May 15, 2006

Cue the Strings

One of the rewards of following an artist for a lifetime—"career" seems too small a word—is that you begin to feel you know the inside of his or her brain. I'm not talking about scary, personal, Mark David Chapman-like identification; nor do I mean quite the same thing as the definition of great literature given by Alan Bennett's History Boys ("The best moments in reading," the teacher Hector tells young Posner, "are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and peculiar to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come and taken yours.") What I'm getting at is an intimate sense of the way they create, of their taste, of the way they hear or see the world, of their voice. That's as true of painters as it is of playwrights. And it's exactly how I've felt about Elvis Costello for as long as I've been a fan of his work: that I could hear him thinking by listening to his music. Or perhaps his music has helped to shape my thinking. In any case, whether on record or live I can often feel where he's going, what his choices are, what he might do with a vocal embellishment or a modulation or a rhyme, in a way I can't with any other artist.

What can go missing from this kind of symbiosis with an artist, though, is the element of surprise. Which is why I've been mostly gratified since Elvis has gone classical, first with the Brodsky Quartet, then with Anna Sofie Von Otter; if pop and jazz can be said to have classical masters, then you'd have to count his collaborations with Burt Bacharach and the Mingus Orchestra. These efforts haven't just freed him from the pop-song verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus format he can write in his sleep; they've liberated him to the point where he's practically created his own genre—the rock 'n' roll art song, you might call it, though that sounds dangerously like Yes or The Who (fine artists in their own rights, but not what I mean). Or perhaps it could be called neo-classical pop from an era that never was.

These were some of my thoughts after seeing him last week with the Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM. I'm not a fan of the suite from his Midsummer ballet, Il Sogno (though I enjoyed it when it actually accompanied the ballet); it seems very much like a student effort, and the Brooklyn Phil didn't muster much enthusiasm for its foursquare pastiche. But the way he used the orchestra on arrangements of his own material, from "God Give Me Strength" to some of the lachrymose love songs from the album North, or on an old standard like "Watching the Detectives," proved invigorating, not least to his own range as a performer. I'm impressed by the degree to which he still gives his all to every lyric. And, with a voice that sounded a bit ragged and strained, it took some stones to step away from the mike for an unamplified rendition of the dark, bittersweet waltz "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," then lead the audience in the song's twisted "la la la" refrain, which spans a major seventh—not exactly "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The pleasure of following a brain like Costello's is that it's big and complicated, and—dare I say it—so is his heart.

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