We awake from our blogslumber to once again dish on our very favorite Costello songs. And our inaugural post for 2016 is another request! This time around it’s “Fallen”, from 2003’s North.
JORGE FARAH: I’d be remiss not to start off by mentioning that one of the best reviews of North I’ve ever read, and one that very closely mirrors my own feelings about the album, was written by my co-author on this very post. A few years ago I decided that I would count down my 10 favorite albums of the 2000-2010 decade on my main blog Every -ist and Every -ism. When I arrived at my pick for #4, I struggled with the words to explain my adoration for an almost universally-maligned album, and so I turned to the one person I knew who: a) loved the album as much as I did, and b) had the writerly chops to sing its praises without sounding like the brainwashed member of a necromantic cult. So here’s Kevin’s review of North. I encourage you to read all that before moving forward. I truly couldn’t have said it better myself.
And though I can’t write about North better than Kevin did, I can write about my relationship with it: North is often the first thing that springs to mind when I’m asked about my favorite Elvis Costello album. And this is odd because, to a casual listener, North’s soporific after-hours torch-song leanings probably feels pretty far removed from what is widely regarded as “the classic Elvis Costello sound.” The other albums I’ve referred to by that title are This Year’s Model, Blood and Chocolate, and Brutal Youth— all rawer, guitar-based albums, comprised mostly of sprightly 3-minute pop songs with bright choruses and largely oblique lyrics (or, at least, lyrics with discernible meanings that are partially obscured by clever wordplay). But the moment you dig deeper, you’ll find that North‘s key influences were part of EC’s musical DNA all along, and this is just the clearest distillation of an album he’d been wanting to make since at least the early 80s. Similarly, these songs are part of my own life in a big way; my grandfather on my mother’s side was a jazz singer. He idolized Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. He held the songs of Gershwin and Porter up as the pinnacle of musical artistry, and would sing these songs to me as a kid. That melodic lilt is as much a part of my own musical constitution as it probably was for Elvis, whose own father was a big-band and jazz performer. And even though these songs are probably slower, sadder, and quieter than most of the songs in that tradition, they are rooted in the same musical language. It took all of 30 seconds for me to fall in love with “You Left Me in the Dark”, the album’s opening track, when I first stuck the CD into my discman. It’s stayed with me ever since that inaugural play.
“Fallen” is one of my favorite songs on North, and decidedly less somber than the aforementioned opener. That’s one of the things I love about the album– it starts off in a completely desolate place, then gradually opens up until it concludes with pure romantic giddiness. This song finds the protagonist towards the middle of the journey. It is a contemplation on the passing of seasons as a metaphor for the heart’s own whimsy. It is colored with regretful longing, but at this point it starts to feel more self assured than self pitying. I love Costello’s phrasing here; the syllables gliding gently downward like leaves from a tree: “turning ye/ llow red/ and brown / soon they’ll / be sca / ttered as…”– as a sidenote, I’ve been wanting to adapt this song as an Elliott Smith guitar ballad for quite some time.
What Elvis accomplishes here is deliver a brief, candid snapshot of a heart on the mend, pondering on past mistakes but slowly coming into the strength to pick up and move forward. It’s always felt to me like a very cinematic song, with its orchestral sweep underlining what sounds like a musical epiphany before it quietly falls back into its opening motif. For its brief runtime, it feels like he’s managed to stop time, and then gently set it back in motion.
I’m embedding the studio version at the bottom of this post, but sadly it seems to be accessible only for people in the USA. For the rest of us, here is a lovely live version from Elvis’s 2003 Live By Request performance. On a personal note, I’d like to share with you that this performance was actually my very first exposure to the music of Elvis Costello (as far as attentive listening, anyway– chances are, l was probably exposed to his cover of “She” at some point in my childhood). I remember standing by my sister’s television set, which I preferred for watching music videos because both of its speakers worked, and thinking this Costello guy was the coolest person in the world. He had the punk rock sneer I was so drawn to as a kid, as well as a suave, sophisticated demeanor. I remember being very impressed by the fiery rockers, but also being enthralled by his ballads, which reminded me of the Great American Songbook ballads my grandfather would sing to me. So this performance is actually very significant to me. That said, I do recommend you seek out the album version if you are unable to play the video below. It is a rich, elegant, exquisitely arranged performance of a song that could’ve easily sounded like the schlocky Henry Mancini facsimile so many people seem to think it is.
