Monday, July 27, 2009

"How Deep Is The Red" / Elvis Costello

Of course I like Elvis Costello's new album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. You should know by now, I've adored Costello for over 30 years; he's HUGE in my personal rock pantheon, maybe one of my Top 5. Despite his many strange digressions (I can't say I listen to The Juliet Letters very often, or that album with Anna-Sophie Mutter), something about his oddly-textured voice and his snarky wit and his surprising melodies has always perfectly met my music-listening requirements.

I saw Elvis sing a few tunes from this album at a dress rehearsal for Prairie Home Companion a couple months ago, and I knew instantly I'd like it. I so dig it when Elvis gives into his love of American country music -- King of America has always been one of my favorite EC albums -- and here he's going even more old-school, with bluegrass fiddles and Dobros and finger-pickin' banjos straight out of O Brother Where Art Thou?

I reckon some anonymous poster's gonna come on here and bitch and moan about how lazy Elvis has become -- he just banged out this album in 3 days, sitting around a Nashville studio with T-Bone Burnett and a bunch of topnotch session men. He co-wrote a couple of new tunes, 2 with T-Bone ("Sulphur to Sugarcane" and "The Crooked Line") and one with Loretta Lynn ("I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came"). (Wish I coulda fly-on-the-walled that songwriting session.) He recycled a couple of songs he wrote for Johnny Cash, "Hidden Shame" and "Complicated Shadows," the latter of which he'd already used on All This Useless Beauty. He covered an old Bing Crosby chestnut, "Changing Partners," and then threw in 4 songs he wrote for a yet-unfinished opera about (get this) Hans Christian Andersen, commissioned by the Royal Danish Opera. That means that Elvis himself only penned 3 new songs for this LP. You could say he's like a grocer with his finger on the scale, shorting his customers with every sale.

But you've got to remember, Elvis is a graduate of the old Nick Lowe
"Bash it out now and tart it up later"school of recording -- and he seems to be getting back to those roots lately. His previous album, Momofuku, was another of these sit-down-and-crank-it-out all-at-one-go efforts, and though it's uneven, there's pure creative joy running all through that record. Elvis is too prolific for his own good -- I wish I could do one of those Young Frankenstein brain drains with him and Nick Lowe, exchange a little of Nick's scrupulous self-editing for Elvis's willingness to throw anything against the wall and see what sticks. But EC's boundless energy, confidence, and enthusiasm are a wonderful antidote to the cautious, premeditated, over-produced major-label crap being pushed at us these days.

After a day or so of listening to this album, the track that's haunting me is one of the songs cribbed from the Andersen opera, "How Deep Is the Red." From Elvis' cryptic notations, I'm guessing this song is supposed to be a hymn sung by Andersen's love interest, the famed Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. The way Elvis & Co. perform it here, though, it's anything but hymn-like.

The deliberately archaic lyrics remind me of something Colin Meloy might have written for the Decemberists: "Is this not a pretty tale? / Is this not a riddle? / A bow shoots arrows through the air / A bow drags notes from a fiddle." Well, that play on words is distinctly Elvis, I guess -- the man cannot pass up a pun. In tried-and-true folk ballad style, Elvis goes on to describe various red objects -- a soldier's tunic, a rose's thorn, and the blood of Christ. I suppose that's the bit that would make it a hymn, though Elvis, with his Catholic upbringing, often gets hung up on religious imagery. "How deep is the red our redeemer bled, the debt of our sins to settle?" -- I can see the gory blood streaming from a crucifix right now.

On the surface, this song's not even ironic -- maybe in the opera, it's meant to be a straightforward hymn. But Elvis gives it a dark spin by using a minor key, and adds a mournful fiddle and Dobro to his fiercely strummed acoustic guitar. The melody is peppered with octave drops that almost seem shivers of woe. Over and over, in a drawn-out coda, he keeps questioning, "How deep is the red?" His "pretty tale" feels damn bleak, with all those soldiers and pricking thorns and suffering Saviours. It's more a crisis of faith, or a vision of endless sorrow. And at the end, as he softly reiterates the first verse, he slows it to an ominous tempo, his voice punching "deep" hard before dropping sorrowfully to "is the red."

So why is this song sticking in my head? Dunno, it just is. It's haunting me, in fact. The passion, the dumb hurt throbbing through it -- they have nothing to do with the lyrics and everything to do with the performance. So who cares whether Elvis wrote new songs or not?

How Deep Is the Red sample

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