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KEVIN DAVIS: “A Voice in the Dark” is arguably my favorite Elvis Costello song of the last fifteen years, but it’s hard to know where to begin talking about it. It’s a song so thick with lyrical dexterity, harmonic sophistication, and sheer interpretive prowess that any avenue of analysis almost feels destined to sell short a litany of highlights in an entirely different category. So I’ll start here instead: I can’t believe National Ransom has been out for six years. I still think of it as “Elvis Costello’s new album,” in a sense (placing Wise Up Ghost in a sort of parallel oeuvre all its own), yet when I listen to it (which is often), I am consistently struck by how canonical it’s managed to become—how the songs have managed to lodge themselves in my head so permanently, not just as complete works but as multi-faceted, nuanced pieces of sonic composition, such that I find myself looking forward to little hiccups in the timbre of Elvis’s voice, to presumably organic moments of collision between different parts of certain songs . . . things like that. Even more so than many other Elvis records, I’d say, National Ransom is a very thoroughly “packed” album; very few songs serve solitary purposes, or only strive to achieve one end. They’re all lyrical tour-de-forces; they all contain distinctly erudite melodic and harmonic sequences; they all deeply engage Elvis as an interpreter of words, not just as a lyricist but as a purveyor of lexical sound. And “A Voice in the Dark” is the culmination of all of it—the final moment in which all of these deep, urbane songs arrive at an apex greater than any one of them to that point, a song where every note is a story, where every melodic cadence is singular and surprising unto itself, where every silly pun and one-liner feels weirdly profound in its own way.
This is, of course, a paragraph’s worth of analysis for about six seconds’ worth of music.
Take my personal favorite moment in the song: In the penultimate verse, Costello utters this line: “There’ll be pirouettes and startling handstands/But who but acrobats know how to tell the truth?” Apart from being able to pinpoint some general circus imagery, I’m not really sure what Costello’s on about here, yet I rewind this part of the song to hear that line time and time again: “But who but acrobats know how to tell the truth?” Something interesting happens in this line, phonetically; the first four syllables (“But who but ah”), isolated in their emphasis, sound not like the words they represent, but instead like an instance scat singing (“ba-doo ba-dah”), like Tom Waits at the end of “Jitterbug Boy,” a rhetorical device that brilliantly echoes the New Orleans chamber jazz aesthetic of the arrangement, as well as the wordless vocals in the beginning of the song. Similarly, the last part of the line (“to tell the truth”) trails off in a lower register than the remainder of the line, as if a parenthetical aside, in a melodic pattern that has no clear mirror elsewhere in the song. And yet, the technique makes all the sense in the world when you actually look at how the meaning of the phrase changes when you excise the clause in question (“There’ll be pirouettes and startling handstands/But who but acrobats know how?”); this is, in fact, the more logical reading of the phrase, yet the wordplay wins out. All the language in this song is transient; what the words mean in fits and starts is different than what they mean in full, and trying to discern what they all mean together trivializes the aesthetic pleasure of the exercise. It’s Costello as Lewis Carroll. Or “Elvis in Wonderland,” if you will.
This is a masterful piece of songwriting and performance art
This is, of course, a paragraph’s worth of analysis for about six seconds’ worth of music. But it’s not an attempt to overcomplicate the song; it’s simply an illustration that the song resonates on a gut level precisely because there are such sophisticated elements at play in its composition, because there’s such a relationship between the music in the lyrics and the lyricism in the music. Watching a video of Elvis playing the song live on BBC Radio shortly after the album’s release, one is able to watch him run effortlessly through a complex chord sequence that feels even more effortless so when incorporated into the more fully realized studio arrangement, but that understated harmonic density gives the song so much of its flavor – the jazzy, dissonant chords behind the heavily syncopated “transition phrases” (“just ask your nieces and your daughters,” “if your rent money is in arrears”), the choice to so often settle not on the relative minor but the interval’s corresponding seventh chord, multiple verses that all follow slightly different structural templates – they all add up to a song that feels slightly off-kilter, somewhat volatile and unpredictable, but with a series of beautiful, inevitable resolutions. Indeed, every time Costello brings it home on that “listen for a voice in the dark” refrain, it seems to somehow bind all of those musical and lyrical quirks up into a neatly wrapped package with a symmetrically flawless bow right in the center, just as the song itself does to the remainder of the songs on the record. A masterful piece of songwriting and performance art.
