Release Date: Oct 30, 2015
Record label: Polydor
When someone like Guy Garvey decides what he really needs to do is make a solo album, you can’t help but look at the context. Firstly, Courting the Squall isn’t really a solo album – Garvey has surrounded himself with his favourite musicians in the world that aren’t a part of Elbow. On top of that, Elbow have arguably suffered from diminishing returns since the rocket of The Seldom Seen Kid and their latest album, The Take Off And Landing of Everything, is arguably their weakest yet.
Over six albums, Guy Garvey has seen Elbow grow from doted-on cult champions to Mercury prize-winning, chart-clambering festival perennials, while alienating neither diehard fan nor newcomer. On 2014’s The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, the progressive leanings of their earlier work lost no ground (the prowling King Crimson-esque tenor saxophone of Fly Boy Blue, for instance) to attempts to reproduce the omnipresent One Day Like This. Now, amid no obvious dip in Elbow’s powers, Garvey brings us his first solo album, and the desire to avoid re-treading ground is pretty clear from the outset: Angela’s Eyes sets a grittily swinging bass and drum part against a snappy jazz guitar that recalls Tom Waits’ sideman Marc Ribot and synthesiser parts that burst through the frugal arrangement as if from nowhere.
In many ways, it’s hard to believe that Guy Garvey hasn’t released a solo record until now. As the frontman of Elbow, the finest of Northern England’s rock groups to rise to fame in the past two decades, Garvey has forged an identity that’s as unique to himself as it is inextricable from the identity of Elbow. His vivid and wordplay-heavy lyrics are among the strongest in the rock pantheon (see The Seldom Seen Kid‘s con game ode “The Fix”: “The redoubtable beast has had pegasus pills / We’ll buy him a patch in the Tuscany hills / And the vino de vici will flow like a river in spring”).
No storm precipitated this Guy Garvey solo outing. His band, the Mercury-winning Elbow, are an outfit who model an alternative version of Mancunian masculinity – stolid, affectionate, grandiloquent. That 25-year relationship hasn’t been swept away by the usual attritional acrimony, he reassures us. You can hear confirmation in the musical differences that divide Courting the Squall from one of the more experimental Elbow albums: minor detailing rather than schismatic shifts.
Solo ventures feel important for artists. They allow time to play and tinker with songwriting on their own terms, and for Guy Garvey - now a songwriting national treasure - this was much needed. After two brilliant but very steady albums in Elbow’s latest output, the craving for a shake-up in the band’s anthemic aesthetic was widely desired, seemingly even by Garvey himself.
After a quarter of a century spent playing with the same band, you might imagine Guy Garvey would be full of pent-up creative frustration. Perhaps it’s a testament to Elbow’s inter-band harmony, then, that his debut solo outing contains no grindcore rants called Fuck the North or I Hate Pints. Instead, it remains not a million miles from familiar ground – Broken Bottles and Chandeliers, a ballad that unfurls slowly around his distinctive bruised croon, is especially Elbow-like.
Solo albums from singers in still-operational bands are the musical equivalent of emotional abuse. They say to their bandmates ‘I don’t need you like you need me’. They contain the unspoken threat that the singer might bugger off at any moment if a younger and better-looking career comes along. And they’re all about self-indulgence; in a suppressed love of blues, folk, experimental electronica or Moldavian flatulence jazz, in some deep personal anguish or in their desperate need to cover The Fall’s ‘I Am Kurious Oranj’ in full.
The scenario of a lead singer breaking free from their successful group in order to record a solo album has been around since the nascent days of pop music. It’s a risky, vulnerable move that causes fans of the band to worry about whether the group is breaking up, and leaves listeners rigidly judging the new material in comparison to the original songs they hold dear. In the case of Guy Garvey’s debut solo record, Courting the Squall, the Elbow frontman has assembled a loose but penetrating collection of songs that highlight his insightful lyrics and warm vocals, as well as a cracking band of friends (featuring I Am Kloot bassist Pete Jobson, the Whip’s Nathan Sudders on guitar, along with keyboardist Ben Christophers and drummer Alex Reeves) whom Guy refers to as his “favorite musicians outside Elbow.