Friday, January 24, 2014

On The Cover # 6: 5 Things I Learned from Elvis Costello’s First Two Albums by Justin Couch

On January 29, 2014, my band, Quantum Creep, will be covering Elvis Costello’s first two albums, My Aim is True and This Year’s Model, at The Hi-Dive as part of the On The Cover series, hosted by Josiah Hesse with Joshua Novak opening the show.
Playing cover songs is nothing new to us. However, in learning the 26 songs on these two albums, I learned a lot more than chords and lyrics. Here are just a few nuggets of wisdom I've gleaned from Costello.

5. When you run out of things to say, either change or stop the song
I tend to write long. I wouldn’t say there's a method I follow every time when writing a song, but generally if the music is coming first, I try to find the most interesting part and play that section way too many times. The best parts of Costello songs only happen once, and then they’re gone.
Listen to the second verse of “(The Angels Want to Wear my) Red Shoes.” There’s a call and response part that totally makes the song. Musically, the chords seem basically the same as the chorus, but they’re not. These two albums are full of those little details that you probably don’t pick up on by casually listening. In “Blame it on Cain,” there’s a chord at the end of the verse that gets longer each time it comes around. In “Pump it Up,” the second verse is one line shorter than all the others. Little changes like that break up the monotony of songs and keep them fresh for repeated listens.
Since learning all of these Costello songs, I’ve done a line-wide edit on all of my songs to pare them down and keep them interesting. “Welcome to the Working Week,” the opening shot of My Aim is True (and one of the best lead-off tracks of all-time) clocks in at under 1:30 – yet still manages to have an intro, two and a half choruses, two verses, and a bridge. Damn. Shorter is often better in pop songs.

4. Punk is about more than playing or dressing a certain way
Was Elvis Costello a punk? He was certainly co-opted by their movement to a certain extent. This Year’s Model shows a definite manic energy shared by his contemporaries in The Clash, The Buzzcocks, and The Jam; however, the songs are more complex and the lyrical content is very different. My Aim is True owes much more to the tradition of Pub Rock and Northern Soul. Aim was also produced by the great Nick Lowe some months before he did The Damned’s fantastic album, Damned Damned Damned, considered by some to be the first proper British punk album.
I’m into trivia, context, and stories about my favorite musicians. I see punk in Costello’s case as being more of a glass slipper a la Cinderella. When he was writing My Aim is True, Costello was working as a computer tech at an Elizabeth Arden make-up factory. He hated his job and played local shows at night; a reality all-too familiar to myself and many of my friends playing up and down Broadway each week. Costello says that he had been playing music for about 7 years before he was discovered. His initial advance matched his salary for the few days that he would be recording his album. It unexpectedly took off and the rest is history.
Was he in the right place at the right time and part of an A&R punk feeding frenzy? Was it that his song-writing brilliance was finally appreciated? I guess it doesn’t really matter. There are certainly punk moments on Aim, but songs like “Mystery Dance” have more in common with a Chuck Berry rave-up than a Ramones girl-group melt down. Elvis Costello is about substance more than style, which may be one reason why he’s still putting out albums while so many of his peers aren’t. He didn’t wear leather or patches and safety pins, he dressed like the computer nerd he was -- which I guess is pretty punk.

3. Pop music is all about finding new ways to say the same thing
There are 26 songs between these two albums, counting the non-album singles that are generally associated with them. As near as I can tell, there are only 4 topics covered: girls, the end of the world, the dangers of fascism, and why the radio sucks. Songs about girls make up the extreme bulk of the albums. That said, the overriding emotion isn’t love or even really desire, but frustration. Frustration about the girl who won’t return your affections, frustration about your ex, frustration that the girl you want is in a relationship already, frustration that you’re in the friend-zone, frustration that you know she’s bad for you but you can’t stop.
Musically, the songs share some similarities as well. Nearly all the songs on Aim are in the same key. “Sneaky Feelings” and “Pay it Back” are practically the same song. But again, you don’t necessarily notice this listening to it - both are good songs. What I’m getting at is if you were going to break down the typical Elvis Costello song on these two albums to its basic elements, it might look like this “girls cause trouble/bad feelings.” I don’t mean that as a dig at all. Basically all of my songs share the same DNA. What I am saying is how remarkable it is that there are so many deft variations on these themes.

2. Being specific is better than being general
The only song on either album that even approaches a love song is “Alison.” And I’m not even convinced that it is one. The song is a stone cold classic. Everyone loves it. I think the reason for this is because the lyrics are so specific, it paradoxically manages to speak to so many people. Costello is cagey about whether the song is autobiographical or not, but it seems like it would have to be. It seems to play out like a chance run in with an old flame, or more likely an old infatuation.
“Alison” is littered with details: “I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress,” and “Did he leave your pretty fingers lying in the wedding cake?” The totality of all the images evokes a way stronger emotional response than if it had been vague and general. It’s so specific that the meaning of the song can drastically change depending on who is singing it. Take Linda Ronstadt’s (kind of awful) cover. When she sings it, it becomes less of a weird confrontation between two people and something more like sisterly advice. I guess she could have renamed the song, “Al,” or something, but swapping genders like that would cause an even more thorough gutting of the song. I think of other cross-gender reinterpretations of songs like Cyndi Lauper’s cover of Prince’s “When U were Mine,” and even that isn’t as weird as Linda’s cover of “Alison.”

1. Honesty is the key to good lyrics
I am a huge fan of confessional lyrics. It’s something that informs my songwriting. Most male songwriters tend to posture more than simply tell it like it is. Costello strikes the right balance between the bleeding-heart emo-ness of a Conor Oberst and the drunken truth-telling of The Afghan Whigs. The biggest criticism leveled at Costello during this time period is that his songs are very bitter. You feel the grind of the work week and the dissatisfying weekends filled with failed romantics. Some people don’t like or appreciate Costello’s lyrical cleverness either. But it serves to temper the bitterness. Little jokes abound, such as this little gem from “Red Shoes”: “I said, ‘I’m so happy I could die.’ She said, ‘Drop dead,’ and left with another guy.”
Lyrical devices like this have the ability to reveal mixed feelings, from “Pump it Up”: “You want to torture her, you want to talk to her,” or from “The Beat”: “I don’t want to be your lover, I just want to be your victim.” Costello shows us that he can be earnest, caring, and deeply flawed. Even 37 years later, it’s still refreshing and the reason these albums have stood the test of time.

Justin Couch sings and plays guitar in Quantum Creep. They are covering Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True and This Year’s Model album in their entirety at Josiah Hesse's On The Cover series (with opening act Joshua Novak) at The Hi-Dive, Wednesday January 29th. $7.


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