Days Between Stations: Elvis Costello’s Warmth in Cold Places (03/97)

sir walter scott

It was Scott who brought glamour out of the Scottish vulgate and into fashionable, literary language. The word was a corruption of grammar (itself derived from the medieval gramarye); it meant “a spell.” In Elvis Costello’s Costello & Nieve (Warner Bros.)—a box of five short CDs drawn from radio broadcasts of concerts that Costello and longtime collaborator Steve Nieve played in the U.S. in May 1996—that spell comes down again and again. Songs familiar and obscure, from the very beginning of Costello’s career in 1977 to last year’s overlooked All This Useless Beauty, take on new faces and new flesh. Between numbers, Costello’s stage talk is funny and casual, but nearly all of the performances seem to exist in at least two dimensions simultaneously; they are at once pristine and explosive, reserved and inviting, private and common.Often a performance begins with the feeling that something crucial is being held back. Then it breaks open with a full-throatedness, a cry, or a bet on drama that pays off so completely that only the vaguest sense remains that though what was held back was revealed, it somehow went right over your head.

Certainly that’s what happens with “Temptation,” from Los Angeles, “The Other End of the Telescope,” from Chicago, “The Long Honeymoon,” from Boston, and “I Want to Vanish,” from New York. But this spell, this displacement—this experience of being taken from one place to another, and of both places being made into nowheres—is the whole story of “My Dark Life,” from San Francisco.

It’s seven minutes, thirteen seconds of the twenty-six-minute, fifty-one-second San Francisco disc—typical for the set, one disc for each city—but the song sucks you into it and then gets you lost so quickly it might be describing not an incident but a lifetime. It’s like a map of miasma. “My Dark Life” (a studio version was released last year on the suitably weird and inspired X-Files tribute album, Songs in the Key of X) is here sung and played so slowly—sometimes so slowly that the song and its unclear but disturbing story seem to almost unravel, sometimes so slowly that each word and pause can signify the whole of what’s being said—that you lose your sense of place or time. Yet the way Costello sings the title phrase, “My dark life…” which always slides away from the listener, the words have a strange lilt in them, a bounce that doesn’t return to the ground of music, that stays in the air, and that lilt always calls the listener back to something he or she would probably just as soon not know about. There’s an echo of Costello’s little horror movie of a song “I Want You” in “My Dark Life,” but the threat is far less obvious: It doesn’t stab, it floats.

“My Dark Life” came out of a package tour Costello took to Russia, to see paintings; a trip that for him became a Michelin Guide to being in a place where you don’t belong, wondering why you don’t belong—and thus questioning who you are. The flat, ordinary ominousness of a cold place brings out the coldness in the visitor, his own malevolence. The place wants to cast a spell on him; he’ll cast one right back. He’ll feel superior to the people around him, to the other people on the tour, to the workers in the hotel. In the song, this happens in slow mo­tion until the loathing directed outward returns as self-loathing. “He tipped her in cigarettes,” Costello sings, then realizes that for the worker whose worth he so easily sealed as next to nothing, his gesture has only sealed his own worthlessness. “My dark life”—no, you don’t want to know. But the singing is just too subtle, too quietly strong, to be anything but infinitely suggestive. And so, in your own mind, as you listen, the song seemingly bypassing ending after ending, its pace never quickening, you know everything there is to know.

Anyone listening to Costello & Nieve will find similar moments elsewhere—in “All This Useless Beauty,” “You Bowed Down,” “My Funny Valen­tine,” “Watching the Detectives.” The set contains, in its way, the best work of Costello’s twenty-year career—the most free-swinging and confident, the most inventive and least pressing—all mixed up with crowd noise that is by turns fawning and obnoxious, responsive and hushed, the real ambi­ence of real rooms.

Costello & Nieve is also a limited-edition set of thirty thousand copies, all of which are, by now, almost certainly gone. “I like the idea that it draws a line,” Costello said when I asked him about the release—but what he meant was not that the set would separate the true believers from the hoi polloi, but that a contrived rarity might bring attention, on the radio and by word of mouth, to songs that had been ignored. He went back and forth with yeses and nos as to whether the set would be made available again sooner or later. “Isn’t it a certain bootleg if it isn’t?” I asked. “This could have all been bootlegged long ago,” he said. “It was all public broadcasts. The tapes have been on the Internet for months.”

“It’s come out sideways,” Costello said. “It’s not a record of well-produced, high-tech concerts. It’s a record of overheard concerts.” That might be where the peculiar charm of the music resides, and it might be the nature of the spell the music casts. Listening, you can feel yourself in the audience, in the room. And yet, feeling immediately present, with the musicians right before you, you are in one moment hearing them directly, in another overhearing something it seems you weren’t meant to hear at all.

Interview, March 1997

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