To many people Guy Garvey is Elbow. He is after all the frontman and lyricist of the Mercury Prize winning alternative rock band. Not to mention his various excursions into radio and theatre as a 6 Music presenter and contributor to a King Kong musical. But after 14 years, Garvey has taken the opportunity of a break between Elbow records to produce one of his own, with an entirely new group of musicians to boot.
A signature sound of Courting The Squall is the bass and drum-based grooves, heard most prominently on the first track Angela’s Eyes. As one of the most experimental songs on the record, Garvey has no intention of easing the more casual Elbow listeners into his new style. Having once described his band’s niche as “prog-rock with no solos”, the clumsy, dirty synth solo feels like an indulgence inspired by a “because I can” kind of attitude.
Despite this, many fans will not be disappointed if they are expecting a seventh Elbow record in this release. Although much of the instrumentation and style is new, Garvey sticks to what he knows best when it comes to his much-loved lyricism. Harder Edges should sound familiar to many coming straight from the Elbow back catalogue, with lines like “living in a tupperware box” sung as a crooning three-part harmony.
It is in the midway interruption of Harder Edges that you realise where he is going with this record. Brilliantly cacophonous horns provide bold hooks previously vetoed by Guy’s bandmates. It is the horns that embody the highlight song of the album, Belly Of The Whale. The unusual track starts with Garvey’s rich Mancunian spoken word over a heavy beat, akin to Sleaford Mods. The horn section explodes once again, oozing with funk before humorously deviating into a clumsy rendition of a cop-show theme.
None of this is to say that Courting The Squall is void of any flops. The harpsichord lead of Juggernaut sounds weak compared to the bold synths of Angela’s Eyes and contrived lyrics like “there’s bliss in the kiss of the sunshine” in Broken Bottles and Chandeliers fail to stir any emotion. It is in these bare patches that you can hear the toll of writing and recording this album in just nine weeks.
Aside from funk, jazz plays a large part in the sound of Courting The Squall. The timeless and elegant voice of Jolie Holland is heard on Electricity, a traditional 50’s jazz duet. It takes a confident, 41-year-old songwriter like Garvey to write a song like this without either imitating or feeling the need to over-innovate. Lyrically, the quiet tune describes the same love affair with New York and its occupants that was the basis of much of Elbow’s The Take Off And Landing Of Everything.
In many ways Courting The Squall is a continuation of that same album. It was recorded in the same studio in Bath and with the same all-female horn section. But while Take Off centers on a personal break up, this record carries a feeling freedom and reinvention. Guy Garvey is most at ease during Yesterday, where in the climax he bellows “I am reborn, cause my girl loves yesterday and lives for tomorrow”. Garvey’s rebirth as a solo artist works so perfectly for this very reason. He has taken all his experience of Elbow’s past and fashioned it into a new sound no one could have predicted.