Elbow’s new B-sides and rarities compilation, Dead in the Boot, possesses a surprising continuity for an album covering more than a decade’s worth of recordings. Despite the band’s affection for large, hopeful emotions and sweeping cinematic instrumentals, which have made them the darlings of ad campaigns and festival concert stages all over the world, the songs here prove that Elbow is still capable of delivering contemplative songs about uncertainty, gray skies, and loneliness.
The opening track, “Whisper Grass,” a B-side from 2003’s Cast of Thousands, encapsulates the album’s dynamic by beginning gently before breaking into a squall of cymbal crashes and semi-melodic guitar noise and then returning to soft vocals and piano chords by song’s end. Singer Guy Garvey spends most of Dead in the Boot commiserating softly alongside piano, guitar, and string arrangements, but on tracks like the bluesy live cut “McGreggor,” Elbow turns up the volume and, accompanied by lyrics about death and paranoia, manages to sound utterly menacing.
Even as the album moves between sleepy, whispered gentility and brief outbreaks of shaking guitar noise, the sullen mood and expansive echoing textures make Dead in the Boot feel of a single piece. “Long War Shuffle” carries a persuasively danceable syncopation and a couple of surprisingly high-timbre slide-guitar solos, making it a stiff-necked rock track, but given the shared elements described above, it still feels utterly at home beside the guileless gentility of “Buffalo Ghosts,” a B-side from 2011’s Build a Rocket Boys, in which a simple guitar-and-soft-snare arrangement accentuates Garvey’s sentimental affirmation that “The journey makes me taller/The journey brings me you.” It’s an appropriately triumphant lyric for a band that, in terms of popularity and creativity, has grown so prodigiously over the years.