Elbow was one of the first of the recent wave of modern-rock bands that's reaching back to the serrated experimental pop of Peter Gabriel, though with uncannily Gabriel-like lead vocalist Guy Garvey up front, the band probably didn't have much choice. Nevertheless, it's been thrilling to hear Elbow embrace its Gabriel-ness more and more with each record, to the point where on its third album, Leaders Of The Free World, the British quintet has made a Security for the 21st century. The new disc is as politically plugged-in as Gabriel's best work, and it's similarly fascinated with texture and ritual.
The album-opening "Station Approach" sets the tone, starting as a monotone ballad before descending to a low chant, then building back up to a deafening boom. Musically, Leaders Of The Free World is all about sound rubbing against sound, like the light plucking and languid strumming of "Picky Bugger," the ringing bells and choral hum of "The Stops," and the pounding rhythms and escalating melody of "Mexican Standoff." Lyrically, the songs are about responsibility and regret, simultaneously criticizing a world of "little boys throwing stones" and pledging a renewed sense of humility. Leaders Of The Free World contains songs as heavy and epic as the neo-prog of Elbow's first two albums, but it's strongest at its quietest, as on "An Imagined Affair," a ballad with the shape of an afterthought, and "Great Expectations," an open-hearted love song as winsome and atmospheric as anything Coldplay has done lately. This is an album that doubles as a guide to life, starting with the insight that before people can be leaders, they need to spend some time on their knees, washing feet.