Asleep In The Back, was part- recorded at Real World, where the band met and struck up a friendship with the gaffer, Peter Gabriel. He would go on to record a beautiful orchestral cover of their tune Mirrorball; they returned the favour with a moving read of his Mercy Street.

From Gabriel down, a wealth of progressive artists and prog fans alike have a lot of time for Elbow. They get and respect the artistry of what they do: the controlled intensity of Any Day Now; the hooky intrigue of Leaders Of The Free World; the blues DNA of Grounds For Divorce’s sinewy central riff. Their soundworld has a cinematic dimension, their musical arrangements are lean, purposeful, subtly intricate. In husky, proudly Mancunian tones, Garvey offers distinctive, fresh melodies and sensitive, earthy lyrics of rare poetic power. It’s all there on their 10th album.

Elbow - Lovers' Leap (Official Video) - YouTube Elbow - Lovers' Leap (Official Video) - YouTube
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Audio Vertigo might be their most upbeat and unusual record yet. In January the band performed lead single Lovers’ Leap on the UK’s biggest TV chat show, The Graham Norton Show. The tune’s busy, wonky hook was mimed by glamorous trumpeters, but in fact it’s Garvey blowing through a dusty old Melodica and keyboardist/producer Craig Potter doubling that with a Mellotron trumpet, a dash of distortion glueing the two together.

Second single Balu (‘You were the B of the bang of the binge/Till I split for a tryst with a rust belt girl with a Plantagenet fringe’) has an uncharacteristically bold 80s synth hook over Pete Turner’s busy crunchy bass, and another horn motif thrown in for good measure. Featuring a rare, wah-wah’d Mark Potter guitar solo, languid and spacious rocker Things I’ve Been Telling Myself For Years is part middle-age reckoning (‘I’m the dashboard hula girl of nodding self-deception’) and part parodic confessional of a rock star (‘I haven’t paid for cabs or beers or met a cunt in 20 years’).

We’ve had quite a broad mix of dynamics on an album in the past… this time we wanted the energy to be there pretty much all the time

Craig Potter

Wiry, fuzzy indie rocker Good Blood Mexico City harks back to the time the band played with Foo Fighters at Mexico’s huge festival, Corona Capital 2017. Breezy, major-key From The River is Elbow at their sunniest and closes an album that is, in sum, a lot of fun. That’s something this occasionally dour lot decided to have more of this time.

“Craig and Pete floated the idea of us having more fun,” Garvey says. “I thought, ‘Yeah, OK – I like fun!’ The last album [2021’s Flying Dream 1] had been recorded with the band separated. We’re massively proud of it, but we knew it would get largely ignored because of the bottleneck of artists all releasing material after lockdown.

Elbow - Balu (Official Video) - YouTube Elbow - Balu (Official Video) - YouTube
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“Then, suddenly, we’re allowed to be together again, in a room, jamming it out and having fun, enjoying each other’s company. There’s a general confidence to this record. We know that if we want to write fun, up, energetic stuff we can’t labour it for hours like the subtler stuff. You’ve got to go in, commit to something and then get out.”

Craig Potter agrees. “The words ‘fun’ and ‘energy’ kept cropping up. We’ve had quite a broad mix of dynamics on an album in the past. We’d almost treat them like a setlist, where you’ve got your quieter moments, your big energies, your singalongs.

Alex Reeves would say things to different members who perhaps haven’t been encouraged in a certain direction for a couple of decades

Guy Garvey

“But this time we wanted the energy to be there pretty much all the time. We’re used to working with certain sounds and you do fall into certain patterns, so I’d experiment as I went along, not using my usual plug-ins [music software] but finding something else that does a similar job but with a slightly different feel. We kept binning stuff that sounded too much like Elbow, and then we’d just move on to the next thing. We were quite strict with it. Ten albums in, it’s got to feel different, you know?”

Since 2005’s Leaders Of The Free World, Elbow have regularly recorded in the large, airy ‘Big Room’ at Salford’s Blueprint Studios, but this time they opted for different places, including Migration Studios in the Cotswolds. Another factor in this fresh energy is Alex Reeves, their superb, newish drummer. Original incumbent Richard Jupp left the group in 2016, and Reeves has worked with them on every album since the following year’s Little Fictions; but Audio Vertigo marks the first time he’s been involved from the inception and writing of the record.

