Come On, Tower Crane Driver

Despite enjoying the twilight of my twenties, I am occasionally surprised to miss out on a whole class of music I would describe as “adult music”. It is not anything like “adult movies” (sexually explicit music ultimately sounds juvenile more often than not). It is vaguely yuppie. I’d characterize it primarily as inoffensive and I would buy it in a Starbucks (which incidentally has become the chief indicator that an indie band has “made it”). I probably heard about it from NPR or a New York Times article and it might get a sleeper Grammy nomination. I would not download it (even though I may have picked up a download card for the single at said Starbucks); I would listen to it on CD in a real stereo at home or in a car or maybe in an iPod dock or something that Bose makes (because whether I am conscious of it or not, I believe music belongs in space and I value its format as a physical/informational/aesthetic entity). More often than not, it is rootsy or a comeback record.

My tastes suggest I actually do listen to quite a bit of adult music. I love Spoon and Neko Case, Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes. The problem is, most of what falls into the adult music category is either as commonplace as it is principled or it’s a comeback record. And for every great song that pulls you into the genre (e.g. Dylan’s comeback “Sick Of Love” or the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration “Killing The Blues”) you’re going to be disappointed by the rest if you aren’t actually a bona fide “adult”. Considering how often these albums are made by highly talented musicians and engineers, this may not apply to recordists, audiophiles, or “players” who can abide passable songs for either their sound or the performances.

On the night of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, I had drinks with friends in a quiet and moderately fancy bar in Harvard Square. While a solitary dancer swung and ran over projections of Canadian landscapes to the close-captioned lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, I became typically distracted with the house music and couldn’t help inquiring about an unfamiliar song that intrigued me. It turned out to be a mouthful for the waitress: “The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver” by Mercury Prize winners Elbow. The next day, I found the album at the public library and took it home for a listen. It was a thoroughly adult music experience.

Elbow – The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver

The track comes from their most recent album, The Seldom Seen Kid and it has the kind of title that is no surprise after a single whose chorus brilliantly favors “There’s a hole in my neighborhood down which of late I cannot help but fall” over “I get drunk a lot recently”. It reads like an academic treatment of the working class and there is a real-life inspiration for the song. But the image itself is incredibly compelling in its familiarity: the workman trapped in a box of glass and metal hovering in air working alone. It’s the poetic depiction and the musical context that sells it as an applied symbol of personal alienation.

What I find most remarkable is the dreary massiveness that’s conveyed here. After a brief plucking guitar intro, the huge drums rumble in from a great distance with sharp synth strings filling the air. The other guitar appears to play a solitary harmonic panned hard right that chimes in to alternate with the vocals. For all the space that is filled by the production, it feels very private and timid. Singer Guy Garvey begins in a somber low register. “Got to get out of TV / Just pick a point and go.” This is a song about the desperation of escape. The refrain is plaintive. “Come on, tower crane driver. There’s not too far to go.” But after the first verse, we get an open break that transforms the track from a song to a concept piece. Suddenly the space between here and there is as wide open as it is undeterminable.

When the song resumes suddenly, though we haven’t noticed its absence thus far, the bass finally arrives panned hard right with overdriven bursts like a tuba so that the guitar harmonic is revealed to perfectly syncopate with the bassline. Up an octave, Garvey’s voice slides from an easy mid-range to an anguished, tragic croon. “I must have working the ropes when your hand slipped from mine.” By the time the refrain returns, the hope dissipates in the untenable “Oh so far to fall.”

From this pregnant mood comes the climax of the song. In a perfectly paired movement of lyrics and music planted in the middle of the primary progression, Garvey sings “Send up a prayer in my name” and the track soars into a brief but intensely saturated bridge. Suddenly, the track feels like a plane that’s been barreling down the runway as it reaches take-off: there’s no noticeable change in velocity, but the ground has clearly dropped beneath you. The tension sustains like a burning flare. Before you know it, you’re back to a familiar incline, stewardesses are serving beverages, and you’re napping in the clouds. The beat runs out and the ethereal break returns to end the song.

In keeping with the adult music distinction, The Seldom-Seen Kid is one of the most unique-sounding albums I’ve heard in a while and contains a bevy of interesting arrangements (from what I’ve read, they not only recorded the album themselves; they did it with the resources of a mere project studio). The liner notes include lyrics and a refreshingly modest but defiant stance against the loudness wars. The rootsiness of aforementioned single “Grounds For Divorce” turned me off when watching the accompanying video, but ends up being the other highlight of the record (for another, album closer “Friend Of Ours” acts largely as a quiet reprise of “…Tower Crane Driver”). And the rest of the album is pretty good.

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