Bands breaking up shortly after their latest record comes out can often be a mixed blessing. If the group had once been popular, and their last record was mediocre, then the band's demise will seem as a bit of a concession to defeat and failure, and hopefully the band can do something for the fans, so as to make sure the end isn't a painful loss. If the new album is excellent and the band is unknown, then it's even more a pain, because though the band is leaving on a high note, then you're left feeling, "well, what if they had stayed together?" They played their last show on Wednesday, and so this review feels more like an epitaph than it does a review.
Elliott's decision to split up is a bittersweet one. While it's true that they've been around for several years now, their ending comes hot on the heels of one of the best records I've heard in ages. Song In The Air is a particularly somber, downbeat kind of record, owing much of its large sound to the ambient tendencies of electronica (think Kid A), yet it's made almost entirely by a traditional band lineup. Augmented occasionally by strings and keyboard, they stick pretty close to their four-man arrangement, and in so doing, they push the limits of what it means to be a band.
When they really push their sound to the breaking point is when things get most interesting. After all, this is a rather new sound for them; when Elliott changed their sound, they really changed their sound; as shocking as it may seem, they used to be compared to the Get Up Kids--yes, you read correctly! Instead of that bland emoish sound, they've looked inward, and have created a record that both looks and sounds as if it should be the proud owner of a Projekt logo. At times it owes a great deal to bands to not only Radiohead, but also to the atmospheric brooding of Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie, Pygmalion-era Slowdive, and the flawed This Mortal Coil followup project, The Hope Blister. Indeed, their sound is much different than their back catalog.
The only problem with this new sound is the fact that Elliott had yet to really make it distinctive. At times, Song In The Air just flows together as one long song, with no real distinctive difference from one to the other. Chris Higdon's vocals are buried underneath the sonic greatness; his voice at times seems to be no match for the power of the rest of the band, leaving only a feeling that he's aping the stylings of Thom Yorke. Not that they're really wanting to be Radiohead, but because his singing is overwhelmed, you only hear his voice and not his words. This is a minor quibble, especially for a band who have produced such a radically different record. The times his vocals do come through, it's pretty damn powerful; "Carry On" sounds almost as if the band knew the end was near; his faint "Carry on without me" seeping through the loudness, producing a quite haunting effect.
Still, this is a minor quibble, because as a whole, Song In The Air is an overwhelmingly beautiful record, full of deep atmospheres, swirling guitars and a truly haunting sound. True, it may seem as if it runs together, but isn't that just a negative way of saying that the album is seemless? Yes, it is. It's just a shame that they had to come to an end at such a critical point--after releasing their masterpiece. I would love to have heard what they would have done an album later; how would they blend together the tender moments like "Blue Storm" with the epic rock of "Drag Like Pull?" How would they have incorporated more strings and shimmering guitar, like on the excellent "Believe?" Would the vocals have come to the forefront? What would they have incorporated next?
While we'll never really know what could have been, Elliott's demise was indeed on a high note. Song In The Air is an amazing record, and if it leaves more questions than answers, so be it. Sometimes it's best to be left scratching your head and wondering "what happened?" Besides, it's been my experience that when bands break up on the heels of a great record, they often form new bands which also produce great music. So we bid adieu to you, Elliott...here's to your future, may it shimmer as highly as it did on Song In The Air.