JORGE FARAH: It wasn’t really supposed to happen like this. This album wasn’t supposed to be a hit.
Elvis Costello is many things– a celebrated songwriter, a dedicated performer, a storyteller, a raconteur– but one thing he isn’t, and he’s never been, is a hit machine. Whatever pop-star aspirations he had seem to have vanished around the early 80s, when he started chasing whimsies around the musical spectrum. And I get the impression that this is something he’s grown content with. Sure, it’d be nice to have a U2-sized hit, and yeah, it would be nice to play to Springsteen-sized audiences, but Elvis is under no illusions regarding the accessibility of his music. Over the course of a 40-year career, there are only a handful of original Elvis Costello songs that have broken through and captured the general public’s imagination. These brief brushes with commercial success seem to keep him going for a few years at a time, bankrolling some of his more esoteric endeavors. The latest of these commercial resurgences came in 2009, when Starbucks’s Hear Music label released Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. An odd confluence of factors– jaunty lead single “Sulphur to Sugarcane”, Starbucks’s marketing push, and increased public awareness through his Spectacle TV show– contributed to making this oddball collection of songs Elvis’s most successful album in years.
And don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely album! Completely deserving of the success it had. It sounds wonderful, and the songs are as carefully composed and expertly performed as anything else in his catalogue. But it is an odd collection of tunes. The very conception of this album was unusual. The story goes that Elvis came to T Bone Burnett in 2008 with the idea to record a solo album that was exactly that: solo. Just guitar and vocals. Despite the width of his catalog, this is still a kind of album he’s never released; the closest thing to it is a bootleg collection of home demos titled King of Acoustic. This idea quickly transformed as they started calling in several prominent names in the world of Americana and bluegrass to serve as session musicians (and, eventually, a traveling band that would be dubbed The Sugarcanes). They worked on a mixed bag of songs: a few new originals, a few cast-offs from previous records, and (strangest of all) a set of songs based on the life of Hans Christian Andersen from a never-completed play commissioned by the Royal Danish Opera. If this last one didn’t elicit a bemused eyebrow raised, it’s probably a sign that you’re already acclimated to the sudden twists-and-turns of Costello’s career. The resulting record was shelved for a year, and only released after Momofuku– a much more traditional rock album featuring his regular band The Imposters– was met with widespread indifference.
“She Handed Me a Mirror” is the first of these Hans Christian Andersen songs to pop up in the tracklisting here. It is a dour, decidedly downbeat song, carried along by Stuart Duncan’s mournful violin, with contrapuntal flourishes from Jerry Douglas’s rich and resonant dobro. The mandolin rattles like shackles beneath the text. It doesn’t quite resemble bluegrass, which was a label that was slapped on the album from day one Elvis’s bluegrass album!—on account of all the notable string-band players featured on it. But this song, like several others in the record, more closely resembles traditional European ballads. The song’s melody, one of the prettiest that Elvis ever wrote, has this sour undercurrent running through it; an evocative chiaroscuro heightened by the string-band arrangement. The composition navigates the grief and resignation of betrayal and loss, servicing the words beautifully. The lyrics tell the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s declaration of love to his muse, Swedish singer Jenny Lind, and her crushing response. Much has been made of the Danish author’s romantic life (or his lack thereof), but it seems very clear that he was a troubled, deeply lonesome man whose fixations on unattainable women pointed both to a deeply-rooted insecurity and an inflated sense of self. Costello’s song beautifully captures the terrifyingly vulnerable moment after putting oneself out there, and the dread and anxiety of rejection. Utter devastation followed by the dull ache of heartbreak. The dashing word like “brother”, the crushing word like “friend”. A far cry from the album’s braggadocious and lighthearted lead single.
It makes sense that “Sulphur to Sugarcane” resonated. It’s a bouncy, lively, uncharacteristically naughty song delivered with a wink and a smile. That single, at least on first listen, is the kind of “rootsy” music that the stereotypical Starbucks clientele would respond to; 45-year-old investment bankers all across America shrugged a caffeinated “why not?” when they saw the album displayed prominently as they waited for their venti chai lattes or whatever. I have to wonder how they felt when they finally played the album and got to all the stuff about murder and slave ships and the gondola songs about drunken sailors and regret.
