Elvis Costello Countdown #24: “How To Be Dumb”

Full disclosure: I have never read The Big Wheel, Attractions’ bassist Bruce Thomas’ thinly-veiled account of the life of a rock star on the road, so I can’t speak to its merits. The only thing I can be sure of is that Elvis Costello didn’t like it too much. I don’t know if it was because Thomas was breaking some sort of rock star omerta or if he told tales that weren’t true or if he just painted an unflattering picture of the man he referred to in the book only as “the singer.” At least it inspired “How To Be Dumb,” which, while not a particularly good thing for Thomas, is certainly a good  thing for Elvis’ fans.

“How To Be Dumb” might be the most vituperative song on an album, Mighty Like A Rose, that’s full of venom. Indeed, it’s all the more potent for being an intensely personal attack. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it before: Never cheese off an eloquent songwriter, because they’ll always get the last word in on a record and it will usually be the definitive stroke of the back-and-forth argument.

The interesting thing is that Costello marries the song to a very Attractions-like arrangement, almost circus-like in its ebullience. Larry Knechtel plays the Steve Nieve role, adding frenetic piano fills, while Pete Thomas plays the Pete Thomas role, beating the tar of the drums. Most fetching of all is the little saxophone riff, played by Roger Lewis, that really brings the chorus to life. The music is triumphant, as if Elvis is signalling that he’s coming out on top of this tete-a-tete.

Costello paints Thomas as someone who is enjoying the kudos he’s receiving for his “brand new occupation” (and, it should be noted, the book did get some good reviews.) “And beautiful people stampede to the doorway,” he sings, “Of the funniest f*#!er in the world.” Yet he also makes it clear what he thinks of Thomas’ authenticity: “There’s a bright future/For all you professional liars.”

As the song goes on, the attacks get nastier. When you parse through all of Costello’s verbiage, you find out that he essentially calls his nemesis a gutless, jealous poseur. In the final lines, he sounds almost gleeful as he dehumanizes his former bassist: “Scratch your own head, stupid/Count up to three/Roll over on your back/Repeat after me/Don’t you know how to be dumb?” That might be the most damning insult of all, as Elvis insinuates that his longtime bandmate can’t even get stupidity right.

It’s too bad that things had to go down this way, but the two patched things up enough to play together again for a few albums before the separation became permanent, so that’s something. Hey, sometimes people don’t get along, and sometimes it deteriorates pretty badly. It’s just that, as public figures, this personal disagreement played out in front of the reading and listening audience at large.

This song sounds like it was cathartic for Elvis, and, as a listener, you can substitute your own personal enemies and get that same kind of satisfying jolt of musical revenge. “How To Be Dumb” turns out to be just the opposite of “You’re So Vain,” in that nobody would want this song to be about them.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)

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Elvis Costello Countdown #44: “Fallen”

Of the many twists and turns that Elvis Costello has taken following his muse, North is one path taken that feels like a missed opportunity. Elvis has proven throughout the years that he can write heart-wrenching ballads and elegant love songs on a par with some of the 20th-century’s finest composers, and by that I mean not just all composers, not just those contained within the rock idiom. The songs for this album are restrained and subtle, which may have been exactly what Elvis was attempting but still doesn’t make for the most invigorating listening.

North works best when listened to all at once as an atmospheric backdrop to other activities. In that context, it spins by amiably and the listener can enjoy the luxurious melodies and the tasteful accompaniment without putting too much work into it. But, on a song-by-song basis, it lacks the kind of animation and spunk that Elvis has brought to just about every other project with which he’s been involved. I listen to the album once in a while, but the fact that it fades into the background behind whatever else might be occupying my time makes it rare among Costello albums.

The once song that, for me, truly stands out is “Fallen.” Which might seem odd because it might be the most muted track on the album. Elvis sings in hushed tones for much of the track, as if afraid to let his emotions go unchecked. The instrumentation is relatively spare as well, but that works in its favor considering that Steve Nieve is on board. His timing is just right; the spaces he leaves in between his piano chords speak volumes. The orchestration makes a quick appearance in the second half of the song and then falls away, leaving the lonely narrator to his current state of bemused isolation.

Keeping with the less-is-more theme, Costello’s lyrics contain relatively few words but manage to say a whole lot. The narrator walks through a beautiful fall scene and muses on the passing time, how he once ran roughshod over everything is his path but now sees that the tables have turned on him: “But now I clearly see how cruel the young can be.” This change of fortunes was brought on by the collapse of his ideals: “And I believed that life was wonderful/Right up to the moment when love went wrong.”

The title of the song can be viewed many different ways. We can fall in love or fall from grace. I feel like this character is somewhere in between the two extremes, wounded from past experiences but starting on the road to recovery, a little tentative but with hope tugging at his heart. “Fallen” captures this nether region in achingly lovely fashion, a song that can’t help but breaking out from the pack despite all of its restraint.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #97: “Pills And Soap”

Elvis Costello was clearly trying to escape his comfort zone in 1983 with Punch The Clock. Most of the album was devoted to trying to achieve what he hoped would be a more accessible sound; yet “Pills And Soap” went in the opposite direction toward overt weirdness and somehow ended up in the Top 20 of the UK charts.

Elvis’ main inspiration was “The Message,” the seminal rap song by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel. So he used a drum machine for the rhythm and allowed Steve Nieve to fill in with some jagged piano chords here and there. The resulting song didn’t come out sounding like rap so much but did achieve a kind of avant-garde uniqueness that helped it stand out from the pop accents of the rest of the album, accents that, for the most part, didn’t do any favors to Costello’s songwriting.

The song earned some consternation from the BBC for its withering depiction of both the press and the royal family. I would argue that Costello had taken similar pot shots in previous years, but they somehow stood out more within the spare arrangement of “Pills And Soap,” whereas the adrenalized rush of protesting songs like “Oliver’s Army” or “Radio, Radio” tended to mask the acidic sentiments somewhat.

The amazing thing about “Pills And Soap” is that it maintains its oddness after all these years. In addition, Costello’s theories about dishonest journalists peddling frivolous stories, sadly, have become even more relevant with the passing of time.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)