ONLY NOISE: Poison Pen – The Discretely Vicious Songs of Elvis Costello

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The best insults are those that fly over our heads. Those that for a minute maybe sound like praise. Those that strike with a delay…like a cut from a sharp blade that doesn’t begin to bleed until several moments after incision. An insult that can walk away from its victim, turn its back and laugh as the brunt of the joke stands, stammering for a comeback. There are, in my book, four contemporary masters of this caliber of lyrical affront: Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello. It is the latter that I praise today, for turning the act of insolence into an art form. I originally thought this could be a great Valentine’s Day piece, being the grumpy bastard that I am, but instead I will salute Costello on his birthday, which is today.

There are a cargo truck’s worth of reasons why Costello is one of my favorite songwriters of all time; that unmistakable snarl of a voice that could make “Three Blind Mice” sound subversive, his unflinching command of pop music, and those glasses…I’m a sucker for anyone on the Buddy Holly spectrum of things. But one of the most compelling things about Costello is his wicked mastery of the English language. His lyrics are often love letters printed with poison, at first seeming sweet, and only after consideration revealing themselves to be cruel reprimands.

It is this very contrast that I find so intriguing, and it is an attraction that occurs outside of my musical fanaticism as well. There is nothing more entertaining and refreshing to me than those who break the behavioral pattern people expect of them. When old ladies curse, when my kindest friends reveal their deep hatred for someone, when parents admit that their child is an asshole…these all tickle my deeply-rooted, contrarian nature, and the same can be said for Costello’s work.

His songs work in a similar, sneak-attack fashion to hard liquor; it’s smooth going down, but catches up to you later. The insatiable pop licks Costello brandishes overwhelm, while a guerilla faction of snide remarks injure from the side. Songs like “I Hope You’re Happy Now” from 1986’s Blood And Chocolate is a prime example of this dichotomy, especially given the misleading title (he really doesn’t hope you are happy now).

“He’s a fine figure of a man and handsome too,” Costello sneers. “With his eyes upon the secret places he’d like to undo.”

He goes on to describe a comically abysmal bloke that his former flame is bedding, wishing them both well with a sturdy middle finger.

“He’s got all the things you need and some that you will never/but you make him sound like frozen food, his love will last forever. Still, he knows what she wants and what she don’t allow/and I hope that you’re happy now.”

“He’s acting innocent and proud still you know what he’s after/Like a matador with his pork sword, while we all die of laughter/In his turquoise pajamas and motorcycle hat/I hope you’re happy now because you’ll soon put pay to that.”

The fun continues with tracks like “Miracle Man” off of 1977’s debut My Aim Is True, in which Costello proves his aptitude for the backhanded compliment (those going through breakups, take note).

“Yet everybody loves you so much, girl
/I just don’t know how you stand the strain/Oh I-I’m the one who’s here tonight/And I don’t want to do it all in vain.”

I used to wish that during every breakup, I could magically summon Costello, like some sort of mean genie to rattle off insults to romantic wrongdoers in my life. Perhaps he could hide in a tree and speak into a tiny mic hooked to my invisible earpiece, feeding me lines like “I knew then what I know now, I never loved you anyhow.” If only life worked like that.

It seems that even Costello’s “love songs” are not what they seem. One of his most iconic ballads, “Alison” has often been looked to as a slow dance, anniversary type of love song-something deeply romantic, when in fact it sprung from a far more depressing reality.

In Costello’s recent autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, he describes the impetus for writing the track: “I wrote the song “Alison” after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket. She had a face for which a ship might have once been named. Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honour. Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away.”

I wonder if there were a few who read that book and wished they hadn’t; their wedding song ruined forever.

A friend of mine in high school who was also a massive Costello fan found solace in the song “Different Finger” from 1981’s Trust when she got mixed up in the age-old conundrum of infidelity. While most songwriters would exalt their new lover, or self-flagellate with guilt, Costello is cold and despondent atop a knee-weakening melody. All he asks is that the affair be carried out sans wedding bands, revealing little to no emotional investment. 

“Please put your rings on a diff’rent finger if you meet me tonight/’Cause I can’t stand those suspicious glances/’Cause I know the things they’re saying are right.”

“I don’t want to hear your whole life story/Or about my strange resemblance to some old flame/All I want is one night of glory/I don’t even know your second name.”

“Different Finger” is an honest song and a song without honor all at once. We can learn from its vulnerability and imperfections-it so clearly exposes all of the possibilities inside of us, that really we are all capable of anything given the correct cocktail of circumstance.

Of all these venomous love songs, “Little Triggers” off of 1978’s This Year’s Model takes the proverbial cake. It is one of the most heartrending songs of all time, with nods to doo-wop vocal melodies and the haunting pulses of Steve Nieves B3 organ. But despite the songs potential for glorious love-balladry, it is an extreme close up of an imperfect relationship, and all of the sour miscommunications that come along with.

“Little triggers that you pull with your tongue/Little triggers I don’t wanna be hung up/Strung up when you don’t call up/Little sniggers on your lips/Little triggers in your grip/Little triggers, my hand on your hip

“Worryin’ about the common decency/When it is only a question of frequency/When you say okay but you’ve got cheek to be/Sayin’ you’re tired of me when you don’t even weaken these/Little triggers that you pull with your tongue/Little triggers, I don’t want to be hung up, strung up/When you don’t call up.”

“Little Triggers” makes me wonder if the trigger-happy lover isn’t in fact Costello himself. It’s hard to imagine that any partner of his could be more sharp tongued than the insult-wielding musician. Or perhaps, his songs are merely some attempt at wish fulfillment. Maybe in real life it was too painful to put up a fight, so he brought the fight to music instead. I wish we all could siphon our pain into chart-topping songs. In the meantime, we have Elvis Costello.

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