Monday, October 23, 2006

King of America

By Heraclitus

In the midst of all the drudgery and pain-in-the-assery of adult life — bills to pay, emails to send, errands to run, angry phone calls to make, groceries to buy and then consume before they spoil — the sheer joy and release of rediscovering a favorite piece of music cannot be overstated. It’s like recovering a childhood memory or being confronted with a familiar but forgotten sensation in the natural world, like the smell of the air in the springtime, after the first thaw. Just now I’ve been listening to Elvis Costello’s King of America, which I humbly submit is his best album. Its virtues are too many to list, and even trying to throw in one line about every great song on the album is too much. Sure, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was a mistake, and I’m not particularly fond of “Glitter Gulch.” And, yes, the drums tend to be too strong and too loud. But the two instruments that define the album, at least for me, are the stand-up bass and the organ. Of course they’re not on every song, and they don’t even play the most important parts on all the songs they’re on, but they run through the album and provide its depth and texture, the backdrop against which all the other instruments emerge (e.g., the accordion on “American Without Tears”).

As for the songs, who can not love the opening number, “Brilliant Mistake”?

He thought he was the King of America
But it was just a boulevard of broken dreams

A trick they do with mirrors and with chemicals

The words of love in whispers and the acts of love in screams

But the peak of the album, for me, is “Indoor Fireworks,” EC’s most achingly beautiful and melancholy song. It’s the purest example of Costello’s amazing ability to construct a melody which begins by heading in one direction, so that you are sure of exactly how it will develop, then turns back on itself, twisting around, becoming something completely strange and extraordinary. At first, this is confusing, then frustrating, as you start listening to the song repeatedly, and continue to be flummoxed. Finally, however, you learn the melody and movement, and you can’t remember what you used to expect, can’t even imagine it being any different. “Indoor Fireworks” is I think the best example of this phenomenon, but others that come to mind offhand are “Tramp Down the Dirt” and “And In Every Home.” It reminds me of an affecting passage from Nietzsche:

One must learn to love.—This is what happens to us in music: First one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life. Then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearance and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity. Finally there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we wait for it, when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing; and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it.

But that is what happens to us not only in music. That is how we have learned to love all things that we now love. In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fair-mindedness, and gentleness with what is strange; gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty. That is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves have learned it in this way; for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned.

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