My Top 20 Songs of 2011 #6: Elbow – ‘Lippy Kids’

Every year there is a performance at Glastonbury that stands out hand and shoulders above the rest and defines the festival season. This year that performance came from Beyoncé, who was head and shoulders above entirely forgettable U2 and Coldplay performances. However, just behind Beyoncé were Elbow (metaphorically – I don’t want to accuse Elbow of standing behind Beyoncé, rubbing their things and leering). Elbow confirmed this summer that they were the go-to hug-your-mates-whilst-you-can-still-just-about-stand festival band. The key to their festival performances is that their songs manage to be both stadium-friendly and intimate at the same time.

The sense of intimacy is helped by the fact that their rise to success has been so steady and that they are all so unassuming, but the key element in that sense of intimacy comes from the pen of Guy Garvey. Coldplay’s Chris Martin relies on all-encompassing platitudes to establish connection with his audience, which seems to work, but it also results in some truly dreadful lyrics. First up, here’s Chris as the earnest football coach in a Emilio Estevez movie: “Just because I’m losing, doesn’t mean I’m lost”. Then there’s Chris, the receiver of baffling forestry-related gifts: “You cut me down a tree/and brought it back to me”. Next up there’s Chris the terrifying stalker: “I’ll be there by your side/Just you try and stop me”. Finally, there’s Chris, writer of platitudes so banal that it’s almost as if he’s spent 2011 asking Siri to write his lyrics for him: “I’d rather be a full stop than a comma”.

In contrast to this, Guy Garvey’s lyrics tend to be grounded in real-life vignettes and details. They speak about things that people have actually experienced. For instance, I have seen lippy kids standing on a corner, but no-one has ever presented me with a dead Norwegian Spruce. The “build a rocket boys” refrain might be vague, but because of the details invested in other parts of the song (descriptions of kids on corners “settling like crows“; reminiscence on adolescence: “I never perfected the simian stroll”; “Stealing booze and hour-long hungry kisses”), it infuses the more clichéd lyrics (“do you know those days are golden”) with a more intimate meaning. The music itself swells around Garvey’s wistful vocals, skilfully avoiding bombast.

Elbow’s songs are made for large crowds, but they’ve made it there via bus-stops, street corners and community centres. Lippy Kids is a song destined to warm the cockles of stadium hearts for years to come.

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