Whenever I meet someone who isn’t familiar with Mancunian quintet Elbow or their seminal album The Seldom Seen Kid, I can generally give them the pitch in six words: This is what love sounds like. It’s ragged and romantic, beautifully broken and somehow delicate, dreamy and devastating all at the same time. Many would be quick to throw them aside with the Coldplay/Keane/Doves clones that seemed to proliferate music in the mid-to-late-‘00s yet there are many factors that led these five lifelong friends from a dreary northern-English town to finally making a mark with this, their fourth album arriving a good 18 years into their career.
I was lucky enough to circumstantially have this be the soundtrack to the first love I ever knew and I wouldn’t change that for the world. I’m fortunate in that when I listen to it now all the longing, confusion and languishing that follows the end of any relationship is all dealt with over the course of these 11 songs and I’m left with not only the gorgeous memories I personally associate with it, but the resolve to cope when it falls apart. That’s what makes this record so magical.
Let’s start with frontman Guy Garvey. The ale-swilling, chain-smoking cherub with a heart so pure and strong that it’s still beating despite anything love (or come to think of it, his own vices) can throw at it. A stunning wordsmith, the record begins with Garvey throwing you directly into a narrative. It isn’t really explained, but doesn’t need to be: “How dare the premier ignore my invitation/He’ll have to go/To the bunchy luncheon where he’s second on my list of things to do”. But then comes the line that sets the tone for the entire record: “At the top is stopping by your place of work and acting like/I haven’t dreamed of you and I and marriage in an orange grove/You are the only thing in any room you’re ever in/I’m stubborn, selfish and too old”.
With these few words, he manages to capture all the conflicting yet intoxicating thought patterns that come with being absolutely besotted by someone, but also the painful awareness of your own shortcomings when trying to reconcile the two. I could quite easily grab a pull-quote from each song on the record to demonstrate this but there’s a lot to cover here, so I’ll let (and recommend) you chase it up yourself.
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It’s the first album they produced entirely on their own – primarily keyboardist Craig Potter and Garvey serving as producer and arranger respectively. Recorded with little more than the standard setup for most bedroom operations nowadays, sonically it is a work of art. There is such detail in each song that will reward repeat listening time and time again and it’s definitely one of the most dynamic (read: whisper-to-a-scream) albums to be released in the crossfire of the loudness wars.
Despite being conceived in a converted warehouse outside of Manchester, The Seldom Seen Kid took on a life of its own once released in March 2008. The anthemic One Day Like This was heard under every televised sporting event for over a year. Peter Gabriel reworked the achingly beautiful Mirrorball for his Scratch My Back/And I’ll Scratch Yours covers project. Chain-gang blues singalong Grounds For Divorce was used in the trailer for the Cohen Brothers’ Burn After Reading and the list of accolades goes on. The entire album was also re-recorded live with the BBC concert orchestra in the legendary Studio A at Abbey Road in 2009 and at no point did it sound gimmicky or overblown. Apologies, but I’m looking at you Kiss and Metallica…
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I feel a certain reverence towards this album, so much so that I don’t really see the merit in tearing it apart track-by-track or poring over the liner notes to tell you what it’s about. What it’s always represented for me is just love. Start to finish. How love can give you such an intense experience that you’ll never be the same afterwards, for better or worse. Not just romantic love either – “the seldom seen kid” in question is their late friend Bryan Glancy to whom closing track Friend of Ours is dedicated. The line “Love you, mate” just hits like a freight train when it’s contextualized this way and makes you realize that no matter what you’ve been through, you’re never alone in feeling that love (like alcohol if you ask Homer Simpson) is the cause of, and solution to all of life’s problems.