A friend recently introduced me to the English band Elbow, who took the name after hearing a character on a BBC show describe it as the loveliest word in the English language. Imagine if Coldplay didn’t care about radio play, spent their evenings with Irish whiskey and watching black and white films, and dealt with breakups by drinking that whiskey alone in basements and writing poetry. Elbow’s music is dark, profane, poetic, and full of humanity.
One song off their recent album, The Takeoff and Landing of Everything has me particularly thrilled. Not only is it some of the finest songwriting you will hear this year but it also perfectly illustrates the role of the city in the Christian worldview. Click play on the video and I’ll walk you through what I mean.
The song opens with quiet chords, sneaking in like the first light of morning. The lead singer, Guy Garvey, begins by describing the power of ideas and “how there is a big one round the corner.” Right on cue the drums enter like a beam of sunrise. The city of New York is waking up. It’s towers are described in a rapidly rising crescendo, “each pillar post, and painted line, every batter ladder building in this town” singing “a life of proud endeavour and the best that man can be.” Garvey has just described the ambition that is the heart of New York and every urban Rome.
And his crescendo is not over. He continues, without pausing, describing the “million voices” of people that are “planning, drilling, welding, carrying their fingers to the nub.” “Why?” he asks as the musical line meets its ernest and earned peak. “Because they can, they did and do…” Such is the reason for our endeavouring, our modern babel of enterprise, our kingdom building.
But the line doesn’t end here, for if there was just ambition, we humans would be smothered under our own terror. The city holds something greater than achievement and the climax of this line ends by describing it. “Why? Because they can, they did and do so you and I could live together.” The heart and purpose of the city are right here, in home, in family, in love.
The lyrics in the song break as the bass and the piano wind themselves into a melody represent ing the towers “reaching down into the ground” and “stretching up into the sky.” The song than twists the three ideas it has introduced together as the voices and melodies overlap. “Everybody owns the great ideas”, “the desire of the patchwork symphony”, and the striving that is “for love, having come for me”.
The song opened with the morning light and pinnacled in afternoon ambition. It than winds to a restful end, revealing its foundation. “The way [the day] ends depends on if your home. For every soul a pillow and a window please.” In just over five minutes it has perfectly captures what we love and hate about the city but also why we must cherish our urban centres. Here is humanity. Here is the potential for home. And here is grace, family, and people, where the gospel takes root and proves its worth.
I can think of several examples. My first solo trip to London, were the city large, foreign, and exhausting. Yet I stayed with a group of Christian urban monks and because of their fellowship never felt alone. Or just last night, visiting a young couple who recently moved downtown. A car accident on Sunday left them shaken and debilitated so I went to keep them company and was joined by the her younger siblings. These kids live on an acreage and were visibly awed by the dark hot streets towering with cranes, the apartment, ancient and decrepit, and the stories of crime and homelessness surrounding the building. And yet in that home was warmth and sacrifice, family and protection. The heartbeat of life itself.