The Other Side Of Summer

November 15, 2010

The Other Side Of Summer is the first track on Elvis Costello’s 1991 release Mighty Like A Rose: an album considered by many to be Costello’s most dense and frustrating. Perhaps it’s because I’m an English Literature graduate and am therefore willing (eager!) to submit pop music to intense analysis, but Mighty Like A Rose is perhaps my favourite Costello record exactly because it’s so dense. The song’s narratives are buried beneath layers of imagery and metaphor; Costello screams on almost every track making the lyrics even harder to parse. In short the album demands (and for me at least rewards) close attention and countless repeat listens.

Having said this though even casual listeners should have no trouble understanding The Other Side of Summer. Costello after all announces his theme in the title: here he’s shedding light on all those aspects of the Summer months to which people normally turn a blind eye. Hence there are lyrics about poisoned beaches and raging forest fires; pop princesses taking drugs and palaces overlooking shanty towns. The music meanwhile resembles the Beach Boys on a bad acid trip: the bouncing bass line less encourages you to dance than beats you into submission while the chorus harmonies are less joyous than taunting and accusatory. This couldn’t be further away from your everyday pop fare.

In fact I can understand why people not given to analysing music don’t like this song.


Pads, Paws and Claws

November 9, 2010

The same thought briefly occurs to me every time I listen to Elvis Costello’s 1989 album Spike: How? I ask this because the record was the biggest commercial success of Costello’s career. Yet it contains promises to dance on Margaret Thatcher’s grave (Tramp The Dirt Down) and satiric portraits of Christian faith (God’s Comic.) It also precedes by only two years the commercial low of Mighty Like A Rose. Hence: How? I don’t understand what convinced people to buy this biting and proudly uncommercial record in droves. (In fact I do: Spike was the first Costello release on Warner Brothers. The label poured a fortune into the publicity.)

Pads, Paws and Claws meanwhile is another track that should’ve shocked and appalled the respectable British public. (Perhaps it did. Perhaps that’s why Mighty Like A Rose fared so badly in 1991.) For one thing Pads, Paws and Claws is about sex games: that’s the first meaning of the title, wherein the three terms are taken as verbs. For another thing Pads, Paws and Claws is about totally fucked up sex games: taken as nouns the three terms suggest bestiality. This of course is never made explicit: Costello wavers between metaphor and anime nerd fantasy: ‘She’s a feline tormentor / Not any vaudeville wife.’ Costello also mews and screeches at every opportunity to keep things ambiguous, and the reasons I think most people would find this song bizarre are the reasons I love it.

On Your Way Down

November 9, 2010

Elvis Costello plays the elder statesman on The River In Reverse: someone in an experienced position giving advice to us mere mortals. This is forgiveable: Costello was 52 when the album was recorded in 2006 and, judging from his lyrics, could write his doctoral thesis about human corruption. The trouble though is that on The River In Reverse this doesn’t guarantee insightful lyrics or music. Costello sounds profoundly relaxed throughout, and he’s singing about things that deserve and demand more anger.

Take the opening lyric to opening track On Your Way Down: ‘Sunrise / Sunset / Since the beginning it hasn’t changed yet.’ The song is about a moneyed individual treading on the people beneath that helped him reach his present position. The track more broadly broaches the gap between rich and poor. Hence the lyric is both a metaphor warning the individual to mend his selfish ways (ala A Christmas Carol) and a taunt that whether or not he changes things he’s going to plummet: it’s inevitable. This dual meaning is pretty clever: Costello both recognises the injustice of the rich-poor divide and is himself a millionaire, so it makes sense that he’d both warn and taunt a moneyed person.

The problem though is that the lyric is uninspired given Costello’s reputation for wordplay. To make matters Costello raises and lowers the pitch to match ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset.’ Lord man, how obvious!

15 Petals

November 7, 2010

Elvis Costello is not the sort of musician you bang over the head with a frying pan. Firstly because he’s too literate: hitting him with a frying pan would be like attacking a really cool college professor. Secondly because he’s a grand master at character assassination: attack Costello and he’s likely to immortalise your personality flaws on record.

