ECSOTW #2: Throw Another Joan on the Blaze

Elvis_Costello_And_The_Attractions-All_This_Useless_Beauty-Frontal

KEVIN DAVIS: I’ve always had a special fondness for the songs that Elvis Costello co-authored with Paul McCartney in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s – not because they’re the greatest or even among the greater songs in either artist’s canon, but because they seem to embody everything that’s good about songwriting partnerships between giants. On paper, collaborations like this generate excitement via the time-tested more-is-more principle (“If I like Elvis Costello, and I like Paul McCartney, then I’ll love something that features both of them!”), but we all know how these things can go once the rubber hits the road – big egos get in the way of one another, toes are stepped on, neither artist commits fully to the exercise, and the finished product ends up being a pile of crap that plays to no one’s strengths. To that end, the McCartney/MacManus collaborations always struck me as very self-aware in the sense that each artist seems to bring to the table only what they’re confident can strengthen the work of the other artist – love him though I obviously do, Costello’s writing can be unwieldy at times, and McCartney’s penchant for cutesiness will haunt him till the end of his days. In leaving these occasional hindrances at the door, McCartney and Costello were able to create a small, inspired body of highly pleasurable but comparatively slight work (“Veronica,” “So Like Candy,” “Pads Paws and Claws”) that find clever and heartfelt if not overly profound lyrics being fit to songs built out of simple melody and rich harmony, well in the ballpark of each songwriter’s individual output but still distinct enough to feel like you can pick out which parts were contributed by which musician (there are parts of “So Like Candy” that are difficult for me to imagine not having been written by McCartney, as well as lyrics in all of the songs that could only have come from EC).

“Shallow Grave,” from 1996’s oddity roundup All This Useless Beauty, is among the lesser of these lesser compositions, but it came up on my iPod’s shuffle the other day and I was struck by it – by the craftsman’s panache of it, as described above, but also by its sense of economy. Last week, in writing about “Lipstick Vogue,” I mentioned how efficient the Attractions were at fitting a great deal of precise technical musicianship into a small space, and I would say the same thing about this song in regards to its compositional musicianship – it is no surprise to me that Costello’s songwriting partner here is a guy who penned some of the most sophisticated compositions of the popular era in a format where songs running in excess of three minutes were considered a risk. “Shallow Grave” runs for 2:07, and in that short time manages to cover a verse (“when I fall in endless sleep”), a pre-chorus (“throw another clown to the lions”), a musically erudite, non-repetitive chorus (“I won’t lie in this poor shallow grave”), another verse, a bridge (“the tinker, the tailor”), another pre-chorus, and another chorus, all while leaving time in between for Elvis to pound rudimentarily on his guitar in pursuit of the same undisciplined, distorted ruckus that calls all the way back to the opening chords from Blood and Chocolate. As they do on much of All This Useless Beauty, the Attractions (who were back for a short-lived and reportedly tense reunion) play a diminished role, but I’m particularly fond of Steve Nieve’s rolling piano in the pre-chorus, immediately following the lyric, “Throw another clown to the lions” – it underscores the sense of playfulness in the melody, such that the song’s themes of man’s inevitable demise as well as some of the songwriter’s more particular postmortem preferences almost becomes an afterthought.

JORGE FARAH: Yes! Before I zero in on the song in question, I’d like to say that I love the living hell out of All This Useless Beauty. It often gets treated like it occupies a minor place in EC’s discography, in part due to its premise and commercial reception—it was famously the lowest-selling album in his career when it first came out. But it has a special place in my heart; this was one of the first Elvis Costello albums I bought during my initial process of discovery. Because I hadn’t followed EC’s career in any sort of linear fashion—or adhering to any specific criteria– I had absolutely no idea this was supposed to be an “odds-and-ends” compilation, or a collection of songs originally written for other artists. I didn’t really know anyone who liked Elvis Costello, so I didn’t know where to go beyond the universally-agreed-upon “first three albums” rule. I had no sherpa to guide me, so I just kind of picked up whatever I was able to find in music stores down here in South America. In a way, approaching a discography this large with this kind of freedom was oddly liberating; the album I bought after this one was Get Happy, and then The Juliet Letters after that. Each album was its own surprise, like discovering a couple dozen new artists and processing their individual discographies. I was roaming a wide, open space, free to wander wherever my curiosity took me, free from the influence of tastemakers or public perception, gathering jewels I stumbled onto along the way. To me, it was just a really good Elvis Costello album, a collection of smartly written pop tunes that incorporated many distinct influences. And even now, knowing of the minutiae of its genesis (thanks to the extensive liner notes in the Rhino reissues), that’s exactly what it feels like. A solid collection of songs (if a bit over-produced in parts; it’s really the only EC album that has that dreadful mid-90s radio-pop shimmer).

I’ve also heard it referred to as some kind of prelude to EC’s Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted From Memory; the logic being they’re both largely made up of piano ballads. But that doesn’t really hold true for ATUB—yes, the album does feature songs like “I Want to Vanish”, “Poor Fractured Atlas”, and its wonderful title track– but it also features some lively jaunts and ferocious playing. “Shallow Grave” has never been my favorite ATUB song, but rediscovering it during this exercise gave me a new appreciation for its minor pleasures: Bruce Thomas’s measured bassline, Steve Nieve hammering down masculine chords on the left side of his piano and quickly moving to the right for the pre-chorus, Pete Thomas’s clank-steam-boom (to borrow a line from Tom Waits) and EC’s jagged, angular guitar leads (likely stemming from his playing a right-handed guitar despite being a lefty). A jerky, stopstutter arrangement that explodes in the chorus and rolls back for another go-around, it accomplishes a lot in its modest running time. As primal as the song sounds, there’s a tricky dexterity to the musicianship on display here; I reckon the Attractions wouldn’t really know how to approach this song in 1978. At the very least, they’d need a minute to collect themselves in time to tackle “Poor Fractured Atlas”.

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