Sunday, July 5, 2015

Elvis Costello

Blood and Chocolate
Melody Maker, September 13th 1986 

by Simon Reynolds

Another one?! So soon?! How much quality product can a body digest in a single year?

Elvis Costello is undone by his own prolific stamina and consistency. A month ago I made an unlikely comparison between Costello and Cabaret Voltaire: the shared problem of routine brilliance. The possibility of his surprising us recedes because of his prior accumulated excellence. Each time, it becomes steadily more difficult to argue that you NEED another Costello record. But his fans aren't buying "surprise" anyway. Costello services a stable demand for one sure voice of sanity and compassion. It's a matter of keeping the faith.

Equally, it becomes less and less plausible to present Costello as the thorn in pop's flesh, a radical intrusion of intelligence, simply because these days he barely interacts with pop at all. Costello, all of us in fact, inhabit a little world that's drifted apart from the mainstream, a world whose parameters are night-time radio and the music press. "Progessive pop" occupies a different space to pop altogether, perhaps equivalent to that occupied by literature 50 years ago. Nothing is in jeopardy.

Everything valuable about Costello — craft, dignity, content, depth — actually disqualifies him from the pop race. Pop was always meant to be surface flash, rupture, contrivance, a spree of strangeness — not good work and firm conscience. Everything about POP! should be capable of absorption within a matter of moments. With Costello, you have to work.

So here comes a fresh glut of WORDS — a round of media hagiography, no doubt, plus a mass of artfully tangled statements for us to decipher. These days, when Elvis speaks out, the result is a prolix, purple sprawl of place names and mixed metaphors, leaving only the vague impression that he's pointing the finger at something. Much more useful are the more private songs, like "I Want You", a stark, extended gasp of choked longing.

Elsewhere, Costello's writing seems to increase in opacity as he turns over and over his familiar concerns — domestic deceit, doomed relationships, bread and circuses, the hegemony of the trivial and the tawdry. You come to wish he'd be less zealous in his anxiety to avoid insulting our intelligence

[portion of review missing here]

But such dissent seems destined to remain isolated and contained. No matter how he struggles to shake up the settled state of his career — this year's peculiar gambit of "murdering" the Costello persona — Elvis Costello is doomed to make only big splashes in a small pond, our pond. "Hang The Deejay" could well have been Elvis Costello's very own anthem.

Elvis Costello / Martin Amis
Arena, 1991
by Simon Reynolds

Listening to his new album, "Mighty Like A Rose", I had an abrupt insight: Elvis Costello is the Martin Amis of pop. For the people who don't read many books and/or don't listen to many albums anymore, Amis and Costello are the only ones left who dare to go for the grand, over-arching vision of our time. They take the pulse of the age and diagnose the malaise. Nobody else has the ambition or temerity to take on this task, which is why Amis/Costello are seen, by some, as saving graces and solitary saviours.
Amis has made two magnum opus stabs at encapsulating the shittiness of the Eighties in "Money" and "London Fields", with their Dickensian anti-heroes John Self and Keith Talent: repulsive incarnations of the era, pimples on the zeitgeist's backside. Costello, too, has been lunging for the Big Picture's jugular for over a decade. Songs like "Pills and Soap", "Beyond Belief" and "Tokyo Storm Warning" are dystopian panoramas in the tradition of Dylan's  "Desolation Row". His albums are cross-sections of a diseased British body politic, drawing the dots between personal and political squalor, between the husband's brutal fists and the election-winning war ("Armed Forces" was originally titled "Emotional Fascism"). 

 Against this backdrop of degraded private and public language, Amis and Costello dramatise themselves as solitary bulwarks against the "moronic inferno" of popular culture. Amis flinches and shudders at the masturbatory nature of 'remote control' culture (TV, porn, video games). Costello has perennially diatribed against the 'bread and circuses' of tabloid culture, the "chewing gum for the ears" of conveyor belt pop. On his new album, "The Other Side Of Summer" is a predictably vituperative blast against rave culture:  "the dancing was desperate, the music was worse". In Costello's jaundiced eyes, the post-Aciiied scene is merely a culture of consolation, an anaesthetic/amnesiac refuge from an intolerable reality. "Invasion Hit Parade" similarly dramatises Costello as one of the few who refuse to collaborate with the new regime of "non-stop Disco Tex and the Sexolettes".

 For Amis/Costello, one of the reasons the world is in such a state is precisely because no one reads books or listens to albums anymore - or at least the kind of books and the kind of albums that tell you what a state the world is in (precisely the kind they write/record). Both mourn the disappearance of depth in a world of surfaces, slogans and cliches, the withering of attention spans thanks to blip culture. For Amis, the role of the author has been usurped by soap opera, gutter press, even style mags. For Costello, the problem is the decline of the songwriter in the face of a pop culture organised around videos, 12" remixes, the sampler and the dee-jay. In the embattled Amis/Costello worldview, the kind of reader they demand is an endangered species: people who've absorbed a lot of literature, who are schooled in the rock canon, and are thus well-versed enough to get the references that riddle the Amis/Costello ouevre. The prospect of a 'disliterate' population (technically literate, but who never bother to read anything) or, in Costello's case, a rock culture no longer based around the reverential interpretation of lyrics, is terrifying. A future based around TV/video/12 inch rather than novel/album bodes a nightmare world of emotional illiterates, like John Self in "Money" who doesn't have the self-analytical skills to know why he's fucked up, or the teenage girl in "The Other Side of Summer" who's "crying cos she doesn't look like like a million dollars", but "doesn't seem to have the attention span" to work out how media and advertising have messed with her mind.

