The kindest and gentlest of rock bands, Elbow has always seemed like a group of sweet-hearted, mild-mannered Brits, men of the middle class who love to raise their voices in sing-along anthems but love even more to slow the tempo for a good, weepy ballad. Their charm lies in their approachability, though that same approachability can also be an impediment: It obscures the fact that they’ve always been a fairly exploratory band, albeit a quiet one. Their seven studio albums all feel of a piece, but each has its own character, taking on different textures, sounds, even song structures without ever veering too far beyond the grizzled, big-hearted Elbow format.
Little Fictions, then, might be called the quietest of Elbow albums, as it’s the tamest and most ballad-heavy. It might just as easily be christened their most intimate, their most casual, and their most soulful. All of these superlatives are relative, of course; the album grows in stature and appeal with every spin, and distinguishes itself as an Elbow album not quite like any other.
At no point on Little Fictions do Guy Garvey and company kick up quite as much dust as they did on 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid standout “Grounds for Divorce.” There’s also no song that swells with the same progressive ambitions as “The Birds,” from 2011’s Build a Rocket Boys!; the title song on this album reaches past eight minutes, but only because it takes a full two minutes to build toward a steady gallop, and then ends with an extended, emotional crest that wouldn’t sound out of place at a U2 show.
Elbow is a band that shares U2’s heart-on-sleeve tendencies without aping their politics or pretensions. Alternately, the warm and languid textures throughout Little Fictions aren’t totally dissimilar to those on Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, but Elbow is altogether more laddish, warm, and welcoming, relishing the romance of making music together, even rendering their most melancholy moments spirited and affirming.
The album’s opening track, “Magnificent (She Says),” is the quintessential Elbow song, even as it quietly folds in sounds we’ve never before heard from the band; it’s lush with symphonic flourishes, mirrored elsewhere on the album with string sections and choral backings. It’s a feel-good anthem about a girl who throws her arms around the world, believing everything will be beautiful even when reality might call that into question. Optimism here is a choice, a way of viewing the world not through rose-colored glasses, but through the belief that perseverance and hopefulness are their own reward.
Elbow puts that belief into practice throughout the rest of Little Fictions. “Gentle Storm” rides the cling and clatter of a faintly disco-fied beat, its lyrics offering a simple affirmation of romantic love. Part of Elbow’s character is that their love songs always like hymns to lifelong fidelity, and this one is suitably weathered and lived-in. “Head for Supplies” is soft-spoken and jazzy, savoring open space and momentary lulls, while “Kindling” is a closing number that rewards those who’ve been listening closely all along: Its spare beginning makes the big, string-section finale that much more powerful.