The wailing chants and tribal percussion on We Three show Hey Elbow’s penchant for the very basics of expression, but when the infinite loops and post-rock guitar dynamics come in, you know their influences are varied. Along with Liam Amner’s jazzy drumming, We Three is quite a unique cocktail. It has huge cacophonous peaks that separate calm ambient sections; it is music which is always rising to a zenith – or recovering from one. Hey Elbow are an ambitious group, bringing several disparate sound palates together.
On the whole, We Three is a well written album which suffers from a lack of sonic focus. This muddiness frustrates and holds back parts of the album that should soar gracefully, and there’s lots of grand ideas that the band aren’t able to fully express. This album would fare better by stripping down some of the noise and going for an organic feel. At their heart, Hey Elbow are a solid trio of drums, guitar and vocals. They deliver plenty with those core elements, and they don’t need to have so much else going on.
There’s a few songs on We Three which rise above the hubbub. The first few tracks are hard to get into, but it gets going in earnest during the mid-section with Layers. Opening with a guitar howling like a wolf, this song takes a step back from the cluttered landscape elsewhere with a calmer tone. Springing open after two minutes, the driving bassline comes out of the shadows along with Julia Ringdahl’s awakening call of “Where are you”. This clears the fog, and jolts We Three into life. Layers proves that Hey Elbow are able to minimalise their tunes, and therefore the effect of adding new melody lines becomes more profound. The trumpet in the 2nd chorus is a neat example of the kind of intricate subtlety Hey Elbow are capable of.
The end of We Three is the finest section. Life Hack’s running arpeggiator over dulled textural guitar makes for a good intro. Ringdahl’s lyrics are cryptic on Life Hack, as they are on most of the album, adding to the atmospheric quality and the sheen of mystique. This song ends with an enjoyable groove, and again is better for a lack of complexity. This leads into the last song Drainit, which offers a wonderfully crafted time signature change. This element thrown in to the final chapter is a nice surprise, as the band show off their range of creativity without leaning into pretension. Ringdahl’s repeated line “You know it’s always there for you” is ambiguous, like a lot of her words, which is a fitting aesthetic for Hey Elbow’s style. This is the best song on the album, ending We Three on a strong note.
What may come across as a belting live sound has been missed in the studio, and it’s there where the limitations of this album become apparent. For all the walls of noise and tension-building crescendos, We Three doesn’t hit home with the clarity it needs to. Most of the songs end up with an unbalanced, harsh blend of sounds. It’s a record that could have easily been a classic with a few changes. Still, this is an entertaining, challenging album, from a band with plenty of potential for a future masterpiece.