 In the Amis/Costello universe, stuff is always dying: love, language, truth, the planet are all on their last legs. America has a particularly diabolic status; it's the leading edge of the apocalypse, the original "moronic inferno". The replacement of politics by advertising, the castration of rock'n'roll, a junk culture where porn is the biggest grossing leisure industry, mugging, yuppies, MTV - you name it, the US trailblazed it. Amis and Costello document a Britain slowly succumbing to the crappiest aspects of US mass culture but without the space and the naivete that is America's saving grace. In America, the born-to-run reflex is a safety valve for class antagonisms: people just move on. In Britain, rage festers and turns to bile. Amis/Costello have a vivid grip on the stuffiness of English culture: Amis is good on the modern British pub, stuck between the  fustiness of tradition and the plastic tackiness of the future. Costello could have been a Springsteen, but, growing up in more confined circumstances, became a poet of claustrophobia rather than of wide open spaces.

In their early days, both Costello and Amis were regarded as bitter and twisted misanthropes. Costello talked of how he only understood two emotions, "revenge and guilt"; Amis was reknowned for stories that left a bad taste in the mouth. Although both have mellowed somewhat with age, matured into a more compassionate and humanist outlook, their forte is still the banality of evil and the evil of banality: portraits of bastards, brutes, cheats and crushed inadequates, vividly etched with an insider's insight into what makes a shit tick. Revealingly, neither of them can "do" women. Whether manipulative or manipulated, their female characters are ciphers. Nicola Six, the 'heroine' of "London Fields" is even compared to a black hole, the ultimate misogynist metaphor for the femme fatale/vagina dentata.

But ultimately this misogyny is just a facet of a generally misanthropic worldview. Amis and Costello belong to a peculiarly British strain of the satirical imagination, a tradition that includes Evelyn Waugh, the Ealing and Boulting Brothers comedies and Private Eye. In this fallen world(view), there are no heroes, only shits and shat upon - an odious, privileged minority and the loathsome, downtrodden multitude. "Good' characters aren't admirable, but despicably unwordly and naive, weak and gullible fools like Guy Clinch, the amorous fall guy in "London Fields".

 Amis and Costello give this black, bilious brand of satire an apocalyptic, fin de siecle twist. "London Fields" was at one stage  entitled "Millenium"; new Costello songs like "Invasion Hit Parade" and "Hurry Up Doomsday" are panoramic panic attacks. Through Amis's  paranoid uppercrust eyes, the Portobello Road is transformed into a  hellzone of lowlife iniquity. Costello's distempered gaze pans across a culture rank with the stench of mendacity, rife with "professional liars" and "perpetual suckers", zombies and bloodsuckers. Like all apocalyptic visions, the Amis/Costello worldview is prone to overstatement, over-ripe imagery, a certain stylistic overkill. And one problem always looms for the professional prophet of doom: how to keep on upping the apocalyptic stakes. Both Amis and Costello's future would seem wedded to further deterioration of the social fabric, to the continued viability of 'The End'.

While "Mighty Like A Rose" suggests Costello is condemned to spurting exquisitely crafted bile in perpetuity, Amis has taken a sideways step towards an obliquer angle on the Big Picture. His work-in-progress "Time's Arrow" (previewed in Granta 31) borrows its premise from science fiction: the protagonist experiences time running backwards through the eyes of an American doctor called Tod Friendly. This has the salutary effect of making our everyday human procedures and transactions seem eerie and absurd: all power and energy mysteriously originates from the toilet bowl, kind-hearted pimps give money to whores who then squander it on old men, doctors make their patients sick and ambulances rush victims from their hospital beds and painstakingly insert them into wrecked cars. Although the device has been used before in science fiction and comics, Amis does it well: after reading the Granta excerpt, it takes a couple of hours for the uncanny feeling of time running in reverse to wear off.

Abandoning the omniscient, God's eye view for a baffled and bemused first person is a smart move for Amis, and timely too. The judgemental gaze (seeing through facades, looking down on folly) is too sneery and know-it-all for these dazed and confused postmodern times. In rock, fewer and fewer people look to a Big Figure, a Dylan or Lennon, to tell them "what's goin' on"; instead of a counter culture, there's an array of undergrounds orbiting a lost centre. Contemporary literature offers not The Truth, but a plethora of worlds each with their own singular truth, partial glimpses of the Big Picture. Still fatally hung up on the notion of author-as-oracle, Amis and Costello ply their magisterial trade in an ever-expanding void. 

The leading edge in contemporary fiction and music aims to mirror chaos, not offer salvation from it (the kaleidophrenic whirl of Don DeLillo's writing, My Bloody Valentine's neo-psychedelia). But this cutting edge can be hard to grasp for those who cling to an oldfashioned idea of art as reinforcer of values or source of guidance. These people still look for an angry voice of sanity. Deploring the waning of literacy and the craft of songwriting, but lacking the energy to keep up with the state of the art, these middlebrow types look to Amis and Costello for reassurance: firstly, that the culture is still deteriorating; secondly, that they are on the side of righteousness. In reality, they're part of the problem. 

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