Monday, 7 December 2009
26. Starlings, Elbow (2008)
The day I got a phone call from the people behind the Mercury Music Prize, I thought somebody was having a laugh. We'd like you to be a judge, said the nice chap on the phone, but first you have to meet me for a pint in a pub. Surely this was a wind-up. But then I met the lovely Kevin over lagers and cheese and onion crisps, he said why they wanted me, he said what it involved – listening to mountains of CDs for no money, but for other glorious rewards, like a great time, free records, and a lifetime being slagged off by people on newspaper comment boards – and this woman, bowled over, gave a huge, beaming yes.
2007 was a strange year to start. New-rave was fluttering its brightly coloured sleeves at the time, and the Klaxons scooped the prize, to mixed reviews – and yes, the album I loved belly-flopped before the final hurdle. A year later, however, the opposite happened. The Seldom-Seen Kid leapt over it elegantly, smiled at the crowd, and made the finishing line with a big, burly flourish.
The record still gets better every time I hear it, each track holding its own, special magic, but Starlings is the song that still grabs me by the scruff of the neck. The fluttering beat, like a heart waking up, those thick vocal harmonies rising up slowly, and the soft, simple piano figure whirring the song into action, before brass is suddenly shaking us, BLASTING US into life. Then the story unfurls beautifully. There's the humour of Guy Garvey's complaints about the Premier ignoring his invitations; the way he says "bunch" in that big, Bury gulp; the dreams about marriages in orange groves; the brilliant idea of asking your beloved to "back a horse that's good for glue", and the perfect rhythms of one of the sweetest couplets ever committed to melody – "You are the only thing/In any room you're ever in".
Then the flocks of starlings circling as he looks into her eyes, the understated perfection of the murmured "Darling, is this Love?", that blast again, suddenly louder, more true. The idea of romance infused with reality being so much more romantic; the language of love, plain, dirty and simple, flavoured with alcohol and cigarettes, blood, sweat and tears.
When Elbow won that September, everyone was overjoyed. I had to talk on TV for ten seconds about how wonderful they were, so I babbled a bit, full of happiness and wine. I then watched the band speak to Lauren Laverne, and as they walked off – me being bolstered by booze – I grabbed Garvey by the arm. I told him I was a judge, that I was over the moon, and could I give him a hug – such a terrible, embarrassing fan-girl thing to do. Thankfully, he said yes. He cuddled me back like a big, lovely bear, but dropped his wine glass as he did so, and I was asked by an official, passing by, to get him another.
I can still see Garvey defending my honour, even more full of happiness and wine than me. "SHE'S A JUDGE", he sang brightly, sounding even more precious than he did on record. "She can do whatever she FUCKING WELL LIKES". Not exactly "Come with me, sweetheart, to an island made for two", but a defence nonetheless, and one that he finished with an extra squeeze of my arm, another kiss on my cheek. Thinking of it now, I'm still smiling, the starlings still circling, and the victory lap is still ours for the taking.