In his 2015 autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, English pop musician Elvis Costello wrote, “Once I’d recognized that it was not my vocation to write a happy ending, I did my damnedest to avoid one entirely... I once referred to this process as ‘Messing up my life, so I could write stupid little songs about it.’” Though Costello first made his mark in the late ‘70s with punky “angry young man” songs, heartbreak has been his most generous muse for nearly four decades. Here, five songs that range from forlorn to depressive, each one a little more wounded (and wounding) than the last.
Deceptively Chipper Elvis: “Every Day I Write the Book” from Punch the Clock, 1983
Don’t let the upbeat New Wave façade fool you. As Costello recounts the chapters of a relationship, he makes sure his former lover knows he’s in the author’s chair, crafting the narrative arc of their failed romance. In fact, he’s already working on a sequel.
Sad But Cruel Elvis: “Alison” from My Aim Is True, 1977
“I’m not gonna get too sentimental,” Costello warns, but there are no punches pulled as he scolds a flame with a blunt critique of the life she’s built for herself without him.
Bummed-Out Bond Theme Elvis: “So Like Candy” from Mighty Like a Rose, 1991
Co-written with Paul McCartney, this song has heartache matched by musical ambition. Over music that feels like the theme songs that typically play over the opening credits of a Bond flick – sweeping and grand but tinged by fatalism – Costello wonders what he did to make Candy go, but she gets the final say, scratching up his LPs and attaching a note: “‘My Darling Dear it’s such a waste... [I] couldn’t say ‘goodbye,’ but ‘I admire your taste.’”
Torch Song Elvis: “God Give Me Strength” from Painted from Memory, 1998
Costello can’t even manage an angry retort in this sweeping ballad penned with Burt Bacharach. He’s too low for malice, opening plainly with “Now I have nothing.” It only gets more painful from there.
Maybe It’s Time for a Restraining Order Elvis: “I Want You” from Blood & Chocolate, 1986
Spooky with more than a hint of danger implied. This is Costello as super creep, and the stark, stalkingly low-key music matches the obsessive, jealous tone unsettlingly well. Don’t listen with the lights off.
Elvis Costello performs at 8 p.m. Friday, April 8, at Mesa Arts Center. Tickets cost $49.50-$89.50. Visit mesaartscenter.com.
– Jason P. Woodbury
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