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Elvis Costello and Musical Romance

Not-So-Silly Love Songs

To avoid a potentially awkward situation, on this week’s edition of SPECTACLE, Elvis Costello turns over the host’s chair to the show’s Executive Producer, Elton John. This is because the guest this time around is none other than Elvis’s wife, the acclaimed jazz pianist and vocalist Diana Krall. But since we have already examined Costello’s affiliation with jazz—and since, in a possibly coincidental and uncharacteristically sentimental decision, this show falls just a few days after Valentine’s Day—instead we will turn to the place of love songs in his career.

Can you name a single straightforward love song by Elvis Costello? It’s hard to find one. Indeed, there is perhaps no other pop songwriter who has had such a complicated relationship to the most basic and common song format of all.
Even the writers who have explored the most complex and painful (sometimes even hostile) emotions in their work—people like John Lennon and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell—have demonstrated their willingness to write an unambiguous expression of romantic love on occasion.

Consider some of the songs that might be considered Elvis’s pop hits. “Alison” rides a perfect balance between empathy and rage. “I Want You” begins with the assertion “I love you more than you can ever tell,” before building into a stalker’s diatribe. Beneath its sunny, percolating rhythm, “Everyday I Write the Book” expresses the ambivalence of a pair in which “your dreamboat turns out to be a footnote.” Even an apparent charmer like “Lovable” from King of America (which Elvis calls “slight but swinging”) quickly turns into a tale of betrayal (“He says he’s love you eternally/I say please, please can’t you keep it brief?”)

“A lot of the songs early on were more disappointed that anybody would fall for the cliché of romance or fashion or a cheap version of love,” Elvis told London’s Guardian newspaper in 2003. “And that’s a consistent theme.” In recent years, though, since his relationship with Krall began, Costello’s take on love has shifted a bit. It was most noticeable in the intimate sincerity of North, and again in the openness and clarity of The River in Reverse. Irony and bitterness have moved to the back burner; even when some of Elvis’s bite kicked up on his most recent release, Momofuku, it was still a tone more resigned and amused than the outrage of his youth.

In other words, Elvis Costello has been writing love songs all along—there is no territory that he has visited as frequently over the years. It’s just that his songs scrutinize and challenge the conventional concept of love, rather than simply accepting and celebrating it. And as he recently said, “You can’t apologize for songs being serious. That’s not a bad thing.”

– Alan Light

Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys” and a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence in music writing.