At just 41, Guy Garvey is well on the way to becoming a national cultural icon. As if the gradual two-decade rise of Elbow to arena fillers wasn’t endearing enough, his radio and TV presenting shine another beacon on his gruff, loveable northern charm. Now his first solo album has hit the perfect mark between experimentalism and familiarity. Courting The Squall went in at No.3 in the charts, pipped only by Elvis Presley and Rod Stewart. And while ‘down to earth’ is his stock in trade, his music often does fly us to Earth’s only natural satellite.
The gentle bear from Bury punctures any bubbles of pretension with his aversion to star posturing and his between-song banter, part Peter Kay, part Peter Skellern. Bloke-ish humour with his band is frequent, but like an anti-Gallagher, he’s an advert for the sharp wit of Lancastrians, scuppering stereotypes and unashamed of intelligence and emotion. A people’s poet, his songs sketch wintry days as adeptly as Lowry.
There’s only one Elbow song, when guitarist Mark Potter joins Garvey for a stripped-back Great Expectations. Instead, the show is about the solo project. Garvey thanks Elbow for letting him do it, and for putting him in a position “where anybody would be interested”. The constant humility might get wearing if he didn’t turn into a vessel for greatness the moment each track starts. Elbow have always embraced prog elements in their music, from the first album’s Any Day Now onwards, and Garvey’s voice has, he’s acknowledged, a touch of Gabriel. His new music laces Elbow’s ambience with a dash more light-hearted spontaneity. While most songs are moody but engaging, there’s a sense that anything could skid off surprisingly at any point. Angela’s Eyes dives into a screeching, psychedelic keyboard solo; Belly Of The Whale breaks into atonal brass stabs and trip-you-up rhythms.
The confessionals of Harder Edges, Unwind and Yesterday fuse loveliness and a license to explore. Garvey regales us with musings on sex, Catholic guilt (breaking into a comic Prince impression) and underwater cables, then conducts us on backing vocals. An acoustic encore of The Ink Spots’ I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire reminds us what a gifted baritone he is.