Not Where I'm Coming From

I recently started subscribing to The Nation. Some may be surprised that I hadn’t already, but . . . I get a lot of magazines. I like that – and I also like this one too, I think I’ll keep it.

But there’s few magazines that I read in their entirety. Part of the pleasure for me is the way they regularly show up in the mail box and the unique rhythm to reading each one. I’m still figuring that out with The Nation, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to get to the point where I consistently skip the cultural criticism at the back of the book. What drove it home was this article about Elvis Costello. I was eager to read it because I have been a long-time and profound fan of his, but I was left puzzled, puzzled over what it was supposed to be about, and also puzzled over how some writers manage to get gigs like that.

Pop music criticism is a pretty bleak field in general. There’s very little I have read that is even competently critical about the music – instead it’s a litany of pop culture signifiers, indicating the essential hipness and superior taste of the writer and is commonly about everything but the music itself. This is particularly true about Costello, who is a great pop musician who has also been completely unselfconscious about growing older and developing different ideas and tastes. That’s what mature people do, but when it comes to pop music the fundamental value is the eternal preservation of a kind of atavistic myth of adolescence. That cultural idea has been completely co-opted by commerce, making it something material and conservative. If I had written the article, it would have been about Costello’s satisfying musical growth and the cultural and aesthetic values that embodies. Instead, David Yaffe gives us liberal interpolations of song lyrics embedded in his own writing, his tiresome opinion of and projection onto The Police, and a hipster’s attempt to fit all of Costello’s work into what Yaffe feels makes himself cool.

Unlike musicians who do the exact same thing, endlessly, across the decades, and are adored for it by fans who wish for Neverland, Costello made sharp, bilious music when he was a pissed off young man, wistful, ambiguous music as he lost his youth, and classic, personal and assured music now that he’s a fully grown adult. I’ve had the good fortune to have him as a companion as I myself grew up. He’s an artist who accepts what happens inside himself as a natural course of life and sees it as natural to express himself differently in his 40s.

Without the musical growth, all this is moot. But Costello loves music and has genuinely broad, not eclectic, taste, meaning an ear for quality in all sorts of circumstances. Early on he had the good taste to higher The Attractions, simply one of the best bands ever, able to play beautifully and masterfully in every style because they too had big ears. And to see them in concert, and even the contemporary variation of The Impostors, is exciting and satisfying for the sheer musicality of joy of playing. Costello and the band are exceptional performers. There’s no bullshit, no themes, no stage show – they just play, and play unbelievably well. And that’s how they made the newest record, Momofuku. I’m not offering a review here, but will say that if you love Costello, than you know the pleasure of just hearing him make music. He’s broken a lot of new ground in his career, but that’s not an obligation, and he doesn’t do so hear. If you need to have something NEw NEW NEW NEW NEw, then you can skip this disc. But it’s damn good. And while there’s a certain fetish to noting that they made it all just playing in a studio for a couple weeks, that’s how music is made folks, or has been until recently. Studio technology allows for semi-competent musicians to make highly polished records through a detailed and slow process. These recordings are then recreated on the concert stage. Costello and his band are just old-fashioned; they play their instruments and work it out together. They just make music, always good, often great, and that’s high praise.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.