Learning from the Elbow

Posted by Troy Hatfield on 1 April 2013

So just what does the latest album from Elbow have to teach worship leaders? Plenty. 
Anyone who knows me is well aware of my obsession with the Manchester band Elbow, and my friends have all been properly proselytized by now. Stalking lead singer Guy Garvey’s Twitter feed and watching (well, re-watching really) YouTube videos kept me mostly content in the run up to the band’s newest album release in March, and though I’m prone to overstatement when it comes to their music, it’s safe to say that build a rocket, boys! deserves being heard by every person on the planet.
But especially church musicians. This newest effort has a lot to teach those of us involved in making music for the gathered church.
Anti-formula Courage
For many, Elbow showed up on their musical radar thanks to the song One Day Like This, a smash single from the 2008 Mercury Prize-winning album The Seldom Seen Kid. It’s undeniably inspiring and optimistic and beautiful. It has a Hey Jude-like ending and a simple hook that makes it an earworm – a song you simply cannot get out of your head. It helped bring the band success and recognition, but it’s also something else: an easy-to-replicate blueprint. It’s essentially a three chord song and proved flexible enough to appear in movie trailers and adverts (from Apple to BBC Sports’ highlights of the 2008 Summer Olympics).
So when the band’s follow up album opens with the song The Birds - with its prog-rock length (8:03) and what my fiancé calls “Genesis keyboards” - it’s as if the band is trying to tell everyone “We’re not going to simply do that again.” In fact, there’s really nothing like One Day Like This on the new album. Elbow could have easily written Another Day Like This, made newly-gained fans happy and probably sold loads more albums, but they didn’t. Instead, they gave us slowly developing songs that ask something from the listener: mainly patience and openness. It’s courageous and admirable.
The Elbow record reminds me – and gives me the courage – to not simply follow a proven formula, expecting a familiar response.
This formulaic temptation is something we all face, isn’t it? When an experience goes well (“works” we often say – whatever that means) and people respond positively, it’s very tempting to identify what helped get us there and do it again. And again. And again…
It might be a specific combination of instruments or singers. Maybe an arrangement of a song – solo in the same spot, key change right after the bridge, chorus with just the drums playing We Will Rock You. Or maybe it’s two songs placed together or the same prayer/reading after the third song and before the ballad. It could be anything. The impulse – not even a bad one necessarily – is strong: it worked before, maybe it will work again.
The Elbow record reminds me – and gives me the courage – to not simply follow a proven formula, expecting a familiar response. It causes me to ask tough questions. How am I trying to carbon copy things in our musical expressions? When was the last time we tried something unexpected? How can we mix up the instrumentation, order of service, positions of musicians? Where are my comfort zones – certain kinds of songs and sounds?
Modern-sounding Nostalgia
These days I’m being won over by the need to look back – to reminisce about the ‘good old days‘. When I hear it done musically though, I often find it boring. Songs that churn out the same old sound end up sounding very cliché, the musical equivalent of ‘walking up a hill both ways in the snow’ kind of thing. But the new Elbow album is surprisingly nostalgic. It’s a looking back record, full of meditations and remembrances of the past and yet the sound of this nostalgia helps me to connect with it deeply. It’s fresh and modern and inventive.
For example, Jesus Is a Rochdale Girl is a litany of memories. As it opens, with its subtle kick drum pulse and folky acoustic strumming, it leads you to believe you have heard this one before. And then, 52 seconds in, the electric piano appears, jarring you out of aural comfort, forcing you to sit up straight and listen anew. The band manages to add a slight twist to a familiar form and draws us into this remembering in a new way.
haven’t we all sat through times when we’ve longed for something - anything - to help us engage the powerful and familiar words with new heart and ears?
For the Church, looking back is really good for us. Being forward-thinking gets all the press, but it’s always been important for the Body to remember together. That’s one of the reasons our local community sings such a large number of hymns: they serve as powerful and helpful reminders of where we have been.
And yet, haven’t we all sat through times when we’ve longed for something - anything - to help us engage the powerful and familiar words with new heart and ears?
Our musical approach to older songs can help each of us enter what Dallas Willard calls a ‘second naivete’. Think about it: how might people interact with a song like How Great Thou Art if it was played with sleigh bells and a banjo? What about All Creatures of Our God and King with a marching band? Crown Him With Many Crowns sung acapella with a consistent Run DMC-like drum machine beat?
If we vary the sound of the words and melodies we’ve grown accustomed to we will be able to observe how the community finds new ways of interacting with these powerful truths. In other words, different sounds make for different reactions, and helping people continually find new ways of engaging familiar themes is a gift.We should give it generously and often.
Multiple Audiences
Anyone who has listened to pop radio in the past two years knows that the subject matter of songs falls into two categories: raising your glass in the club or dealing with a recent heartbreak. And unless you’re frequenting a club or have recently been dumped, you might have a tough time connecting with these songs.
What about the intended audience for our gathered times of singing? I recognize this is a giant subject to address in a couple paragraphs, but I want to at least acknowledge a reality: plenty of people in our congregations struggle to connect with the subject matter of our songs (and teachings as well I’m sure – but I’ll leave that to other, much smarter people to deal with).
When we sing about ‘creation’ and use words like ‘renown’ and ‘majesty‘ we just might be widening the gap between our songs and the people we invite to sing them. While we might be familiar with them in church, who do you know who uses words like ‘majesty’, ‘renown’ and ‘creation’ in their daily conversation - besides your little nephew who really wants to be a knight when he grows up?
One of the strengths of the newest Elbow record is how diversely directed the songs are. The audience isn’t simply partiers or the heartbroken. There are songs for the losers (those with a reputation for being good for nothing; for the prodigals); songs for those who are lost (to us and maybe even themselves, with an invitation and plea to come home, to be reconciled); songs for friends (for a diverse community of people, “you are angels and drunks / you are magi” as Garvey sings); songs for oneself (because moments of grabbing yourself by the lapels, recognizing your own voice often carries amazing motivating potential). Halfway through the opening track, the phrase “what are we going to do with you” becomes a simple refrain. By the end of the album, you’re not sure who ‘you’ is, there have been so many people addressed and dealt with.
I wonder how different our gatherings would feel if we sang more songs to a wider variety of ‘audiences.’
I wonder how different our gatherings would feel if we sang more songs to a wider variety of ‘audiences.’ We are, after all, together, in one place, willingly. We might as well take some time and deal with the reality of our gathered space – we are standing in a room with angels and drunks, prodigals and bad friends, struggling parents and successful entrepreneurs, those barely hanging on and those who are convinced they will never die.
I think we should be singing – and writing – more songs that we sing to one another. Songs that draw us together and help the lonely feel cared for and the proud to feel challenged. Songs that help people face with the way things really are. Songs that help us grow as a community. After all, what’s the aim: one song to suit us all or a community so strong that we know how to sing each others’ songs, the good and the bad, the painful and the positive, the questions and the answers?
That’s the sort of community I want to be part of, the sort that acknowledges the nuance of life, that finds ever-new ways of remembering and looking back, that is eager to try new things and avoid the temptation to do the same thing again and again.
And yes, I really wish I was in the band Elbow. But I’m much more excited about exploring all of this with my local church.

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