Tuesday, September 22, 2009

#100. 'I've blown you a kiss, it should reach you tomorrow'

Elbow "Fugitive Motel"

The long distance relationship is something I've never been part of, but knowing people who have done it I'm not exactly eager to try. The notion of it is kind of romantic, the idea that your love is strong enough to weather long periods of separation with little contact outside of words and pictures, but from what I've seen the reality is much less so. Aside form the part where your boy/girlfriend is miles away which would be enough to sour the theoretical romanticism, but add to that the pressures of being apparently single and yet not and trying to go on with what you're doing and it seems like it could get hellish, and that's before you factor in the part where you could be growing apart emotionally thanks to the physical distance. This is a load of armchair psychology on my end, but just thinking about the ramifications of such a set up is enough to convince me that it's not something I'd want to try.

It makes a lot of sense, though, that long distance relationships are a frequent topic for songwriters. Think about it, you're supposed to write about what you know and you're in a situation where you're likely leaving your current significant other at home for longer periods of times. As such the standard 'miss you from the road song' gets born and gets adapted into your setlists and onto your albums etc. etc. until it becomes an anthem for your fans who are also in a long distance relationship. Of course, for the rest of us they don't work as well, and 90% of the time these songs are total gash to my ears. It's mostly because they trade almost exclusively on melodrama and over-the-top declarations of love/fidelity or whatever rather than trying to paint a picture of what it's like. I'm a sucker for songs that do the legwrok to put you inside the situation they're describing rather than simply exist within it, if that makes sense. Essentially, if you insist on making a song about how much you miss your lover d oenough with that to make me understand your emotions instead of just throwing them out there.

Alternately, you could just write a line as simple and heartbreaking as 'I've blown you a kiss/it should reach you tomorrow/as it flies from the other side of the world'.

Elbow never struck me as a great band. A good one, sure, but despite standing out in the post-Radiohead crop of depressed British rockers they never really struck me as anything beyond slightly noteworthy. I came to them via "Fallen Angel," which is in retrospect probably one of their least noteworthy singles, but never got much out of its parent album, Cast of Thousands. It had it's moments, "Fugitive Motel" being chief among them, but it never really coalesced into something I found to be worth much more deep listening. Of course I was proven wrong about their non-greatness when The Seldom Seen Kid came about and found them finally living up to the potential of their best moments on previous releases. It's not one I love enough to put it in the album section of this overview, but suffice to say that it's one of the few truly deserving Mercury Prize winners of the decade, not a pick out of tokenism or flash in the pan-ism but a truly deserved reward for a band who took the time to grow into their sound and knock it out of the park for once.

It also contained what would have been the obvious choice for this list if it weren't for my pre-existing affection for "Fugitive Motel" in "One Day Like This." I deliberated for a long time as to which one would get the nod here, both are stellar singles that cast a long shadow over the rest of the band's discography, but in the end there was something that tipped it in "Fugitive Motel"'s favor. It wasn't just it's mild subversion of the miss-you-from-the-road formula, the fact that it sounded like a fairly subdued, normal Elbow single versus the excessive schmaltz that typifies this type of thing more often than it should, or it's rich, layered arrangement since it's was pretty well trumped on that front by "One Day Like This" - though the layering here is much more subtle and insidious. It wasn't necessarily the fact that I'd had more time to parse out the greatness of "Fugitive" though that probably played more of a role than the previous two things. It wasn't something I thought would be easy to determine, but the answer was simple.

As good as "One Day Like This" is, and believe me, if I weren't limiting it to one single per artist it's be not far below this one, it didn't contain a line as simple and heartbreaking as 'I've blown you a kiss/it should reach you tomorrow/as it flies from the other side of the world'.

Really, that line is the most succinct summation of long distance relationships and the emotions attendant to them that I've ever come across. It's such a lovely image, and more powerful than any sort of attempt to literalize the emotions behind it would ever be. Really, it's a perfect lyric to hinge a song like this on, getting to the heart of the matter without the need for flowery prose or unnecessary dramatics. Guy Garvey just hit the nail right on the head with that chorus and no matter what else happened in the song I'd still be fairly effusive in my praise for it.

Luckily the band pulls out an appropriate, interesting and layered performance that elevates the song into its position here. The combination of Pete Turner's almost elastic, drawn out bassline and some simple, understated strings with a light acoustic chord progression makes the perfect bed for the chorus to rest on. There's also the bits of colour that get added in throughout the song, from little guitar fills that don't distract from the main track to sprinklings of piano that are never too much or too little to add anything to the track. The instrumental of "One Day" is at least as good, but it's also much more upfront than this is. Elbow's best quality in their best moments is their restraint, and "Fugitive Motel shows this quality off better than anything.

Coming up tomorrow: Defining the first big hype band of the decade's faults and why they don't matter as much as you'd think.

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