This is a literal showstopper that would be right at home on a grand Broadway production
JORGE FARAH: I’ll start off by echoing Kevin’s comments about National Ransom; both in my sheer admiration for it as a sprawling, ambitious collection of top-tier songs, and also in the fact that it still very much feels like “the new Elvis Costello album” even though it’s been out for roughly the same amount of time it took Elvis to record the first seven records of his career. I also think of it as a sort of culmination of the path he started with his first album with The Imposters, The Delivery Man; an exploration of the music and history of the American south, combining soul, blues, folk, country-western and, this time around, also incorporating an element of vaudeville. At sixteen tracks, it is a somewhat unwieldy album, but a thoroughly satisfying one nonetheless. As Kevin has eloquently described, “A Voice in the Dark” is one of its absolute highlights, and one of Elvis’s most impressive pieces of songwriting overall; a literal showstopper that would be right at home on a grand Broadway production, recalling at once Irving Berlin’s “It’s a Lovely Day Today” and Arthur Johnston’s “Pennies From Heaven” (which was often used during live performances as an extended intro), yet feeling vital and fresh.
I’m at a weird place in my music listening where I still romanticize songs as these magical, inexplicable, almost otherworldly things, but am also aware enough of the craft of songwriting to hear the effort, the choices, the work that goes into every piece of music. So while I have all these fanciful, romantic notions of how songs sprung into being, I still find myself nit-picking and over-analyzing the results as the engineered collection of sounds I know them to be. For example: I have this mental image of a young Brian Wilson sitting by a record player, waiting patiently for that half-second-long favorite bar in each song — the point at which the harmonies were sweetest– and resolving to one day write an entire album made up entirely those moments. I also imagine this ridiculous scenario where Kevin Shields awakes from a long night of dreaming of ethereal whale sounds, then walks over to his mess of amps and churns out the main guitar line to “Soon” in an effort to transcribe the half-remembered dream to music. But I can’t listen to Pet Sounds or Loveless, wonderful as they are, without noticing the architecture of the songs, and occasionally wondering why they left that hanging bar at the end of the third verse, or why they didn’t jump into the chorus quicker, or whether they couldn’t have come up with a better rhyme for the word “shoulder”. One thing that struck me immediately upon listening to “A Voice in the Dark” was that I wasn’t asking myself any of those questions. In fact, it all sounded so incredibly effortless that it almost felt like Elvis was working as a vessel to deliver this fully realized piece of work from some other plane of existence. Every note, every lyric, every rhyme feel like they belong together very naturally, absent of any indication of strain or artifice; no clumsy wording to fill a meter, no awkward turn of phrase or melody. It’s a free-flowing tumble of alliteration, syncopation, wordplay and unforced rhyme against one of the most sophisticated pieces of music Elvis has ever written. And it sounds so good.
“A Voice in the Dark” is not just a highlight of Elvis’s later output, but of his career overall
Beyond the sheer strength of the songwriting, I count three main reasons why the studio track is such a pleasure to listen to: the instrumental performances, delivered with aplomb by the string-band collective The Sugarcanes (enhanced by Jeff Taylor’s grand piano), filling out the soundscape with a very jazzy approach to collective improvisation, accompanying the main melody with elegant playfulness; T. Bone Burnett’s production, which pans the various instruments out discretely and allows for their individual performances to breathe and lock together when needed; and Elvis’s exuberant vocal delivery, which exhibits both a remarkable vocal control and a devil-may-care looseness that not only befits the song’s tone and subject matter, but also the era of music that it harkens back to. This is a political song, yes, and the tone is overall fairly bleak, but there’s such a full-hearted “we’re all in this mess together” sort of gallows-humor feel to the music and Elvis’s singing that the song never sinks into depths of self-pity or despair; instead, one almost imagines Elvis as Slim Pickens, straddling the bomb like a rodeo bull as he rides it into oblivion.
There are well-written songs, and there are particularly well-written verses within them, but above that is something that comes close to miraculous—an excellence so self-assured that it reaches a generosity of skill, which is generous with and within itself. “A Voice in the Dark” is not just a highlight of Elvis’s later output, but of his career overall; the fact that he’s still managing to put out songs of this caliber after more than 25 albums is truly staggering.