Saturday, 6 June 2009

Elvis Costello, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (2009)


My relationship to Elvis Costello's songs has been a tangled one. Golden Age Costello remains core to me—half a dozen albums from Trust onwards, with Imperial Bedroom, King of America and above all Blood and Chocolate being particularly crucial: albums which I know backwards, to which I still listen regularly, an aesthetic prompt that are deeply mixed into that strange emulsion (together with, you know, Tolkien, Browning, Nabokov, Phil Dick) in the melting pot of my own imaginative and creative life. This is the Costello written—literally—upon my body. For ages I lived the proper fan life, buying everything as soon as it was released, listening even the least promising material into submission. I recognized from an early stage that EC’s genius, as a songwriter, is essentially a pastiche genius: he can inhabit almost any style or idiom and produce something brilliant from it. This is at the heart of what I love about it, actually; because modern pop is a fundamentally pastiche art.

But then EC fell under the spell of Burt Bacharach—a perfectly fine if one-trick songwriter, of course, in his own right: but a bad influence on Elvis. Painted from Memory was alright, if a little funereally paced; but after buying North something in me snapped. I couldn’t bear that album. I tried, but I flat could not stomach it. I returned it to the shop--the first time I'd ever returned an Elvis album (ME: I’d like to return this CD, please. LAD BEHIND THE COUNTER: certainly sir. What’s wrong with it? ME: it’s just really—bad. LAD BEHIND THE COUNTER: what, is the CD damaged? ME: No, it’s the music. It’s just …. not good.) And then I went cold on EC for a year or so. But the subsequent albums won me back. The Delivery Man and Momofuku are both fine pieces of work. Besides, I was too invested—I mean, in terms of creative identification—to give up on him.

There are probably more disadvantages than advantages to even aspiring to being the Elvis Costello of SF. Even if we accept that none of us writing in the present generation can ever be the Beatles, Stones or Dylan of SF; nevertheless wouldn’t it be better, after all, to be the U2 of SF? The Coldplay of SF? The Emninem of SF? The R.E.M. of SF? Or if rank popularity was not the aim, then surely being the Smiths of SF, the Neil Young of SF, the Magnetic Fields of SF, the Fall of SF, the Radiohead of SF, the Madonna of SF, the Scott Walker of SF, would be a cannier ambition? ‘The Elvis Costello of SF’ looks more like dispraise than praise. Elvis C. has his dedicated fans, yes; but he has more detractors than admirers; those who actively dislike his sour songwriting and his vocal honk; those who care nothing for him either way. What has he done, since ‘Oliver’s Army’, after all? And say I achieved my aim, say I wrote something that was, in SF novelist terms, the equivalent on Blood and Chocolate: who would be impressed, apart from me?

This, then, is the context to a review of Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.

And it’s a perfectly good album. It’s just not something science-fictional-novel-worthy. ‘Down Among the Wines and Spirits’ is a gorgeous, bruised little song: similar in theme to, but incomparably better than, the bafflingly popular ‘Red Red Wine’. Track 2 is a new cut of ‘Complicated Shadows’, jauntier and accordingly less punchy than the All This Useless Beauty version. ‘I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came’ is touching, without quite being in the ‘Almost Blue’ class. ‘My All Time Doll’ doesn’t quite achieve the menace the lyrics call for. But it’s all good; and at least he’s got all the Bacharach out of his bloodstream. ‘Down Among the Wines and Spirits’ in particular wouldn't be out of place of King of America.

Neither would ‘Hidden Shame’, an odd Catholic-guilt/Bluegrass jollity mashup in whch, and not for the first time, EC construes identity in terms of the incomprehensibility of original sin (‘in many ways you never understood’): ‘til you know my hidden shame you really don’t know me’. ‘She Handed Me A Mirror’ is an unsimple love song, one that deliberately swallows its praise (‘You are much more than pretty; you are beautiful’) in a whining violin line, half-hearted vocals, and a studiedly dreary melody. ‘I Dreamed Of My Old Lover’ is addressed to a lamented, lost boyfriend; which, as sung by EC, is sweetly queer.

‘How Deep is the Red’ is nicely handled pastiche old folk ballad, one of two tracks on the album from EC's discarded operetta on Hans Christian Andersen: the depth of the redness of a soldier’s coat, or the petals of a rose, or a young girl’s heart, are all counterpointed (I’m struck how rare this lyrical move is, outside actual Christian pop—though it is wholly in keeping with the style of the song) with ‘the blood our Redeemer shed’. ‘She Was No Good’ is an extremely accomplished example of songwriting mortice-and-tenon. If EC were a chairmaker he would make really well made chairs, that might not (as I think it was the Guardian once said) necessarily be particularly comfortable to sit in.

Then things drift away from me. The next track ‘Sulphur to Sugarcane’ would have to do a lot to live up to its superb title, and its pleasant but self-indulgently plodding tour of US locations doesn’t really even try. ‘Red Cotton’ is the nearest thing on the album to a complete misfire: for although the slow squeezebox rhythm of the chorus is unobjectionable, the plinky-plonky shanty of the verses—which make up the bulk of the song—completely mismatches the topic of the song: an earnest attack on the evils of the slave trade. ‘The Crooked Line’ wants to be, and almost succeeds as, a love song about marriage—the long haul, rather than the courtship period. Finally the slow waltz of ‘Changing Partners’ (the album’s one cover) is redeemed from the Slough of Maudlin by the way EC tackles its inventive, rangey melody line. Of course he’ll never be Bing Crosby when it comes to singing (little tonsils of concrete, actually); and sometimes when he sings this sort of song, EC surrenders his voice to a ridiculously overplayed vibrato. But this time he restrains himself, and the song is better for it.

Understand: I’m not objecting to the country/bluegrass/US-folk pastiche idiom of the record. That pastiche idiom, as I said, is the heart’s-blood of EC’s achievement. My problem is that it’s all a little technically over-proficient. In a nutshell, it’s that none of these examples of American-heritage songwriting are one twentieth as good as 2004’s flawless, heartbreaking ‘Scarlet Tide’ (Alsion Krauss's version especially). But then I suppose you can’t have everything.

Besides, I’m not successful even enough to be accounted the Elvis Costello of SF. More like the Sparks of SF. Or maybe the Moby Grape of SF. There could be worse fates: Moby Grape were ace.

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