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Elbow – Asleep in the Back LP, Cast of Thousands LP (Polydor)

30 December 2020

Over the span of seven albums released between 2001 and 2019, Manchester, England’s Elbow have cemented their reputation as master craftsmen of swooning melody and romantic songs. The group evolved from favorable comparisons to classic art-pop artists like Peter Gabriel to having even traded songs, as the band became recognized peers among its heroes. Elbow’s ascent was slow and steady, building firm toeholds at each rung up the ladder. That gradual process means that some of the band’s otherwise devoted audience may have missed out on the early days.

At the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut album, Polydor is returning Elbow’s earliest albums to print in the vinyl format. Old fans and latecomers alike can now enjoy meticulously remastered editions of 2001’s Asleep in the Back and 2003’s Cast of Thousands on their turntables.

The band’s auspicious debut arrives in a richly textured gatefold sleeve, with the music split across two LPs. Standout tracks and enduring concert favorites include “Any Day Now.” The song’s muted restraint earned comparisons at the time to Radiohead circa OK Computer and earlier (although latter-era Talk Talk might have been more on-point), even while layered harmonies and frontman Guy Garvey’s inviting tone revealed what would eventually distinguish the band as an influential presence itself.

The for-better-or-for-worse imagery described in the swaying “Newborn” may have balanced light and dark, but it set the bar for Garvey’s catalog brimming with devoted odes and longing for a beloved partner. The song is underpinned by Mark Potter’s acoustic guitar and lit by liquid electric guitar figures. The lush waltz of “Red” expresses concern for a lover who is fraying at the edges while slipping into addiction. Richard Jupp’s feather-light but tense percussion drives “Scattered Black and Whites,” colored by Craig Potter’s restrained and elegant piano. Garvey’s half-whispered vocal grows in gravity alongside Pete Turner’s deep bass. Garvey’s enveloping melody and wistful lyric recall the sheltering memories of childhood and safety at home among loved ones.

Asleep in the Back saw multiple versions of release in the band’s early days. This reissue contains all twelve songs including the title cut and “Can’t Stop.” The single version of “Asleep in the Back” was originally released as a standalone track that became a Top 20 hit at radio in the UK.

The reissue of Cast of Thousands features the original UK track listing, without the bonus tracks “Whisper Grass” and “Lay Down Your Cross” that were included on the subsequent US release. “Ribcage” begins in restraint with the wish to “pull my ribs apart and let the sun inside,” before reaching for communal nirvana with the glorious voices of the London Gospel Community Choir. Turner’s buzzy bass and Jupp’s steady pulse fuel the brash Britpop of “Fallen Angel,” making room for Mark Potter’s clanging krautrock guitar solo.

Garvey’s lilting melody skips gracefully atop Craig Potter’s understated piano during “Fugitive Motel,” while giving credence to those references to Peter Gabriel and theatrical Steve Hogarth-era Marillion. Graceful strings add to the song’s cinematic scope. “Snooks (Progress Report)” is a confessional diary entry that bobs along a spirited samba rhythm. The song erupts into cathartic skronk followed by a nimble duet between the Potter brothers. The drowsy “Switching Off” marks the singer’s choice as his final scene in the movie of his life, expressing contentment and gratitude for “you, the only sense the world has ever made.”

The audience at Glastonbury 2002 gives the album its name and appears on “Grace Under Pressure,” singing a rousing chorus of “we still believe in love, so f—- you.” Every participant who registered attendance and participation at the band’s website is included by name in the gatefold sleeve.

It would be 2008 when the band refined its essence into its masterpiece The Seldom Seen Kid. Brimming with memorable songs and meticulous care, however, these first two efforts demonstrate that the band was already accomplished and well underway following years of work in the clubs and measured studio work by the time it began selling records. This vinyl reissue campaign treats the material with the loving touch its legacy warrants.