KEVIN DAVIS: Now that I’ve recomposed myself after that blush-inducing introduction from Jorge, let me just start by saying how happy I am to be resuming activity on this blog after our (longer than originally planned, I admit) holiday hiatus by writing about a track from North, the darkest horse in my canon of elite Elvis Costello records and a piece of work that I’m always keen for an excuse to revisit. Like Jorge, I have a deep fondness for the vein of influences Costello tapped into to create this album – that Tin Pan Alley-era style of popular ballad written in dreamy dissonances and so adept at staking out the common emotional ground between beautiful blind adoration and unrequited love most brutal (and a not-too-distant cousin to the Brill Building-style of popular song he had earlier indulged in on 1999’s almost-as-perfect Painted From Memory). This is the music of Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin, John Coltrane’s Ballads, but spun in Costello’s musical and lyrical language – which means melodies of odder shapes, more complicated resolutions, and of course Costello’s specific brand of English wit, though perhaps the most striking element of North is how similar EC’s sense of humor inherently is to that of guys whose job it was to write hit songs for crooners. And perhaps it explains why this album feels so unforced and inevitable to me, even if it is statistically a “diversion” musically: Unlike a handful of his other genre projects, this is not Costello in costume – he belongs in this role because the role already has so much of him in it.
Jorge so perfectly sums up the lyrical narrative of “Fallen” as a parallel to the falling of leaves and changing of seasons that there is almost nothing left to add: The first part of the song is keyed to the downward melodic cadences that blow lightly back and forth until finally the tune brushes the ground and bottoms out (“they tumble down,” “the burnished gold”), pushing Costello to near what sounds to me like the very bottom of his vocal range, causing a beautiful mirroring of form and content; the song reaches its resolution when the narrator looks skyward, and the string section comes bursting through the somber piano chords like a ray of light through the clouds – again, a beautiful moment of conversation between the music and the concept. How cinematically economical this little vignette of a song is – when I listen to the song and then look at how small a block of text the lyrics comprise, I am amazed at how complete a journey a song that ultimately says so little is capable of taking me on, and how few recurring themes it depends upon in order to reinforce its point.
I was fortunate enough to see Elvis perform this – along with many of the other numbers from North – at a piano/guitar concert with Steve Nieve in Chicago, in March, 2004. Any conventional notions about Costello’s lack of discipline as a singer – any resonant accusations that he is a niche voice with no idea how to not “overdo it” – were completely shattered at this concert, which was quite possibly the single greatest live showcase for the human voice I’ve ever seen. The set list ran the gamut from songs originally cast as dirty rockers (“Alibi,” “Monkey to Man”) to covers performed sans microphone (Gram Parsons’s “Dark End of the Street”) to more traditionally “quiet” EC numbers (“Shot With His Own Gun,” “Nothing Clings Like Ivy”), and Costello tailored his delivery to suit each format. But I was never more impressed with his voice than I was on “Fallen” and the other North material, which he performed with an attention to timbre, melody, volume, and phrasing that I’ve only ever glimpsed in performances by a select few truly great balladeers – specifically, I was reminded of Sinatra’s late 1960’s performances with the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, which are famous for their masterful displays of vocal control at atypically quiet and therefore very vulnerable volumes. For as long as I’ve been astute enough to see such connections, I’ve felt that songs like “Fallen” afford Costello a spot in that particular pantheon of highly intuitive, no-note-wasted ballad singers, even if the great rock n’ roll encyclopedia will always sell him short as an angry, bespectacled rocker with an intellectual’s sneer and a chip on his shoulder.