A friend who is a primary school teacher told me a tale about choosing music for a school assembly. At the time, he had a student teacher working alongside him in the classroom. The student was young, on her placement, and hadn't much experience working in schools yet. To give her a bit more confidence, and as an easy task to get her into the swing of work, he suggested that she might like to choose the music for the school assembly one morning. "No thanks," she answered, "I don't really like music."
I've never been able to reconcile myself to this slight absurdity. How can people 'not really like' music? Sure, there are neurological conditions that mean people's perception of music makes it sound discordant, unsettling, nauseating even - but for somebody to not be bothered about music one way or the other...!
Now I love music, but I can't have it on while I'm writing. Instead of concentrating on my work, I inevitably finding myself either listening to the lyrics, or singing along. This is not conducive to the emotionally involving work of producing a novel. So as a treat, when I am doing the housework, I get to listen to the music I love, as a special balancing-act treat for doing Crap Tasks like vacuuming.
I've got enormous admiration for good lyricists. A songwriter generally has about 3 minutes to tell their story or make their point, and they generally do it within fairly narrow generic structures (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus, or something not too deviant from that). For soul of brevity, it even blows away short story writing. Those of you who have pared down and succinctly written a story no less than 2,500 words will know what I mean.
One of the great masters of the lyric form has to be Elvis Costello. You can keep your Bob Dylans (26 verses and no chorus, Bob? Why don't you write a tune that we can hum?) and your Brandon Flowerses (for God's sake, man, start writing your lyrics more than an hour before you record them). For me, the master of lyric, the man all others have to beat, is Mr. Costello. There is nobody to match him for wit, for cynicism, for black-eyed humour, or for social commentary.
By detailing the suffocating necessity of working class lives in Shipbuilding (on Punch The Clock), Costello's not only writing beautiful poetry, but making political comment:
"It's just a rumour that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture postcard
Within weeks they'll be re opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin
Once again, it's all we're skilled in
We will be shipbuilding"
In the song, Costello documents the necessity for people in deprived areas of the country to work in the shipyards as Britain gears up for war with Argentina. A delicate irony traces through the song as Costello cleverly shadows the prospect of work with the reality of young men from the same communities going away to war and being killed.
A staunch anti-Thatcherite, (weren't they all in those days), Costello spent a great deal of his time in the 80s writing songs about how much he hated Thatch, how much he hated her policies, and how much he wished she were dead (Tramp The Dirt Down). But his energies weren't only consumed in politics - Costello also wrote songs about the personal. Costello being Costello, none of his 'love' songs were ever simple. His more personal songs are all tinged with bitterness, regret, cynicism, and fear. [Elvis Costello could never write a song like You Make Me Feel So Young. If he could, he wouldn't be Elvis Costello, would he?]. My personal song of his is Human Hands (on Get Happy!).
Now I couldn't swear to it, but I think this song is about sex and transactions. The song has a thread of regret and heartbreak running through it, both musically and lyrically, but with tempered with a dash or trademark Costello cynicism, so you have not only:
"Whenever I put my foot in my mouth and you begin to doubt that it's you that I'm dreaming about,
Do I have to draw you a diagram?
All I ever want is just to fall into your human hands"
"On the factory floor you still say, 'Where's the action?'
Now you manufacture happiness
And get sold on the cheap for someone's satisfaction"
The other thing I love about Costello is that he doesn't neglect the music in favour of the lyrics. His oeuvre covers everything from country & Western (Almost Blue) to punk (My Aim Is True), to Motown (Get Happy!) to lounge (Painted From Memory). One doesn't have the sense that Costello's a hobbyist, dipping his toes into various music styles and appropriating it for his own ends; rather, that he's genuinely absorbed in the music that he makes, and the various styles he's interested in. I would almost want to marry Elvis Costello, were it not for the fact that I read an biography of him a few years ago, Complicated Shadows, and I had the impression afterwards that he's not a very great bloke.
Anyway, I can't be the only Costello fan on RedRoom, and I'd love to hear other people's recommendations for favourite Costello, songs, albums, and lyrics...