On The Pleasures of Getting Old

Hey Nineteen
That’s ‘Retha Franklin
She don’t remember
The Queen of Soul
It’s hard times befallen
The sole survivors
She thinks I’m crazy
But I’m just growing old

Hey Nineteen
No we got nothing in common
No we can’t talk at all
Please take me along
When you slide on down

Hey Nineteen, Steely Dan

We’re only nineteen for a moment. I was nineteen when Elvis Costello’s “Punch The Clock” was released, and it already seemed older than I, following quickly on the heels of the grand “Imperial Bedroom,” which seemed almost vastly older than I. Of course, they were older; Costello was born almost 10 years earlier and, unlike a great number of pop musicians of the past two generations, has accepted and even embraced the possibility of his music growing older along with him. Come to think of it, he always seemed a bit older than his peers.

My Aim Is True” came out in 1977, which may have been the annus mirabilis of punk. With his skinny ties, knock-knees and alienated stance, Costello was easy to fit into the punk scene, that is until you actually listened to the record, which is a set of sincere, elegant, well-crafted pop songs that exemplify both a love of post-WWII American pop music and a quest for professionalism as a means of greater expression. Costello has always been a classicist, mining his own broad interests and excellent taste for styles and ideas that he then renews and makes his own. Add that to a dedication to developing his musicianship, and you have a man who wears his maturity lightly and with self-deprecating humor.

And so as he’s grown older he has expanded and deepened his musical exploration, a natural procession that a lot of pop musicians work very hard to ignore, a lot of critics too. It’s easy to like his early records – I love them. “Get Happy!” is dense with effervescence and style, and “This Year’s Model” is stunning, exciting, and cathartic; a record every teenager should own and one that still thrills me. But we can’t be nineteen forever. Listeners can stick with those records, Costello himself realizes that what he wants to do at 35, 45 and 55 is not what he wanted to do at 25, and I’m grateful for it. His ‘aging’ as a musician has produced a long line of strong to excellent records, full of enduring songs; “Blood and Chocolate,” the underrated and superb “Brutal Youth” and “All This Useless Beauty,” collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet, Allen Toussaint and Burt Bacharach and the Mingus Big Band and Metropole Orkest. He’s written a ballet score, and an opera. Not everything has worked; I find “Spike” and “Mighty Like A Rose” generally unsuccessful, and “North” is a a sketch, not any kind of finished work, and the notorious “Goodbye Cruel World” is a maddening combination of strong, sometimes amazing, songwriting and tarted-up production. Looking at this précis, I realize that it offers as broad a range of styles as possible and yet lists less than half of Costello’s work! And now we have a brand new record, “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane,” which offers new musical territory and like all his good, mature work, demands and rewards repeated listening. It does no good to say I like it or not, because this is music that is meant to last beyond the initial moment and enter into your life. It will do that, I believe, and that’s probably highest praise.

This record is Costello’s (re)making of the music of Appalachia and beyond, meaning deeper, broader and personal. “Roots” music has become a trendy style recently in indie-pop, a kind of affectless historical slumming for a generation seeking pre-packaged “authenticity.” Costello is a connoisseur who doesn’t place styles into ghettoes – he’s a grown-up kid in his bedroom with his guitar, working his way through a printed collection of songs. His counterpart 400 years ago was doing the same with a lute and John Dowland, and, hey that’s Dowland Costello is singing on the B-side of “The Juliet Letters!” So the record starts with the twang of strings and voice and a mid-tempo quasi ballad with a melody that owes more than a little bit to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” And it’s a song about what the bottle does, no less. While in lesser hands this could be a temporarily convincing bit of faux authenticity, this is original work in a classic style:

Down among the wines and spirits
Where a man gets what he merits . . .

