Saturday, July 14, 2007

Men Out of Time

I woke today with an overwhelming urge to listen to Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello. This is a morning/evening album. It's best when listened to at the start or end of a day. If listened to during the day it takes on a Sgt. Peppers feel, if listened to during the late evening it's much more depressing. Over the past two years this album has grown on me, to the point that I'd now pick it as my favorite E.C. album.

Another album that I've been listening to a lot lately is 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields. I went through a period after 69 Love Songs came out when I listened to it constantly. I made a cd of my favorite songs and then only listened to those. Hearing the whole thing has been neat because I'd forgotten the actual order of the songs, and I'd forgotten a few of the songs entirely. Overall, I love this album as much now as I did then and I'd put it on the shortlist of classic contemporary albums. Is there anything out there that could even compete with 69 Love Songs? As Stephen Merritt says in the liner notes, no one's even trying anymore.

You could say that Elvis Costello himself was the last man to attempt something along the lines of Merritt's work. I have no idea what they think of each other. I know that Merritt isn't much of a traditional rock n' roll fan, and Costello might not even know about the Magnetic Fields, but to my ears they have many things in common. Each one writes largely within the established pop love song genre while using their songs to challenge the relationship status quo of their time. Both like Cole Porter and country. When I picture Elvis and Stephen writing songs I imagine them making the same artistic choices. They both go for the clever rhyme at the expense of lyrical coherence. I think they also specifically choose difficult ideas for songs for love of the challenge.

Maybe this is just a personal conceit, but the most interesting difference between the two men is the personality that shows through their work. They both have very sarcastic tones. I'd say that Stephen's tone, on the surface, is more sarcastic. But a likable personality and yearning for a world where love actually does work like a pop song show through the haze of his smoky New York bar. Elvis Costello, on the other hand, seems to be trying to make it seem like there's something more behind his lyrics when there often isn't. He may sing Town Cryer like he's sitting on the side of a bridge, watching his true love marry for comfort, but I have a feeling there weren't too many lonely nights for old Elvis around the time he was writing it.

Ah, the ironies of irony. One man wants to come off as sincere and can't quite hide a smile. The other smirks and winks, but can't keep a tear from showing. And they both write great songs.


Little Earl said...

You nailed it. With Stephen Merritt, the songwriting is more obviously an exercise, so when he happens to let a little genuine emotion slip through, it's like a pleasant surprise. Whereas with Elvis Costello, he seems like he's really trying to write real songs, so when you realize that they're kind of artificially crafted, it's more of a disappointment. But I'd say the same thing about Dylan, and people say Dylan's songwriting is profoundly moving, so what the hell do I know?

yoggoth said...

Yeah, good further explanation.

As for Dylan, I guess he's different for me because he was trying to be more than just a 'songwriter' at first. He sort of made being 'more than just a songwriter' possible. How's that for mushy answers?

Little Earl said...

Say whaa?

yoggoth said...


Peter Matthew Reed said...

The thing with 69 Love Songs is that it just feels like playtime. I have listened to it all the way through a few times, and after that I need a bit of substance. There is so much dexterity and exuberant intelligence in the writing that I find the whole thing a bit nauseating. Not to mention the length of the thing. The whole album is a self-aware testament to Merritt's skills, so it can be unfulfilling.

yoggoth said...

How can you have TOO MUCH dexterity and exuberant intelligence? Isn't there something to be said for Wildean cleverness for its own sake?

Like I said in my article, I detect a layer of sincerity under Merritt's cleverness. However, if you don't agree that this layer is buried under many of his songs, then I could see such a reaction.

Aren't most of the great rock albums self aware testaments to their writer's skills? Where else would you go for substance in the contemporary music scene? Daniel Bejar (Destroyer) comes to mind, although many would say he's even more of a fake than Merritt. Most of the other bands I like nowadays seem to either writes songs about being hip young scenesters (Love is All, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah) or just go for straight up nonsense(Radiohead). At least Merritt's songs won't make you cringe in twenty years. Or, I should say, won't make you cringe more than you do now.