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.


  1. I had a slight gulp in my throat when I read the title of this entry. I try not to listen to Starlings much anymore - it makes me quiver. I was sent the record in the post by my ex girlfriend in January 08, a month after she dumped me out of the blue, who told me that the first song reminded her of me. We'd not been together long, six months or so, and listening to Starlings for the first time, still very much not over her, was also the first time I realised I'd loved her. And that she'd felt the same, which I practically forced her into telling me. We kept on going to Elbow shows together, or being at the same ones - one, at Brixton Academy, where I was stood holding back still (yes still) heartbroken tears about four metres behind where she stood with her best friend. In a terrific moment of misjudgement, I hung about with her, a little unwelcome, at the aftershow for too long, missed the last tube, watched her leave, and ended up having to call my best friend in Archway to pick me up and take me back to north London. & I still can't listen to Starlings without something in my body tensing up. So I try not to - despite it being such a bloody brilliant song that listening to it is a mixed pleasure.

    It is one of those songs that can make you feel utterly triumphant and on top of the world. I almost feel blessed to have such memories wrapped up in it.

  2. My husband and I quote lyrics to each other from this song. If it were any other record, that would be an embarrassingly tragic admission. But because it's Starlings, I reckon it's okay to admit it in a 'quiet and confessional' manner.

    Lovely blog.

  3. When I was 16 I heard Elbow's 'New Born' for the first time, I loved it and when 'Powder Blue' appeared the following year I knew that I had to rush out and get the album. From then on I knew they'd be a special band to me.

    The night of the Mercury's in 2008 I'll have to admit it that I was torn on who I wanted to win. Leaders of The Free World was in my top five for that year at the time but Do You Like Rock Music? and Alas, I Cannot Swim I like slightly more. I was actually at a gig in Reading (Frightened Rabbit) when the award was given, checking my phone for updates a little too often. When I heard it was Elbow it did just seem right. I got home and stuck the record on as I lay in bed, I thought of the sixteen year old me first hearing 'Powder Blue' and then of the 25 year old me going to buy a paper on the way to work that would have a picture of the band on the front and had a little bit of a drunken cry.

  4. I photocopied the lyric page of this song, blew it up and stuck it on the back of my Goldfish Bowl for the fish to read, I have no idea why but when the sunlight sparkles through the water, the song filters through everytime...