JORGE FARAH: So hey, before I start talking about this week’s pick, I want to provide you with a little bit of personal context. When I was a little kid, the life I envisioned for myself as a grownup followed my father’s template pretty closely, and really pivoted around two big milestones: get married by 26, have a kid by 27. It just made logical sense; I figured at that age I would have already lived through enough of my “roaring twenties” to feel like I could settle down, plus if I had a kid before 30 I wouldn’t be one of those really old, beaten-down Dads that some of my schoolmates used to have. I remember laying it all out for the school counselor one day, when I was 12 or 13 years old, and how she chuckled quietly to herself in bemusement (at the time I thought she was impressed by my foresight, but thinking back on it she probably realized the ridiculousness of my meticulously mapped-out adulthood). I didn’t really think about those plans too much as I grew older, but they were ever present in the back of my mind. I remember the thought creeping up on me when I turned 26 and had just gotten out of a long relationship, like the chilling dread of a looming deadline—“uh oh, I’m not there yet”. As the years passed I saw more and more people I graduated with taking the leap that still seemed too gargantuan for me to even consider. I’m 29 now, at the tail end of my supposed decade of hedonism, feeling nowhere near ready to be a father, and in no real rush to become one. To be perfectly clear, I love kids—I have two little siblings back home, ages 11 and 13, who fill my life with happiness—but when I think of the kind of disruption slipping into the role of “SOMEONE’S DAD” would be to the life I’m so fond of, I can’t help but recoil in horror. It’s cowardly and immature, I acknowledge that. My friends who are parents will often tell me that “you’re never really ready until it just happens”, and if I’m honest with myself, I really do want to be a father someday—I just don’t know that it’s in the cards for me for the next couple years. And that’s fine.
Elvis Costello was already a married Dad when he recorded My Aim is True at age 22, but you wouldn’t really know it from reading that album’s lyrics. Or the album after that. Or pretty much any album from the first couple decades of his career, where he explored all manner of nuanced emotions and the many shades of grey in interpersonal entanglements, but never really meditating on fatherhood. This may have a bit to do with the fact that fatherhood and international superstardom had both caught up to him fairly early, and we all know the former tends to push those lucky enough to acquire it into a sort of extended adolescence. By the time he finally mellowed out enough and got his life sorted, his first son Matthew was already an adult. It was only after having twins with his third wife that we got the very first Elvis song that is an unabashedly sentimental rumination on fatherhood. “My Three Sons”, from 2008’s Momofuku, is a lovely number that sets its own modest goals in the opening verse and manages to accomplish them with confidence. Out of the two most outwardly ballad-y songs on Momofuku, this one works best for me; “Flutter and Wow”, as much as I enjoy its 70s soul stylings, always felt to me like a mangled take of a River in Reverse cast-off that they just decided not to re-do. This song provides an emotional core to an album that is a bit of a tonal mishmash (albeit a really good one!).
It is both refreshing and a bit startling to find Elvis so open about this subject. It’s that openness and vulnerability, that directness of language that manages to sell the song’s heart-on-sleeve sentimentality—coupled with its gently descending and decidedly simple melody, it communicates a genuinely sweet sentiment which might’ve otherwise come off as schlocky or cheap (or just weird, if he had dressed it up in a bunch of metaphors about a butterfly drinking a dead monkey’s tears or whatever). “My Three Sons” is a sleepy little number, with Elvis’s flange-laden baritone guitar rumbling gently in the background, underlining the song’s lyrical “bedtime” theme: “Day is closing, old men and infants are dozing, that’s the kind of life I’ve chosen”. I’ve never experienced it for myself, but I can imagine the bittersweet combination of exhaustion and elation that comes with tending to a tiny little creature that is totally and completely dependent on you, and the contented resignation to it. The song captures that sleepy vibe beautifully, both in its composition and the performances; The Imposters are at their most restrained in the entire album, with the rhythm section playing a very minimal, almost metronomic accompaniment. Steve Nieve alternates from playing these big stately chords on the left side of his grand piano to providing a bit of harmonic lift on the melodica when the… chorus?… kicks in. Dave Hidalgo from Los Lobos is the unspoken star of the track, playing a soporific viola line that’s mixed discretely on the right channel, as well as something called an “Hidalguera”, which a bit of research reveals to be a customized nylon-stringed tenor guitar, panned all the way to the left. On an instrumental level, the song sounds like being cradled to sleep. Vocally, Elvis communicates the song’s sentiment very well, if a bit forcefully at parts; however, when he sings about “all the years that I might’ve been absent”, there’s a very real tinge of vulnerability and regret in his voice that adds a layer of depth to this lullaby.
When we wrote about “Favourite Hour”, we talked about how universality in art is anchored in specificity. It almost feels like I shouldn’t enjoy this song as much as I do, having never experienced any of the things described in its lyrics, but I think it is one of Elvis’s most modestly charming latter-day compositions. It brings a smile to my face, even as a child-free person; and though I may not know the true exhaustion of waking up in the middle of the night to feed a screaming infant, I can say I am (happily) familiar with the warm, comforting feeling of falling asleep to the sound of the voices of people that I love, and how in those last few lucid moments just before you succumb to sleep, you catch yourself thinking that this is as good as it gets, and you wouldn’t trade it for all the parties or drinks or boisterousness in the world.
