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ECSOTW#25: Between the Shame and the Sentiment

ElvisCostello_Momofuku

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.

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ECSOTW #9: A Lace That Runs Through Everyone

ElvisCostello_Momofuku

JORGE FARAH: Elvis Costello spent the decade immediately following All This Useless Beauty on a quest to sound like anybody but, well, Elvis Costello. For all the eclecticism of his previous work, there was always a through line that seemed to indicate a logical progression– as ragged and unkempt as it sounded, the songs on Blood and Chocolate didn’t feel completely unrelated to the songs on Spike; similarly, some of the ideas in Spike were further developed (and sometimes tragically over-developed) on its follow-up Mighty Like a Rose. There was also the feeling that, for every sharp left turn he took in his discography, there was a generally agreed-upon idea of a classic Elvis Costello sound that would anchor him back to normalcy. This is to say that for every country or string quartet album he released, the faceless throng of his fanbase (and likely his management) expected him to pick his guitar back up and go back to hooky New Wave songs about bitterness and inadequacy. I’m sure that to someone with as severe a case of musical wanderlust as EC, this market expectation must’ve felt hugely stifling; as much as the Classic Costello Sound (heretofore CCS) likely represents his natural songwriting inclinations, he may have started to resent it.

This would explain why, when The Attractions broke up for the second time in 1996, Elvis disposed with that anchor entirely and dedicated himself to trying on as many hats– literal and otherwise– as he could afford. Between 1998 and 2008, he released a collaboration with Burt Bacharach, a largely acoustic album of pop songs sung with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter, an album of noir-pop electronic experiments, an album of morose jazz ballads, a ballet score, a brawny country-western album, and a collaboration with soul legend Allen Toussaint. By the time 2008’s Momofuku materialized– and it really did seem to come out of nowhere, recorded seemingly on a whim over the course of 3 days after guesting on a Jenny Lewis record– his fans had largely lost hope that the CCS still even existed. The songs from that decade that most closely approached that description, particularly those from When I Was Cruel, always seemed slightly off. Detached. Like he was faking it.

Momofuku was the first album that I experienced as a “new Elvis Costello album”—I had already worked my way through a huge chunk of his discography by the time it came out, but it was the first of his albums I got to experience as a new release. For this reason, I probably have an unearned sentimental attachment to the songs. Unfairly (yet somewhat understandably) dismissed as a throwaway, Momofuku was the first album in a long while that felt like a straight-up no-frills, non-genre-touristy Elvis Costello record. It seemed particularly reminiscent of Blood and Chocolate, with its deliberately raw feel and spontaneous energy– there are a few musical and lyrical flubs scattered throughout, and Elvis makes it a point to ensure the audience hears him direct the band towards specific song sections. Though most people seemed drawn to the seething anger of opener “No Hiding Place”, the first song that really captured my imagination was “Song With Rose”, a stunningly beautiful western-sounding tragedy pulled along by 12-strings, pedal-steels and piano. Pretty ornate for an album that was ostensibly “raw” and “back-to-basics”.

To me, “Song With Rose” is the crown jewel in Momofuku, and one of Elvis’s latter-day masterpieces. Co-written by Roseanne Cash, the song has all the majesty and triumph of “Man Out of Time” condensed down to a modest 2:30 minutes of understated grandeur. Though perhaps ill-served by the tracklisting– it’s stashed away in track 10, and is immediately followed by another country-sounding tune with a more immediately appealing lyrical premise– it’s probably the most fully-realized song on an album that skirts the line between “bare bones” and “baroque”. Like “Man Out of Time”, it features an elegant melody and somewhat oblique lyrics that, along with the rich evocativeness of the instrumentation, coalesce into rapturous beauty. Like several songs on the record, it is an almost-duet with Jenny Lewis, but mixed (and likely mic’d) in such a way that her vocals are buried deep in the background, providing subtle splashes of harmonic color rather than overpowering the song. Elvis’s cracked, somewhat hoarse delivery provides the song a broken quality, highlighting the song’s themes of hope, regret, fear and forgiveness.

Ultimately, the melodic turn of the line “There is hope and after that there is only faith” is a good example of why Elvis is my all-time favorite songwriter—his ability to convey compassion and resilience with such a sweetly sad line is evidence of a master craftsman. This is a beautiful song, and it really should be more popular among his fanbase.

