With its sweeping orchestral flourishes and heart-on-its-sleeve lyrics, it’s pretty clear that Little Fictions, the seventh studio album from British band Elbow, is a love letter to someone. Nearly every song is infused with some kind of romantic sentiment, be it desperate longing to regret or stupidly giddy happiness at being with someone you adore. In the wrong hands, these songs could be overwrought, even saccharine. But the members of Elbow have twenty years of songcraft under their belt, and they know how to treat these tracks with the quiet tenderness and breathing space they deserve.
Lead singer Guy Garvey’s voice, an impressive, soaring tenor, is capable of belting out lyrics like “Fall in love with me, every day” and “You’re my reason for breathing” without it sounding schmaltzy. But despite the candy heart nature of some of the dominant phrases, these are not your typical love songs. Garvey’s imagery is vibrant and expansive: on the subdued final track, “Kindling,” he has a “circular saw blade” where he should have a heart, and describes the excitement at seeing someone’s name pop up on your phone as like seeing “the wheat fields explode into gold either side of the train.” Garvey’s lyrics are a treat for literary enthusiasts, reading more like prose poetry than traditional songs. There’s a lot to unpack here – album standout “K2” is practically a short story unto itself, changing perspectives and geographies from verse to verse. While there are no rousing refrains to cheer along to, Garvey’s turns of phrases are always intriguing, even surreal.
The album, created with the support of The Hallé orchestra, provides Garvey’s lyrical flights of fancy with warm and luscious backing. Even understated, sparser tracks like “Gentle Storm” and “Firebrand & Angel” feel fully-realized, even if the only support they provide to the lyrics are some percussive sections and the occasional piano chord. This is an album that rewards dedicated listening, preferably with a good pair of headphones. The only criticism I would levy towards Little Fictions is that the back half does tend to run together a bit – the basic framework of many of the songs on this album do tend to fall into the same category of “earnestly-sung pop song with an orchestral backing.” A late-record barn burner would have been nice – parts of the eight-minute long title track build up almost to that point, but it never quite peaks over into vindication.
At this point, Elbow has achieved “elder statespeople” status. They’ve quietly carved out a niche as hyperliterate, meticulous songwriters and storytellers. And the more I listen to Little Fictions, the more I find to explore and analyze. That’s the mark of an excellent album to me – something that encourages, even necessitates repeat listening to dig into the themes and narratives. And while the album’s emotional harmonies don’t always land (though most of them do), the careful craft and attention to detail in Little Fictions is truly impressive, every word and every note.
Final Verdict: 8 out of 10.