KEVIN DAVIS: I have to get this off my chest up front: The way this line – “I never thought that I’d become/The proud father of my three sons” – is worded drives me bonkers. The inclusion of the possessive pronoun my makes it sound as though (a) Elvis’s three sons were already out there wandering the earth somewhere prior to EC assuming fatherhood of them, or (b) he expected to become a father to someone’s kids, just not his own. This is cumbersome syntax; Elvis generally knows better than this. I suppose one could wonder if the second verse, in which EC refers to “all the years [he’s] been absent,” doesn’t subtly give away a more deliberate logic behind that wording; one could question whether the aforementioned item (a) isn’t exactly what Costello means to convey, as he retrospectively views himself in his absenteeism as a sort of biological pater but not a “proud father” (or, later, a “humble father”), the latter status being reserved for the warmer, more familial frame of mind depicted by the song. But to my ears, “My Three Sons” doesn’t really seem to call for this tricky of a reading. Furthermore – without going too far down the rabbit hole of celebrity tabloid speculation – it doesn’t seem like this explanation would be as applicable to his relationship with his younger children, and either way it’s impossible for us to know. Taken at face value, that phrasing causes me to wince a little, which for a guy who uses so many words I’m surprised I don’t find to be a more regular occurrence. If I was a professor I’d probably dock Elvis at least a third of a letter grade for it.
But I’m not a professor, and this is pop music, not composition class, and ultimately that’s the only beef I really have with this otherwise charming, non-assertive little song. Like Jorge, I always expected to have children and, let me tell you, unlike Jorge, children are exactly what I got – four in the house now with a fifth on the way (with a breakdown of two daughters and, yes, come January, three sons), so theoretically I am as optimally primed as anyone to identify with music like this. That said, I’m not sure that finally is why I identify with music like this. Oftentimes, when a songwriter writes about his wife or his kids or his pets or whatever other symbol of domesticity has captured his attention that day, the profundity of his emotions consumes their subtleties and complexities; there are arguably no more nuanced relationships in the world than those between people who share households, but writers’ compulsions to write about these relationships usually come in broad strokes, and as such, many of these songs are written in a language that anyone who has ever watched an episode of Full House can understand. I think this accounts to an extent for the air of suspicion that tends to surround songs of this ilk, and the element of cynicism with which they’re so frequently met; they strike listeners as less “serious,” though no reasonable person would argue that the sentiments in songs of this nature aren’t mostly genuine. As a result, it ends up being a rare instance where the Hollywood tearjerkers and the Hallmark cards get it totally right, and as discerning art consumers we like to think we’re above that. And as art consumers, perhaps we are. But as humans, these feelings are embedded in our DNA.
So when I say that these sentiments of fatherhood, etc. aren’t why I identify with songs like this, what I mean is that I don’t think this song necessarily taps into a secret emotion that only fathers are capable of understanding; presumably, the facsimile that non-dads create in their minds as to what the song is getting at is probably equally close to the real thing as what I can take from the song. What Jorge says about the song feels right to me: It’s not that it so intuitively taps into the specific relationship between parent and child that it is isolating to anyone unable to call that specific experience to mind for themselves, but rather, it zeroes in on the more general emotion of unconditional closeness between two people. This song arguably has plainer language than any other song Costello has ever written: “I love you more than words can say”; “I bless the day you came to be/With everything that is left of me” – these lines could come have from anywhere, and yet one of the wordiest songwriters in pop history puts them to work as if they’re the only ones that will do. The sentiment is the same everywhere you go, which is why it’s on the music to set the song apart.
And it does, in its way – just enough to take the listener on a journey, but not so much that it distracts from the sentiment of the song, which is eventually its anchoring force. What I really like about “My Three Sons” as a composition is how the melody seems to carve out a slightly more complicated space with each line: “Day is dawning/Almost sounding like a warning/Wind was rushing through the trees, almost roaring” – each line extends just slightly further than the last, planting its flag just a little higher on the mound, changing the overall course of the melody ever so slightly before returning to home base again. There is a “child’s first steps” tentativeness to this melodic approach which well mirrors the content of the song, and which the Imposters’ restrained backing supports with just the right degree of gentility. Costello’s vocal performance, on the other hand, seems casual enough for the weight of the lyric (and appropriately relaxed for what I understand to have been the leisurely, almost recreational vibe of the Momofuku sessions), but perhaps a bit too undisciplined to tap into the full potential of the tune; this is one of many (many, many) songs I’d like to hear magically transposed to the North or Painted From Memory albums, where EC’s knack for getting to the hearts of simple melodies was in peak form. But what’s here is fine enough: A perfect case study in why songs that convey major sentiments are often destined to be minor pieces of work, as they re-articulate feelings that have long since been void of surprises but which are nevertheless always nice to have reawakened.