ECSOTW#17: Is There Light Beneath Your Door and Laughter From Within

painted-from-memory
JORGE FARAH
: I go through ups-and-downs with Painted From Memory. Sometimes it sounds like a bit of a stretch for Elvis; a knee-deep plunge into a genre that he’s not quite suited for, where he trades in emotional sincerity for self-consciously heightened melodrama and throwback chintzy arrangements, deferring a bit too much to his collaborator. But then, other times, when the mood is right, it feels like the single most emotionally poignant thing he ever made, the perfect album to listen to when you’ve experienced the most devastating heartbreak man can bear. Sometimes it sounds hokey. Sometimes it sounds majestic. It tends to depend on how I’m feeling about my own romantic situation at that particular moment—songs like “Such Unlikely Lovers” or “Tears at the Birthday Party” can elicit gargantuan eyerolls or resonate with the strength of a thousand “I Want You”s.

“In the Darkest Place” is one of the songs in the album that completely transcends that; it is always an emotional gut-punch, no matter where I am in my own life, or what feelings I’m able to project onto it. It stands on its own as an incredibly poignant depiction of a special kind of hurt. It’s a gorgeous song. One of Elvis’s all-time greatest ballads. But, like I said, it’s as much of an Elvis Costello song as it is a Burt Bacharach one.

The movement in this song is part of what makes it special; in fact, this exercise in weekly Costello analysis has really made it clear to me that he is a master at this, in a way that may be hard to notice at first but becomes clear once you witness a few examples of his use of subtle dynamics to amplify a song’s sense of drama. These aren’t prog-rock approximations of symphonic movements, but subtle touches within the confines of pop arrangements that rein the tension in a song or let it loose, sometimes with something as simple as a shift in the drum pattern or a trumpet that lingers a a bit longer past the verse. That ear for ornamental touches was most likely developed from a lifetime of studying pop music as an avid listener; it makes perfect sense that collaborating with one of his biggest influences would result in one of the most meticulously arranged albums in his entire career. And this song is filled to the brim of classic Bacharach moments: the melodic motif that opens the song, the sprinkles of harpsichord over a bed of stately piano, the female backup singers. He pulls generously from his bag of tricks throughout the entire album, but it’s never more effective than on this track.

“In the Darkest Place” manages to be a breakup song that is raw and honest and emotionally bare without sounding like an unbearably whiny, self-loathing pity party. It also avoids the simmering vitriol of EC’s neurotic, vaguely-menacing late-70s spurned-geek anthems; however, there’s a real anger built into it. It’s a more adult kind of anger. It’s an elegant, tempered, bittersweet, after-hours, spilling-your-guts-to-strangers kind of anger. The kind that can only be triggered by the most devastating betrayals, and processed into something beautiful with the wisdom of age. The pain is exquisite, and so are the songs.

KEVIN DAVIS: Painted From Memory was the last readily available Elvis Costello album I purchased during my inaugural wave of discovery, early in 2004. In fact, one of the first times I really had a chance to listen closely to it was on the car ride from Peoria to Chicago, en route to seeing Elvis live with Steve Nieve at the Oriental Theater on the North tour, which probably accounts for some of the disproportionate fondness I have for this record despite my relative indifference towards roughly half of its songs – not only did I first experience it during what was probably the single most intensely concentrated three-hour period of Elvis Costello-related excitement in my entire life, but the specific focus of this excitement was an impending evening of Elvis and his right-hand man serenading me with romantic piano ballads. Between that and my general predisposition at the time toward any album that afforded me the chance to put on my emo glasses and wallow in my own loneliness, I was totally primed to love this album.

Even now, I can’t help but hear Painted From Memory and North as two sides of the same coin – two records that canonically belong together but are obviously very different aesthetically and less obviously different philosophically. The main difference for me between the two works is narrative distance: Both albums are obviously genre-hops for Elvis, but despite this, North scans as one of the most nakedly sincere records he ever recorded, unflinchingly sentimental and (almost refreshingly) transparently driven by his personal life, where Painted From Memory feels like Elvis deliberately writing from the viewpoint of someone who isn’t him but whom he hopes may be you. I don’t know anything about Costello’s personal life around the time of Painted From Memory (a quick Google search confirms that his divorce from Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan didn’t come until three years later), but the songwriting on this record feels very much in the spirit of professionalism – exercises in manipulation, in putting feelings and words together such that they channel a universality which transcends the limitations of any one person’s experience. One can choose to see an artificiality in this, equating it with moustache-twirling supervillains writing summer blockbusters for Luke Bryan in an air-conditioned office in Nashville, but I think that’s short-sighted. There are things an artist can draw from this approach that won’t naturally arise elsewhere, and one of EC’s great virtues as a songwriter has always been his ability to straddle the line between the employment of stylistic tropes and retention of his own voice. The lesser tracks on Painted From Memory are mostly kind of boring, but its better songs are a master’s class in this kind of genre puppeteering. “In the Darkest Place” falls definitively in the latter category.

It’s a song that takes a couple listens to sink in because, like many songs on Painted From Memory, the structure of the composition is subtle – the logic behind the melody doesn’t immediately make itself clear, and sometimes it’s not until the fifth, tenth, fifteenth listen that you realize something happening in the second verse is actually an echo of something that already happened in the first. But as it becomes increasingly comfortable, the DNA of the song becomes something of a scenic journey – you begin to anticipate the hills and valleys of the melody, the aesthetic embellishments that come over each peak and around each curve. These colorations really do, as Jorge says, direct the emotional flow of the song – the gentle harpsichord sequence, for instance, that follows the words I know and comes to rest of that suspended minor chord, momentarily leaves the song with a sense of irresolution, before the descending, Christmas-bell-like piano passage immediately following the words I shut out the light give that same passage its sense of closure, leading into the more dramatic “chorus” section, defined by the immaculately placed female backing vocals.

“In the Darkest Place” goes out on a sort of mournful, ambient drone that almost feels too abstract for an album arranged as classically as Painted From Memory, but it works, ultimately leaving the song drifting as aimless as the character it portrays. There are a few more stone-cold homeruns between here and the end of Painted From Memory (“God Give Me Strength,” “This House is Empty Now,” and my personal favorite, “Toledo”), but “In the Darkest Place” is perhaps the purest distillation of the album’s formula – the mixture of Costello’s mature, wistful melodicism and Burt Bacharach’s kitschy but evocative orchestrations.

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