Monday, July 23, 2007

"High Fidelity" / Elvis Costello & the Attractions

When the album Get Happy came out in 1980, Elvis Costello was no longer The Flavor of the Month, and this new musical direction -- a tribute to the sounds of Stax R&B and Philly soul -- baffled critics as well as many fans. But not me; I loved that album from Day One, couldn't get enough of it. It just may be my favorite Elvis Costello album ever.

So imagine how thrilled I was a few days ago when Elvis, performing with Allen Toussaint at at a jazz festival in Madrid, Spain, launched into this number from Get Happy. It was deep into the set and Elvis was definitely on a roll, emoting and pulling out all the stops. The only person in that crowd who was more thrilled than me was my friend Luis, who looked like he was having an out-of-body experience.

In typical Elvis Costello fashion, this song is based on a pun -- "high fidelity" could be either stereo sound or marital faithfulness, and Elvis constantly darts from one meaning to the other. The situation he paints is all clouded up with jealousy and irrational fury, but it seems that he's watching an ex-girlfriend/wife with her new man, which drives him into a passion (a complicated, neurotic passion, of course -- this IS Elvis Costello, after all). "Some things you never get used to / Even though you're feeling like another man" -- I tell you, nobody pins down these fleeting psychological states like Elvis does.

You can just hear the rancor boiling as he describes the couple -- "Lovers laughing in their amateur hour / Holding hands in the corridors of power." Isn't "amateur hour" a perfect phrase for the first stages of a new relationship? And as he writhes, watching them, they are surely in the "corridors of power." This is genius songwriting, no question about it. His voice faltering, he reminds himself, "Even though I'm with somebody else right now" -- yeah, he's with somebody else, and she may be totally hot, but it doesn't help. He's still savagely jealous and weak and angry. How HUMAN.

I love how Elvis's voice zooms down into the verse like a circling airplane, stuffing in the rapid-fire clever lyrics, throwing us right into the middle of a wrought-up situation (verse 2 pulls off the same trick -- "Even though you're nowhere near me / And I know you kiss him so sincerely now"). Then, when he swings into the chorus, how he draws out the "high" of "high fidelity," taking it through a few chord shifts and upping the volume, as if fiddling with a stereo set's knobs. He pushes his voice relentlessly into its gruff, staticky edges, pleading "Can you hear me? / Can you hear me? / Can you hear me?"

In the bridge, he reels off a series of radio/relationship double meanings: "There's a new kind of dedication / Maybe you'll find it down the tunnel / Maybe I got above my station / Maybe you're only changing channel" (for years I heard that last line as "Baby I'd like to change your channel" -- that's how palpable the threat in his voice is). Maybe it's just Elvis showing off his own virtuosity, but I don't care. I like Elvis's virtuosity.

Listen to those those minor-key piano chords hammering away so ominously (is Steve Nieve brilliant or what?). That night in Spain, the Crescent City Horns added to those syncopated chord progressions, making the whole thing swing even more. This is a timeless song, simply timeless. In 1980, when so many other bands were following the trendy call of disco and artsy New Wave and punk, Elvis Costello was going his own way, following his own quirky muse. I loved it then, and I love it still.

High Fidelity sample

2 comments:

Jeff said...

I like Costello's virtuosity as well. Thanks for reminding me what a powerhouse he is!

Julie said...

A great song, even better when done live. Lucky you to catch Elvis in Madrid.