KEVIN DAVIS: I first became an Elvis Costello fan in 2002, and looking back now I can’t help but marvel at the prolificacy into which my fandom was born: When I Was Cruel, Cruel Smile, North, The Delivery Man, Il Sogno, My Flame Burns Blue, and The River in Reverse, all released in the five years spanning 2002 to 2006. Not only that, but Rhino’s famous 2CD reissues were being released concurrently with the contemporaneous material, so suffice it to say my earliest experiences with Costello’s music involved an expectation for the market to be flooded with it – new EC product every few months if not more frequently, spaced just far enough apart to be digestible but still with enough frequency for it to feel like a windfall. Sadly, this trend has died off considerably in the last five years. Not that the man doesn’t deserve to spend his guitar and his pen every once in a while and kick back and enjoy the fruits of his labor, but as a conditioned Costello fan with cravings, these are dark days; disillusioned with the business (and, according to his memoir, deeply affected by the loss of his father), EC has declared his album-making career more or less over. To what degree of permanence is anyone’s guess, but it is a fact nevertheless borne out by a comparative analysis; in the past five years, only Wise Up Ghost, his contributions to the New Basement Tapes project, and a handful of soundtrack tunes have seen release (and the Spinning Songbook disc, which I suppose I have to mention if I’m planning on mentioning My Flame Burns Blue), which in 2002 would have been six months’ worth of product.
To fill this gap in my expectations, my standard practice has been to hold off purchasing the soundtrack tunes until enough of them queue up to offer an album’s (or more likely an EP’s) worth of new if disparate material, to be played through in sequence where proper records used to be. “Sparkling Day,” from the 2011 film One Day, belongs to this motley assortment of misfit tracks culled from 2011-present. When Jorge and I were talking about doing this song a few weeks ago, my first thought was that it was a decent if unremarkable movie song that I didn’t remember a thing about except for the opening line. I downloaded it from iTunes the same day I bought EC’s cover of “It Had to Be You” from Boardwalk Empire, and loved the latter song so much that I barely even got around to committing a proper listen to “Sparkling Day.” I remembered the song receiving some pretty mixed feedback at the time, yet also remembered finding the criticisms of the song (that it was oversung, somewhat schlocky, etc.) to be somewhat overstated — the kind of knee-jerk response one might expect when an artist whose principles you respect contributes any song to a Hollywood romance drama (not that this is uncharted terrain for EC, but still).
Listening now, “Sparkling Day” strikes me as….oversung, and somewhat schlocky. The verses are melodically immaculate, and the transition into the chorus is jarring but powerful, yet I can’t seem to shake the feeling that this song calls for a quieter arrangement and probably a lower key. As is not terribly uncommon with Costello’s heavily orchestrated midtempo ballads, the nuance of the melody tends to sink under the weight of various forms of overkill — too much embellishment, unrestrained singing, etc. These more dramatic elements make sense when you consider the song’s original purpose, but they serve the standalone song poorly. I would love to hear the song in demo form, with the emphasis squarely on the tune, which independent of the presentation is quite pretty, though the song veers into jarring and less fluid musical sequences in the pre-chorus and chorus. Costello’s performance feels nasally as well — “up to me” sounds like “up to be” and so on — something else I feel like a lower key would remedy. Overall, it’s a pretty song done up too big and too grand — if you can see it with x-ray vision there’s a lot to enjoy, but aesthetically it’s a little rough on the ears.
JORGE FARAH: I’ve never seen One Day, the Anne Hathaway-starring feature film adaptation to the David Nicholls novel of the same name. The reviews weren’t kind, and the box-office results were middling. It doesn’t strike me as the type of movie I’d ever seek out—from its promotional poster to its IMDB synopsis, it looks exactly like the kind of overwrought Nicholas Sparks-like melodrama its reviews pinned it as. Nothing about it strikes me as genuine or honest or worth exploring. And yet, for one hot minute in 2011, I was actually interested in seeing it. This was 100% due to the fact that the film’s promotional materials made such a huge deal out of the soundtrack. “Original music by Elvis Costello!”, the ads boasted, which in hindsight is a bit bizarre—by 2011 Elvis was well past his commercial prime. Even his brief commercial resurgence with 2009’s Secret Prophane & Sugarcane was followed by the deafening thud of the public’s indifference towards the following year’s National Ransom.
This is symptomatic of the strange place in pop culture that Elvis seems to have carved out for himself. Hardly anyone actually buys his albums, but he’s been around long enough that just his name has some built-in star power. For a while it looked like there was a real effort by the record label to push “Sparkling Day” commercially—there was even talk of an Oscar nomination– but then the song came and went without making much of an impression. Kevin is right that the respons from the fanbase was mixed, but I actually like the song quite a bit. I like that it’s a full-on pop production with The Imposters and an orchestra—the string arrangement isn’t much to write home about (though I do love the fact that a schmaltzy pop ballad resolves somewhat ominously with a bit of dissonance), but the kettledrums in the pre-chorus and the glissando into the proper chorus add to the song big, cinematic sound. I like the lyrics, which are charming and kind of sweet, if not particularly clever. Yes, Elvis does oversing a bit, but I’m not convinced the only way to fix that problem would be to lower the key. I think his straining here is of his own making, just an odd artistic choice.
Speaking of odd choices. My biggest gripe with this song—and one I haven’t really heard mentioned elsewhere, so it might just be me– is the jarring, awkward, uncharacteristically clumsy progression into the pre-chorus (“so don’tgocallingout…”), where Elvis sounds like he’s trying to cram way too many syllables into a very tight space. I can’t help feeling like the line would sound a lot better if the lyrics were “so don’t call out”, or simply “don’t go calling out”; for once, Elvis’s verbosity works against him when operating within a classic pop template. But truthfully, there would be enough space in that little musical moment to delivered the line as written if Elvis just sang it differently; he makes a truly bizarre choice in his phrasing and the words tumble out inelegantly, significantly dulling the dramatic power of the transition and completely wasting the syncopated, staccato phonetic nature of the lyrics as written. It’s the biggest blemish on a song I otherwise really enjoy… chintzy, Nicholas Sparks schmaltz notwithstanding.