Few begrudged Elbow their rise to fame. Fanfares for the uncommonly sensitive man greeted The Seldom Seen Kid, their 2008 breakthrough, two decades in coming. I recall their 2009 Wembley Arena gig as a coronation of empathetic ordinariness – and twangily, twinkily accessible prog. Guy Garvey and his Bury chums were articulate everyblokes, basking in the warmth of a beer shared at an exultant scale.
Three albums later and some critics wonder whether they’ve stayed too long at the bar. Genial soul-barers Elbow may be, but isn’t there a point – even with the closest of friends – when you’ve heard it all before? Not yet, on the basis of March’s break-up album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, the quintet’s first UK No 1. But, for all their strengths, there were warning signs here.
“The Night Will Always Win” came with heartfelt advice about mourning. Garvey’s role as agony uncle to those who think they’d never need one is genuine, but increasingly schmaltzy. Might his presenter’s fluency be tipping into routine patter? On “New York Morning”, the lyrics approached self-parody (“Oh my giddy aunt, New York can talk”), with that same slightly smug relish that Alan Bennett can slip into reading his own stuff. The arrangement, too, when the horns crashed in, felt hackneyed. A shame, given the (Bennett-like) tenderness and insight they are capable of – as shown in “Great Expectations”, played as an acoustic trio on the mini-stage at the end of a runway.
When good, Elbow are excellent. The whole arena added handclap castanets to “The Bones of You”. “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette” was worth the admission on its own. A gypsy-guitar yomp, blasted by skronky sax; Ray Davies meets Steve Coogan in its world-weary pose. Then the tune went all fluttery and ethereal as the words became more imploring and urgent. Rarely do you encounter such subtlety in arena-rock. A string quartet and three brass players were fully integrated into the band, and generously acknowledged.
Of their classics, “Mirrorball” was as glintingly romantic as ever, if vocally a bit lacklustre. Garvey didn’t seem entirely convinced by the key phrase “lift off love”. Recent experience perhaps? “Grounds for Divorce”, that worksong of marital strife, is still magnificent with its bluesy holler and hugely crunchy riff. The singer pressed flesh and took selfies on an audience member’s phone before its end.
The current “My Sad Captains”, glitteringly strummed and sumptuously brassy, was Primal Scream’s “Movin’ On Up” grown middle-aged and bearded. “One Day Like This”, Elbow’s anthem for jaded optimists, may have been the ideal finish. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that the group’s very best days are behind them.