KEVIN DAVIS: Momofuku holds two weirdly specific (and largely meaningless, though since I remember them I feel compelled to print them) records in my life as a consumer of music: It was the first CD I bought as a married man, and the last CD by a (comparatively) niche artist that I remember seeing advertised in the newspaper. We were driving to some weekend get-together somewhere, and my new wife said, “Honey, did you know Elvis Costello has a new album coming out next week? You really like him, don’t you?” She was reading the Best Buy ad. Even in 2008, it felt weird seeing an EC album in the Best Buy ad – perhaps his then-forthcoming collaboration with Fall Out Boy had executive hopes higher than usual for his new record’s commercial success. Either way, that the album was being released on CD was welcome news that had managed to elude me to that point (the original plan was for the album to be one of those digital- and vinyl-only deals), and to this day this remains the only EC-related topic I’ve ever learned about as a result of my wife reading the local newspaper.

For me the most exciting component of Momofuku wasn’t that it saw Elvis returning to what Jorge has christened the CCS (after When I Was Cruel and Delivery Man, it seemed like a little guitar rock was not an unreasonable thing to expect from EC every few albums), but that it was his first new record of all original material in four years. His two releases from 2006 – My Flame Burns Blue and The River in Reverse – were successful enough at what they aimed to do but light on new Costello compositions, and were both somewhat academic in a sense. Momofuku was the complete opposite of those records’ carefully calculated, meticulously rendered arrangements: Twelve new originals, banged out and subsequently released in true wham-bam-thank-you’ma’am fashion (the very title “Momofuku” refers to the inventor of instant ramen noodles, referencing this creative philosophy specifically), allowing minor lyrical flubs and syncopation errors on display to keep it real. Like I did with all new EC releases, I listened to it obsessively, and always feel residual effects of that time’s newness when I listen to it now – all the excitement of being a young newlywed, the return of spring, the excitement of new Elvis Costello music in the background of these things. Even a Costello tirade like “No Hiding Place” reverberates with the zing-zing-zing of my heart strings.

That said, this week I find myself in a similar position to the one Jorge was in last week when writing about “The Greatest Thing”; for whatever reason, “Song With Rose” was one of the few Momofuku tracks that for some reason just always managed to elude me. Jorge is right that its positioning on the record does it no favors – which isn’t to say it isn’t placed to flow, only that all too often I’d start the record at the beginning intending to play it through, end up repeating “Stella Hurt” five or six times, and be out of gas by the time I’d get to “Song With Rose.” So I can probably count on both hands the number of times I’ve really sat down and given it a thoughtful listen. This exercise proved a great opportunity to do just that.

While I’d stop short of putting it in the same league as “Man Out of Time,” I do see where Jorge draws that parallel – it’s a steady, jangly arrangement, with a full-bodied piano accompaniment and a vocal melody that sort of glides over the top with just a slight disregard for rhythm. Jenny Lewis’s harmonies hit at just the right spots, and during her choruses especially I find myself thinking that this song would have almost been more spiritually at home on The Delivery Man; the vocal arrangement is a lot more in line with the traditional male-female country-style harmonies on that record than it is with the quirky, occasionally fey indie pop of Momofuku.

What really struck me about the song this time around were the lyrics, which are eloquent sans flash in a way that some of Elvis’s best post-North songs have been, drawing deep, subtle parallels between mortality and relationships and leaving it up to the listener to decide if he’s being literal or metaphorical (I had never bothered to look up the meaning of the word “wraith” – apparently it’s a “ghost or ghostlike image of someone”). My mind tends toward the latter interpretation, though the song is no less poetic either way. What a beautiful opening line “Between last breaths and first regrets/The days dragged on like cigarettes” is, so perfectly capturing that horrific limbo between an emotional tragedy and the distant moment when you can finally begin looking back on it with clarity, finally concluding that, “There is hope and, after that/There is only faith,” which apparently is enough to cause the famously skeptical EC to wonder, “Where but heaven does love end?” Yet despite the themes of regret running through the lyrics, the pervasive mood of the song is hope, driven by Pete Thomas’s unfaltering, no-frills beat (the rhythm of the song actually reminds me more specifically of Blood and Chocolate’s “Blue Chair” than it does “Man Out of Time”), culminating with a greatly impassioned if somewhat buried chorus of piano playing by Steve Nieve and going out on a final, somewhat sobering realization from EC (which, thanks to dictionary.com, I can now sort of understand): “Love like a wraith never made me afraid/Consoled as I was by that shade.”

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