ELVIS COSTELLO WEEK
In honor of Elvis Costello's 53rd birthday this past Saturday, I head eagerly into a week of Elvis Costello listening -- but I've got a bit of a dilemma here. Elvis has an enormous back catalogue, simply ENORMOUS, and I'm afraid I love all of it. So which songs to choose?
It's arbitrary, I know, but "...Dust" is always a happy surprise when it comes up on my shuffle -- and then haunts me for the rest of the day. It comes from his 2002 album, When I Was Cruel, an album that felt like a homecoming for me. Elvis returned to his stripped-down rock & roll sound for this CD, but what mattered more to me was that, as the name implies, it brought him back to the snarky mindset that first won my heart in 1978.
Actually, there are TWO versions of "Dust" on this CD, with somewhat different lyrics and an entirely different rhythm and sound. I still haven't totally figured out the differences between them, or why Elvis would include both (neither is a bonus track; in fact "Dust 2 . . . " comes a couple tracks earlier than ". . . Dust"). All I can say is that I prefer the second one, with its insinuating drumbeat, taunting guitar reverb, and accusatory horns. The lyrics of both versions seem to deal with the general human condition, but this one simmers with subtext, as if he's also settling some nasty personal score.
As always with Elvis, he's playing with plural meanings of the word "dust." First off, it stands for mortality (ashes to ashes, dust to dust), but it also suggest something musty and old that's being ignored at our peril. And in the third verse, it becomes forensic matter: "If only dust could gather into lines of chalk / Around a silhouette detective fiction walks / For it's the only witness that can testify." (Shades of "Watching the Detectives.") With those film noir horns pitching in, I'm feeling distinctly uneasy by now -- there's been a crime, and Elvis is clearly ready to turn state's evidence. "Can I spit out the truth / Or would you rather just swallow a lie?" -- his falsetto yelp at the end of that line almost hurts. In the bridge, his snarly vocal keeps jabbing an accusing finger: "You kept your mouth well shut / Appeared to turn your coat / Now there's a name for you but it's stuck in my throat."
Once Elvis gets going with the imagery, he's like a tent-revival preacher on a roll -- "Here comes the juggernaut / Here come the Poisoners / They choke the life and land / And rob the joy from us / Why do they taste of sugar / When they are made of money? / Here come the Lamb of God / And the butcher's boy, Sonny." Who knows what it means? It just feels apocalyptic and savage and scary. And in the last verse, he goes after the music biz, too: "If dust could gather in a needle track / Then it would skip a beat and it would jump right back." It's vinyl-era imagery, but still vivid; "needle track" makes me think of heroin addicts too. Why not? The more allusive imagery he can blast us with, the better.
And coiling through the whole thing is that serpentine rhythm, seducing us into thinking that this must all mean something, if we were only clever enough to get Elvis's references. Me, I've stopped trying to interpret it; I'm just snuggling into the moody arrangement and the dangerous rasp of Elvis's voice. And feeling quite at home here.