Sunday, December 13, 2015

Every Day I Write the Book

I’m not as big an Elvis Costello fan as I thought I was.
Mind you, I’ve always had tremendous respect for Elvis Costello as a songwriter. I’ve always thought of him as the Woody Allen of pop music—only more prolific.
But I’ve just finished reading Costello’s exhaustive (and poorly named) autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, and the result is somewhat anticlimactic.
I followed Costello’s career pretty closely through his Columbia years (and even then it was hard to keep up with his prodigious output), but then I kind of lost track of him.
He turned up again on my cultural radar a few years ago when he did an excellent talk show on the Sundance Channel called Spectacle.
Even now, I’m only scratching the surface of his accomplishments, because he also did a number of collaborative albums with other musicians, some acting work and some writing (including, obviously, this book).
All of this is covered in minute detail in Unfaithful Music, but, if you’re not a super-dedicated Costello fan, chances are you’ll be lost after the first few chapters.
The focus of the book is clearly Costello’s music rather than his personal life, which is fine with me. The most significant relationship in the book seems to be the one between Costello and his father, who was also a musician. The most touching scenes depict his father’s battle with (and eventual death from) Alzheimer’s. (By contrast, his 18-year marriage to The Pogues’ Cait O’Riordan is dismissed in a few short paragraphs.)
Musically, the biggest revelation in the book is probably how the piano part for “Oliver’s Army” was influenced by a similar piano part in Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” (Years later, he runs into Abba’s Benny and Bjorn quietly eating dinner in a Swedish café, one of many unlikely musical encounters that happen throughout the book.)
Given his enormous output, what this book really could have used is a discography. (Thank God for Wikipedia!) It also could have used some editing—or at least focus. It jumps around a lot. And, as another reviewer pointed out, if you don’t know the music, the lyrics—which are quoted extensively—tend to lose some of their power.
Unfaithful Music may be faithful to Costello’s music, but it leaves something to be desired as an autobiography.

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