Big Hands, a pub in Manchester, England, that takes its name from a Violent Femmes song, has long been a watering hole for local bands. Guy Garvey, the lead singer for the massively popular group Elbow, is a regular there, but in recent years, he's watched younger musicians take over the stools.
That feeling of displacement inspired the song "Charge" from Elbow's new album, "The Take Off and Landing of Everything." Over a pugnacious organ-guitar throb, Garvey, who turned 40 in March, sings of feeling like he's "from another century."
But he can still be "a preacher" when he's "electric with a bottle in me," and tonight's sermon is about paving the way for the younger generation of musicians. "I designed that little mystery on your tongue," he tells a youngster at the rail.
"I still drink in the bar, but now it's mostly a younger crowd who believe they invented everything," Garvey says by phone from his Manchester home. "You feel that way when a first-year student at the bar looks you up and down as if to say, 'What are you doing in here, old man?' "
The new album -- Elbow's sixth straight top-20 album in England, but the first to break into the U.S. top 100 -- is full of such ambivalent observations on life's changes. Whether it's turning 40 or cutting back on partying, breaking up with a longtime lover (as Garvey did recently) or raising children (as everyone in Elbow but Garvey is doing), how does one let go of the past without losing its lessons and denying its pleasures? How does one honor the past without blocking the way forward?
Such meditations are well-suited to the band's art-rock reveries, which often open with Garvey's echo-enhanced vocals musing over sustained synth chords and drawn-out guitar figures before gradually gathering density and momentum.
Elbow avoids the worst excesses of British art-rock by exercising a welcome restraint in arrangements and a healthy sense of humor in the lyrics. Garvey, for example, pokes fun at the narrator in "Charge" by having him sing, "Another night beside myself would finish me / Give us some G&T and sympathy."
"These days, getting together with two or three people in a pub is my preferred way to celebrate," Garvey says. "It used to be 20 of us together looking for possible sleeping partners and trying to get as drunk as possible. You get older, and you have to decide if you're going to change your habits or if you're going to shave a couple decades off your life. So I don't do it seven nights a week anymore. I take a few nights off. But I still like it; it's a cheap way of accessing a sense of abandon."
On the song "My Sad Captains," Garvey pays tribute to the drinking buddies who have stuck by him all these years. The wistful, elegiac tone of his observations on age ("We're plummeting like crippled crows") is reinforced by a counter-melody from three classical trumpeters and the refrain "Oh, my soul" bellowed in the background.
Garvey's sad captains (a reference to the Shakespearean tragedy "Antony and Cleopatra") include the other members of Elbow: brothers Mark Potter on guitar and Craig Potter on keyboard; Pete Turner on bass; and Richard Jupp on drums. They have been playing together since 1990 but never tasted success until their first full-length album, 2001's "Asleep in the Back," which was nominated for a Mercury Prize, Britain's top music award. Elbow eventually won the prize in 2008 for its album "The Seldom Seen Kid."
The key to the band's longevity?
"Everything is shared five ways, even the songwriting," Garvey says. "That's unusual, I know, but 20 percent of something is better than 50 percent of nothing. So we never have jealousy on that front. And professionally, no one wants to be left behind, so we all work hard to get better at what we do. The ability keeps going up and up.
"And if you're a band in a northern town, where people who work in the mills have the notion that you shouldn't get above yourself, you can expect a lot of slagging. So the band develops a solidarity, like it's our gang against the world."
Garvey's personal life, however, hasn't stayed on the same steady track. While making the new album, he broke up with his longtime love, award-winning novelist Emma Unsworth. The repercussions of that split can be felt throughout the album, but these aren't typical breakup songs -- they emanate affection and generosity rather than spite and score-settling. "Colour Fields" pays tribute to Unsworth's childhood as a "bright girl" in a "dead town, walking tall but blown around." On opening track "This Blue World," Garvey sings, "Three chambers of my heart beat true and strong with love for another / The fourth is yours forever." And on "Honey Sun": "She and I won't find another me and her."
But Garvey has a philosophical outlook.
"If you respect one another, if you don't cheat on one another or hurt one another, you can end a relationship in a loving way," he says. "It's a great feeling to go out into the world knowing that someone knows everything about you. It's a lovely, very exclusive club to be in, and that will never go away."
He pauses, then adds: "Emma will change and eventually I won't be the person she knows best in the world, and that's sad."
Sad, yes, but not necessarily damaging. The new album's title track, "The Take Off and Landing of Everything," uses the anxiety of sitting in an plane about to take off or land as a metaphor for the changes in age, relationship and drinking habits that Garvey faced during the making of the record. One has to land safely from one phase in life, he suggests, before taking off safely into the next.
Appearing Sunday at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. 202-265-0930. www.930.com. The show is sold out.