“Indoor Fireworks” / Elvis Costello
ELVIS COSTELLO WEEK
A lot of us were stumped by King of America, the 1986 album where Elvis jettisoned the Attractions, producer Nick Lowe, and his English cultural references all at once. He even seemed to shed his stage name -- Elvis Costello no longer, but Declan Patrick Aloysius Macmanus, or else Little Hands of Concrete (a nickname Nick Lowe had bestowed upon him for his tendency to break guitar strings). What was he up to?
The excellent liner notes (practically a novel) Elvis wrote for the Rhino reissue explain it all; suffice it to say that he was "going through a phase." All the same, King of America became one of my favorite EC albums -- how could I resist songs like "Brilliant Mistake" ("She said that she was working for the ABC News / It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use") or "Little Palaces" ("So you knock the kids about a bit / Because they've got your name")? And from the very first play-through, I knew "Indoor Fireworks" was going to be one of my favorite Elvis songs ever.
To say that it's about a relationship falling apart doesn't even begin to touch it. Apparently this couple's explosive quarrels have always been part of their dynamic, but now things are going downhill and they just can't stop. "Indoor fireworks / Can still burn your fingers / Indoor fireworks / We swore we were safe as houses" (those domestic "houses" -- I love how Elvis turns cliches on their head). "They're not so spectacular, they don't / Burn up in the sky / They can dazzle or delight / Or bring a tear / When the smoke gets in your eyes." (Another upended cliche -- zing!)
The verses keep dancing around this notion -- how their "parlour games" always flirted with breaking up. "Everybody loves a happy ending," he remarks, "but we don't even try / We go straight past pretending / To the part where everybody loves to cry." It was fiction, play-acting, at first, and their passions fed on it: ""Sometimes we would fight in public / With very little cause / But different kinds of sparks would fly / When we got on our own behind closed doors." (Oh, how his voice sizzles on that hot line.) I've known couples like this, who had no qualms about laying into each other in front of friends -- I used to wonder why they stayed together. But none of us really knows what glue holds another couple together. The public and private faces of a relationship are so different – another life truth picked up from Elvis Costello.
Their outcome's still uncertain, of course. The narrator says wearily, "My fuse is running out," but he also recalls tenderly, "You were the spice of life / The gin in my vermouth. " (I love that couplet; I wish someone would write a lyric like that about me.) "Don't think for a moment, dear, that / We'll ever be through," he declares in the last verse, but then relationships never really end, do they? -- we carry the scars forever. "I'll build a bonfire of my dreams and / Burn a broken effigy of me and you." Elvis can work a line of imagery harder than any other songwriter I know, but somehow every new meaning makes sense. I love that effigy on the bonfire, even if is more Guy Fawkes than Fourth of July.
The arrangement's dead simple -- mostly just Elvis's vocal and an acoustic guitar, with a soft string bass and organ in the background for texture. But it's a beautiful melody, with lots of uplifted line endings for Elvis' voice to tremble upon. I love Nick Lowe's cover too (on his Rose of England album) but it's pretty damn hard to improve on Elvis' rendition. Or rather, Declan Patrick Aloysius Macmanus' rendition, because the Irish crooner is out in full force on this number -- sublimely so.
Indoor Fireworks sample