Friday, October 27, 2006

"Just About Glad" / Elvis Costello

Oh, Elvis, forgive me for I have sinned. I spent about 15 years of my life as an apostate from the Church of Elvis. Granted, some bad things happened in my life from 1989 through 2005 (trust me, you don't want to know) and listening to your angry snarl just didn't make me feel any better. But hallelujah, I have seen the light, and now I'm back in the fold -- in fact more passionate than ever.

It's been expensive, replacing my vinyl on CD (those Rhino reissues are so freaking fine) and then buying all the CDs I missed during the Wilderness Years. But I knew it was all worthwhile the afternoon I finally listened for the first time to Brutal Youth -- or to be even more specific, the moment when I heard "Just About Glad."

There's no intro: Elvis' raspy yelp launches into the first line before the initial drumbeat falls, and then a simple guitar riff skips in; a few bars further a straightforward bass line begins, and eventually you hear the nimble accents of Steve Nieve's organ. It's stripped down, punchy, upbeat -- the perfect setting for Elvis's snarky lyrics.

I don't recall ever hearing another song with exactly this take on things: he's singing to a girl he once almost slept with, saying how lucky it was things turned out that way. Oh, yes, in hindsight he's glad things never went that far -- well, just about glad, and right there in that little prevarication lies the real story. Because as he blithely lists all the things that didn't happen -- "I'm the greatest lover that you never had" -- an edge of resentment creeps in and it's obvious that this unconsummated affair still tantalizes both of them.

His voice curdles and his syntax gets downright devious as he protests too much: "I'm just about glad that we never did that thing we were going to do..." My favorite line: "Although the passion still flutters and flickers/ It never got into our knickers." Yeah, right. Tell me another.

There's nobody like Elvis for parsing the neurotic twists and turn of modern love. I never feel that these tormented vignettes are autobiographical; he's always playing a character, but a guy too tangled up in vanity and hostility and hurt to give you the whole picture. It's your job to piece together the story and figure out whether he's a bastard or a victim. (Or both.)

Maybe it's perverse, but I find these nasty little short stories comforting; they console me for the fact that my own life doesn't always work out right. (Does anybody's?) At the end of a hard day, playing Elvis Costello loud is sometimes the best medicine. It's like going to confession; a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers and your conscience is clean again. Why did I forget that for all those years?

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