KEVIN DAVIS: Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane is special to me for kind of a strange reason.
At the beginning of the summer of 2009, I quit my job as a foster care caseworker with virtually no backup plan. My wife and I talked the situation over with our families and our landlord – all of whom mercifully agreed that getting out of the emotionally devastating field of social work was the right thing to do – so we were able to prepare for a few months of living on a tight budget, but suffice it to say things like new CD’s weren’t exactly a high priority. For a guy who’d been buying roughly a CD a week ever since his first paycheck at age sixteen, letting a backlog of new releases accumulate in my queue of wants was an utterly maddening exercise in patience and self-control. So when a friend gave me Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane for my birthday in mid-June, its arrival was not taken for granted – it was probably the only new album I acquired that summer, and as such my processing of the record was intensely focused and single-minded, similar to how I used to absorb CD’s when I was a kid and could only afford a new one once every few months. To that end, I came to know Sugarcane atypically well, carting it around with me for all manners of personal errand that summer – listening on headphones while mowing the lawn or cooking on the grill, in the car while driving around the city in search of gainful employment, at low volumes on the stereo while attempting to get my six month-old daughter to fall sleep at night. It struck me as characteristically engaging on an intellectual level but also deeply pleasurable on a simple aesthetic one – truly the perfect Costello album for all occasions, which is not a bad album to have come along when you can only afford one.
Musically, the album reminds me of Richard Thompson’s 2005 album Front Parlor Ballads, a similarly all-acoustic record that disguises a great deal of complex harmony and unconventional chord sequences beneath a consistent, rudimentary sound palette which causes the songs to sound far simpler (and far more uniform) than they are. “She Handed Me a Mirror” is perhaps the album’s finest example of this – it is a song busy with modulation, almost as though each lyric or set of lyrics adheres intrinsically to its own rulebook, unconcerned with what came before or what is to follow. This isn’t an entirely new concept for Costello – his songs have always risked musical unwieldiness in the service of their words – but I’m comfortable saying that, as a composer, making complexity coherently musical is something he’s generally gotten better at with age. “She Handed Me a Mirror” is a fantastic exercise in the use of illogical chordal juxtapositions to create something extremely evocative – one note at a time, it’s an extremely pretty song, but while the general outline of the main melody echoes the sense of loss inherent to the lyric, the “blue chords” (the “but” in the line, “But it was of a man”; the “I turned” in the lyric, “I turned from the reflection”; the entire chordal shift in the third verse) exacerbate the loss with a twinge of discomfort, contributing to an altogether more complex and therefore better-rounded portrayal of this character’s particular predicament. The old saying is that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, and this song is a beautiful illustration of that maxim, no better than in its final verse:
She handed me a mirror
But I saw her instead
She handed me a mirror
She handed me a mirror
And that is all she did.
Though this mirror seems to possess some weird supernatural powers (it reflects back to the narrator not only the reality that his love for this woman has so consumed him that it has become the only relevant component of his identity, but – earlier in the song – it also has the power to reveal what he looks like in her eyes), the devastation in the song lies in what the final line says about her gesture: Whatever symbolism the mirror takes on, this man has made this woman his whole world, and the only thing she can give him is a trinket. To that end, this becomes a song less about the immediacy of loss and more about the death of hope, a devastation many would agree is far greater. As with the rest of the album, not enough good can be said about Jerry Douglas’s dobro playing – it is the perfect foil to the vocal melody, conveying musically what the lyrics would lose their sense of mysticism for saying outright. For all the straightforward, Starbucks-friendly arrangements on the record, there is a quaintness to the way the instrumentation plays off the subject matter that recalls Dylan’s Basement Tapes, or some of Tom Waits’s recent work. It’s music that is timeless in its construction and in its execution, but still governed by something vaguely magical that we can’t – or choose not to – put our finger on.