Friday, January 10, 2014


"Alison" / Elvis Costello

Might as well get this one out of the way. C'mon, you knew I couldn't leave out my Elvis.
From his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True. After all these years, it's amazing to realize that this guy was this good this early.

The intro's spangly riffs are so disarming  -- on an album full of punchy quasi-punk revved-up tracks, "Alison" is what passes for a slow song.  How casually he starts out: "Oh, it's so funny to be seeing you after so long, girl," as if he's just run into her on the high street, shopping at Marks & Sparks.

But tension immediately rears its head-- "And with the way you look I understand that you are not impressed."  Can't you just see her narrowed eyes, her crossed arms?  There is definitely some history here. And, wouldn't you know, he's got some ammunition ready to shoot back: "Well I heard you let that little friend of mine / Take off your party dress." Elvis turns vicious real fast. Oh, the note of betrayal and jealousy, made specific by that flirty little dress. Do we not see that seduction, replayed every time this song comes on the stereo?  Ladies, do we not feel the dirtiness of the sequined straps sliding off our shoulders, the ominous whzzt of the lowered zipper?

"I'm not going to get too sentimental / Like those other sticky valentines," Elvis declares, high-mindedly, but he didn't need to -- we've already guessed that sentiment is off the table. And with a deft bit of word play, he lands another accusatory jab: "I don't know if you've been loving somebody / I only know it isn't mine." What a ball of emotion there -- jealousy, loneliness, hurt, a little voyeurism maybe. (Soon as he uncouples some and body, I instantly focus on the body part.) And the way the melody hovers uncertainly on "isn't mine" -- heartbreak.

And in verse two, it gets even worse -- because, hello, she's not just sleeping with other people, she's married another guy. Don't be fooled by the conversational cadence as he sings "Well I see you've got a husband now." Casual again, eh? But the next image is almost dadaesque: "Did he leave your pretty fingers lying in the wedding cake?"  (I've never looked at a wedding cake the same way since I first heard this line.) Hear how he punches the consonants with vitriol. "You used to hold him right in your hand," he speculates -- a hand job? -- followed by "I'll bet he took all that he could take." He's torturing himself, imagining their pre-marital hook-ups with salacious curiosity. Did they get married because she was knocked up? Elvis makes us wonder. It would certainly make him feel better to think they were forced into it.

Now here comes my favorite part of the song. Shifting upward in key, he bursts out: "Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking / When I hear the silly things you say." The way he hits that word "stop" -- it's like he's slamming his fist into a wall. (I've seen him sing this in concert and completely stop the song on that word, for a least a minute, while the audience goes wild.) He does want to hurt her; the veneer of civilization is perilously thin. And there's a dangerous undercurrent to that next line, too -- "I think somebody better put out the big light." My mom used to talk about turning off "the big light" in a room, meaning the ceiling light, but I imagine Elvis is threatening something else -- maybe even killing her, putting her out of her misery, "'cause I can't stand to see you this way." (Elvis later wrote a song called "The Big Light," on King of America, in which it means a blaze of sudden comprehension and clarity.) He's a master of using sly metaphors to vent dark emotions without committing them openly. Whatever he meant, that line is indelibly engraved in my mind.

Indirect as it is, there's a story here. I picture Alison as the most normal sort of popular pretty girl -- maybe a little loose (she did succumb to his dress-peeling friend), yet not a slut. And not stuck-up, I'm guessing -- chatty, friendly, nice enough, at any rate, to have given young Elvis a reason to count himself among her "valentines." But did they ever sleep together? I bet not; his jealousy has all the power of unsatisfied lust. And now she has slipped away from him, into a normal pretty girl marriage to a guy who's probably perfectly decent, despite Elvis's petulant insinuations to the contrary.

No, she isn't a mere slut -- if she were, Elvis wouldn't be feeling so hurt. And hurt he is indeed, betraying his vulnerable heart in those tender, yearning, desperately sweet choruses. EC could always play the bespectacled geek card, hoping the girls would mistake his nerdy look for sensitivity. "Alison / I know this world is killing you / Ohhh, Alison / My aim is true." In other words, why didn't you pick me instead? And for just a minute, hearing how earnestly he wails her name, even I am seduced. 

But not so fast, Alison. "My aim is true" -- such a perfect bit of double-speak. (So perfect he took it for the title of the whole album.) Sure, his intention is true-hearted, but he's also a dead-eye sniper of love, and he will take her down.

Poor girl.

1 DOWN, 51 TO GO

1 comment:

NickS said...

Nice place to start. A classic, and a song which is well deserving of a line-by-line reading. It makes me want to listen to My Aim Is True again, and I haven't listened to it in a couple of years. It's notable that, Elvis Costello has had had a long, varied, and productive career and I think his first album is still one of his very best.

It's also a nice place to start, because, honestly, I never thought that much about who Allison was, or what she made of her experience with Elvis Costello. My attention was always on his wordplay and shifting emotions and she seems like just somebody who happens to have been caught in line of fire (so to speak).

So, as a opener, nice to take this opportunity to ask, "who is the woman that this song is about?"

I've been thinking about your rule that the song, "has to tell us something about her, not just mentioning her name while really being about the singer of the song." I think it's good to not be too strict about that one. Because even though the song doesn't say much about her directly, me do know something about her just from the fact that she has this relationship, whatever it is.

1 DOWN, 51 TO GO

I'm excited. So what have we learned so far? At the very least the the women will not always be treated well in these songs. That's not a surprise, but worth noting up front.

It also a classic. When I was thinking of songs, I found myself thinking about names that required no additional explanation ("Suzanne", "Jolene", "Billy Jean", "Bobby McGee") and "Allison" was one that came to mind.