Hence it’s strange that listening to 15 Petals I keep imagining someone bashing Costello’s noggin. Then instead of attacking the assailant either with clenched fists or invective Costello’s eyes spin like slot machine rollers. Cartoon blue birds meanwhile orbit his skull singing sweetly.

In short 15 Petals is ‘Elvis Costello joined by the production crew of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ Hence the harmonium loop that (to me) recalls the hypnotic gaze of Kaa from the Jungle Book. Hence the trumpet players that sound as though they’ve wandered into the recording studio off a Broadway musical. Hence the loopy vibrato with which Costello sings the word ‘Fifteen’ in the chorus. Imagine a landscape view of several peaks and valleys like in the old game Tank! Then imagine someone shooting up and down the landscape on a rocket-powered tricycle. That’s Costello’s vibrato during the chorus of 15 Petals.

Suffice to say the track is immensely silly and huge fun.

The Long Division

November 6, 2010

Painted From Memory belongs to an alternate universe in which Elvis Costello’s parents had him castrated before he reached puberty. By this I don’t mean that he frequently reaches the high notes. Instead, on almost every track he finds himself cuckolded and, instead of pouring scorn as though it were a cauldron of boiling tar, tries to heal the rift. Probably the reason for this is his collaborator on the album Burt Bacharach, the man responsible for serenading countless millions through tinny elevator speakers.

Fortunately Costello is more than a match for the powers of schmaltz. Clasping his incomparable talent for wordplay in one hand and his always brimming hatful of hooks in the other, he delivers some great songs. The Long Division is no exception.

The lyric sheet might encourage you to facepalm on first glance: ‘Can it be so hard to calculate? / When three goes into two there’s nothing left over.’ No, you’re reading that right, Costello us using maths metaphors to describe his partner’s sleeping with another man. I still blush when I’m listening to the song on my mp3 player in public. Though at the same time I must admit it’s pretty clever. In addition Costello stuffs ten billion hooks into the song’s four minute length. If the song were a suitcase bulging with money Costello would be the red-faced thief trying to stuff inside another roll of fifties. Yeah, there’s that many hooks.

Spooky Girlfriend

November 6, 2010

Spooky Girlfriend is a conversation between three people. Except two of the people are actually one person, and the other person isn’t really there. In addition only the two people that are actually one person does any talking and really exists. Confused? Then let me explain.

Elvis Costello opens the track by singing: ‘I want a girl to make a mess.’ He addresses two people in this line as the speaker, and is thereby the first person in the conversation. The first person he addresses is the girl. How do we know this? Firstly because Costello sings as though he’s pressed against her in an elevator shaft about to get busy. Secondly because she later replies to Costello: ‘I could be / Your spooky girlfriend.’ The second person Costello addresses meanwhile is the listener. How do we know this? Because it’s a fucking song, dumbass. Hence the song is a conversation between three people.

The person that isn’t really in the conversation is the listener. This is because, though Costello addresses the listener, he or she cannot reply. The listener can experience the conversation anew each time he or she listens but remains passive. The two people that are actually one person meanwhile are Costello and the girl. They are both Costello. This is because Costello uses his own voice to reply to himself: ‘I could be / Your spooky girlfriend.’ The girl has no identity apart from Costello. Hence: the two people in the song are actually only one person, and Spooky Girlfriend is a conversation between three people in which only one person talks and really exists.


London’s Brilliant Parade

November 5, 2010

Remember that Fry and Laurie sketch in which the pair compete about the number of levels they can perceive in a work of art? I’m going to do that with London’s Brilliant Parade.

Hence: on one level London’s Brilliant parade is a love song to London. Costello namedrops and fondly recalls locations including Oxford Street and Regent’s Park. On another level London’s Brilliant Parade is a fantasy in the tradition of Lewis Carroll. Costello’s character is asleep during the events and lines include absurdities such as: ‘The lions and tigers in Regent’s Park couldn’t pay their way.’ Perhaps absurdest of all Costello implores ‘Just look at me’ on an audio recording. On another level London’s Brilliant Parade is an examination of consciousness during dreams. Costello’s speaker calls attention to the unreal nature of dream experience in the refrain: ‘Just look at me having the time of my life / Or something quite like it.’ In addition, though Costello’s speaker creates the dream he is passive within it: ‘They come with their sirens.’ On another level London’s Brilliant Parade is a subversion of the importance of celebrity. Hence the lines: ‘But of course they know that when they cast her / Along with a red routemaster’ in which a beautiful young actress plays second fiddle to a London bus. Costello’s speaker implies unseen executives have the power.