Elbow - Things I've Been Telling Myself for Years (Official Video) - YouTube Elbow - Things I've Been Telling Myself for Years (Official Video) - YouTube
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His work on Lovers’ Leap is gutsy and subtly inventive, the intro’s cowbell and verses’ syncopated snare offering plenty for those wont to finger-drum to the fiddly rhythmic bits at gigs. Using a modern jazz/hip-hop technique, Reeves gives an intoxicated swing to the short and sordid Poker Face, a song skewering youthful excesses (‘Cokey chokey one for the road/It’s so Soho Hotel...’). 

The song Knife Fight has a verse with more than a little Genesis to it and a gang-chanted outro (‘Hallelujah buy us a pint!’) that could be 70s Yes on a Saturday night bender. A bonus reference to the Chandrasekhar limit – the maximum stable mass of a white dwarf star – caters to that vital astrophysicist demographic.

Even though I wasn’t to meet him for 20 years after I started singing, Peter Gabriel taught me to sing

Guy Garvey

When Mark Potter was writing the song, Reeves gave him the drumbeat and then, says Garvey, the guitarist was away. “Al was here from the ground floor on this one, and you can hear it. With everybody interacting creatively he would say things to different members who perhaps haven’t been encouraged in a certain direction for a couple of decades. And I’d think, ‘Oh, I forget to do that!’ In the same way as any new person coming into any group dynamic, it freshens the connections.”

As implied by his own lyricism, the singer prefers poetry to novels – “chewy words you can sit with and savour; a series of events leaves me cold.” So it’s Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and his current favourite, Brit-nominated rapper Little Simz. With its title lifted from Wordsworth, Very Heaven is slinky and groovy, a tale of being 17, finding yourself, dropping out of school and meeting your ‘tribe’ – in Garvey’s case, his band. “When you’re improvising vocals, whatever pops out is already in your heart, in your mind somewhere. For me there’s a lot of Catholic doctrine in there, and 80s advertising jingles.”

Elbow - Knife Fight (Official Visualiser) - YouTube Elbow - Knife Fight (Official Visualiser) - YouTube
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And nowhere on Audio Vertigo, or perhaps the entire Elbow catalogue, is the Peter Gabriel chromosome more evident than on Her To The Earth. With its So-era keys and groove, the lead vocal double-tracked, and melody drawn from a more unusual minor key, at times the similarities are uncanny. “Obviously Guy sounds a bit like Peter Gabriel anyway,” says Craig Potter, “but if you start double-tracking him, it goes full Peter. That felt like something we’d not done before, but musically it was right from the start.”

I know from experience we’ll all be vibrating with fear until the moment we step onto the stage; and then we’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah!’

Guy Garvey

“I spent a long time finding melody and words for that,” adds Garvey. “I did it through ‘mee-mor’ – just making sounds with my mouth – then I’d double-track it and that would be slightly more coherent; then I’d re-record the original and it would get one step more coherent still. Then I started finding the meaning in the sounds in the words. I know it’s a way that Peter works; we’ve discussed it. And also, even though I wasn’t to meet him for 20 years after I started singing, he taught me to sing.”

But for all these credentials, it’s probably a reach to rebrand Elbow from top-tier indie rock band to bona-fide prog band, and Potter knows it. “A lot of people who have heard of Elbow would wonder why we’re in Prog magazine! For people who’ve heard our albums, there is a lot of proggy stuff on there, like Newborn from our very first album; Fly Boy Blue and This Blue World [both from 2014’s UK No.1 LP, The Take Off And Landing Of Everything]. But in the UK your taxi driver may have heard us, but probably only the singles.”

Elbow - Her to the Earth (Official Visualiser) - YouTube Elbow - Her to the Earth (Official Visualiser) - YouTube
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Chief among those, One Day Like This remains their most famous and accessible tune (108 million Spotify hits and counting). The one cabbies and grannies know, it was the jewel on 2008’s Mercury Prize-winning triple-platinum LP, The Seldom Seen Kid. That broad-base anthem was developed specifically for radio, to help push the band after their move from previous label V2 to Fiction Records. It’s always felt like something of an anomaly in their catalogue, even more so in the light of Audio Vertigo (which sister Becky Garvey loves, by the way).

“I can’t believe we’re still allowed to do it,” says Garvey, ahead of their 12-date arena UK tour of May 2024. “It’s a small amount of great-big rooms, and the challenges of that keep you awake – holding that many people for that amount of time.

“I know from experience we’ll all be vibrating with fear until the moment we step onto the stage; and then we’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah!’ Safety in numbers. I’m not on my own up there. Part of it is showing off for your mates, and part of it is this amazing ritual that you get to be a part of. It’s not lost on me.”

Grant Moon

A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Prog, Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, 'Big Big Train - Between The Lines', is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.