Bubbles escaping from him at the rim a glass of grape
She sails through his memory just like a ship of shapely
And then as it started to sink he drowns his sorrows
That fill his nights and empty tomorrows

American country and bluegrass music is an idiom that suits him, as he’s become more a storyteller through the years and so much of the roots of this music have to do with telling stories, especially the personal, cautionary kind. One track, ‘Hidden Shame,’ subtitled ‘The terrible confession of a life-long petty criminal,’ is just that, with a chilling confession at its core and a sense of the need to express guilt. It’s lyrically complex and subtle, and the music lays back, neither emphasizing nor judging. There’s also a down-home version of ‘Complicated Shadows,’ which first appeared on “All This Useless Beauty,” which is interesting but seems a bit out of place, perhaps due to its familiarity. While this style of music is seen from the contemporary pop perspective as ‘roots,’ it itself has antecedents in ballads and dance-hall music of 18th and 19th century Europe, and there’s a lot of that color on the record that adds a richness, beauty and patina with successive listening; the obsessive love and thumping bass-line of ‘My All Time Doll’ is turned made special by a chord sequence that is more Romantic than romantic. And the grown-up nonsense of ‘Sulphur to Sugarcane’ (“The girls up in Poughkeepsie take their clothes off when they’re tipsy”) is harder to do than it sounds, and is always welcome – there’s got to be room for fun amidst all the crime, drinking and broken hearts. Narratively, this music is about the stuff of everyday life, which as Harvey Pekar has pointed out can be pretty gripping stuff.

The core of the record, however, comes from music essentially outside the confines of the disc, songs by Costello meant for other contexts that are recorded here. There’s a moving ballad connected to a character from the character-based “The Delivery Man,” a first-person song titled ‘I Dreamed of My Old Lover,’ which gives the idea. To hear a man’s voice convey the lyric is plangent – Costello does tenderness as well as any pop singer and his baritone holds a satisfying resonance in the chest, both of which make this song involving and enticingly troubling. There are also four songs from his opera, “The Secret Songs;” ‘She Handed Me A Mirror,’ ‘How Deep Is The Red?’ ‘She Was No Good,’ and ‘Red Cotton.’ The subject of the opera is Hans Christian Andersen’s love for Jenny Lind a/k/a “The Swedish Nightingale,” but knowing that is unnecessary for the pleasure of the songs, for they are that good and stand on their own. Storytelling is tricky when the author doesn’t tell you who the characters are, but songs, with their added dimensions of music and the sung lyrics, add such depth of emotional context that the character’s own feelings about what he narrates becomes a discrete story for the listener. And these songs, with their strong flavor of chanson réaliste, are transfixing in their involvement and sense of eavesdropping on things deeply personal, intriguing and perhaps ultimately unknowable. The music is deeply lyrical, a manner Costello is usually sparing with, and the fiddle lines of Stuart Duncan are played with great clarity and welcome understatement. The lyrics encapsulate loss and regret:

She handed me a mirror
That she had gazed upon
The glass still held an image
The glass still held an image
But it was of a man

She Handed Me a Mirror

Is this not a pretty tale?
Is this not a riddle?
A bow shoots arrows through the air
A bow drags notes from a fiddle
But who is the beau of a young girl’s heart
That a king may send to battle?

How Deep Is The Red?

This is not country or bluegrass music, but 19th century ballad storytelling, in words and music. The common line of the history of all this music is a social purpose; to offer comfort and the sense that the listener is not alone in these feelings and experiences. The songs and what they say are the centerpiece, but the sound is important as well. It’s a social sound, that of instruments one and one’s neighbors had at hand and could play a little bit. It’s quiet, good-natured, at-ease, simple in the individual parts but complex in combination. “Secret, Profance & Sugarcane” has this sound, and it sounds great, with the voice at the forefront and the warm, close-up resonance of a room in a home. The almost entirely acoustic band features musicians like the great dobro player Jerry Douglas, T Bone Burnett (who also produced), Mike Compton on mandolin and Dennis Crouch on bass. The disc version does not include any bonus tracks – those are only available digitally, and they differ depending on where you go: iTunes has a terrific cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Elvis Costello - Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (Bonus Track Version) - Femme FataleFemme Fatale,’ while Amazon offers the original ‘What Lewis Did Last,’ which is excellent. This is a wonderful record by a superior artist, slightly off-putting at first, because as listeners it’s sometimes hard to chase after artist we admire, but Costello is an admirable artist because he goes his own way. The first impression can be that it is unexpected. But once familiar, the seriousness and beauty are clear, and that Costello wears both lightly make it so satisfying.


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.

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