Elvis Costello has received a high proportion of my musical attention so far this year. One of the ensuing posts has accounted for a high proportion of this blog’s recent traffic.
I’ve read a couple of books on Costello. This post is about them, and about writing about music, and about writing about books. The first book is Elvis Costello – God’s Comic: A Critical Companion To His Lyrics & Music by David Gouldstone. It’s an update of the same author’s A Man Out of Time. The main difference is that God’s Comic has a chapter on the 1989 album Spike.
Although I enjoyed the extra chapter, and agree with Gouldstone that Spike is among Costello’s best albums, I think that A Man Out of Time is a more coherent book, focusing as it does on Costello’s first decade. The inclusion of good material that reduces the coherence of the whole is appropriate in a book about Costello, especially when the material relates to the sprawl that is Spike.
Writing about music is notoriously difficult. The music blog Dancing About Architecture quotes Costello himself as stating that: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture… it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” Let’s not get into tracing the history of that quote, otherwise we’ll never get back to the books.
I think that Gouldstone does a pretty good job in giving his take on Costello’s music and, especially, lyrics, without claiming that his are the last words or the only right words. The writing in God’s Comic is analytical without being heavy.
In that, it contrasts with the writing of the second book: Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, and the Torch Song Tradition. Consider the following sentence.
He [Costello] readily models existing musical, literary, or cinematic techniques in service of his songs, and in so doing, enhances his lifework’s sonic diversity.
I couldn’t get through even the part of the book on Costello, let alone the rest of it (even though Joni Mitchell also interests me).
At this point, I think that I should bump the thoughts on reviewing books into its own post, and close by remarking that I have high hopes for another book on Costello. It’s Graeme Thomson’s Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello, which will probably be part of my next Amazon order.