There are more levels but I’m running out of room. Someone please give me £40k to study my PhD!

Suit Of Lights

November 5, 2010

There’s probably a coherent narrative somewhere in Suit Of Lights but I’ve never found it. Instead I like the song because it showcases Elvis Costello’s witticisms. Try this: ‘While Nat King Cole songs welcome to my world / You request some song you hate you sentimental fool.’ Try this too: ‘Outside they’re painting tar on somebody / It’s the closest to a work of art that they will ever be.’ In fact here’s a link to the complete lyric sheet: Costello Wiki.

Reading the words alone you might conclude that Suit of Lights is acerbic. Costello after all has a reputation as a master of the withering put down. In fact though he sings in a comradely fashion: he feels affection for whomever he calls a sentimental fool. In addition the piano accompaniment sounds downright jaunty: it wouldn’t seem out of place in a pub eighty years ago. Hence Costello offsets the biting character of his lyrics. On Suit Of Lights he doesn’t sound like someone you’d happily share a pint with: he’s simply too ready to insult people even in jest. But you might like to see him on a small stage unleashing his wit on someone else.

The Long Honeymoon

November 5, 2010

The Long Honeymoon is one of the most sympathetic songs Elvis Costello has written. The track tells the story of a newlywed woman awaiting her husband. She’s alone at night. She has no one to talk to. Her mind starts to wander. Has her husband begun cheating on her? Does she regret getting married? Is she safe alone in the house?

Costello’s voice is elevated in the mix but he uses a tortured whisper throughout. There’s lots of empty space around his voice: hence like his character he seems isolated. In addition there’s a piano flourish that repeats on the line: ‘There’s no money back guarantee on future happiness.’ The flourish uses four high pitched notes repeated at high speed. They pretty closely replicate the panic that accompanies realising you’ve made a mistake you can’t erase. Hence this isn’t instrumentation for its own sake. Using voice and instruments Costello pretty closely replicates the woman’s emotional state.

This is clever stuff. The temptation is to believe that Costello emphathises with the character completely. But in fact he is critical. Consider the line: ‘There’s no money back guarantee on future happiness.’ This is free indirect discourse: Costello’s using the woman’s own lexicon to describe her predicament. But what sort of person uses marketing speech to describe marriage? Someone that believes this speech completely: someone unable to think critically. Costello’s character in other words is an idiot. Hence in Costello’s universe she deserves whatever she gets because she didn’t think in the first place.

Oh well.

A Voice In The Dark

November 4, 2010

Before 2002 Elvis Costello could accurately be called a bitter man. Records like Imperial Bedroom (1982) and Mighty Like A Rose (1991) contained so much bile you had to wipe them down before listening. For some reason though this changed when he released When I Was Cruel. Previously he’d pointed a finger at people’s inadequacies and sneered. Suddenly he was treating these same inadequacies as pantomime! Listen for example to Episode Of Blonde from When I Was Cruel: every sentence describes another instance of human cowardice and innate seediness. Except the listener isn’t being asked to shake their head at this. They’re being asked to goggle! In short Costello had become a showman: without trading his subject matter he had begun making certain his audience was entertained.

National Ransom’s closing track A Voice In The Dark takes this a step further. Costello no longer describes the double-crossing world and gleefully implores: ‘Look! Look!’ Instead (so highly does he now esteem his listener) he describes an escape hatch from this world: ‘When liars and bullies conspire to stamp out your spark / Listen for a voice in the dark.’ This is Costello reassuring the listener: something unimaginable even five years ago. He hasn’t changed his opinion that most people are bottom-feeding would-be Judases. But he recognises that we can create a haven from that.

That’s called personal growth.