KEVIN DAVIS: Here is one of the lessons I’ve learned from writing a recurring column dedicated to the music of a single artist: Sometimes the writing spills out effortlessly from a place of enthusiasm, and sometimes it’s a job. Not a job in the sense that it’s some unenjoyable thing you have to grit your teeth and suffer through, but a job in the sense that it’s something to which you have to consciously commit, as the urge to write is often driven by listening habits that have a natural yet unpredictable ebb and flow. Sometimes an artist’s entire catalog will sit untouched on your shelf for months or even years at a time before you feel inspired to revisit it, and then out of nowhere something will flip a switch in your brain and you’ll find yourself unable to listen to anything but that one artist for two straight months. Other artists manage to somehow always find their way into your listening regimen in small doses, regardless of whether you ever find yourself compelled to really immerse yourself in their worlds. And then, of course, artists that are in it for the long haul will no doubt move back and forth between categories throughout the years—sometimes it’s a passionate love affair, sometimes it’s something less fiery but deeper and more mature. It’s all part of the obsessive’s curse: We can’t have it all at once, obviously, but we need to have it all eventually.
This week I’m retracing my steps all the way back to the earliest days of my Elvis Costello fandom
For years, Elvis Costello has been one of those artists that has never been far from my CD player (still and always my preferred method of listening); his is a catalog for all seasons, and no matter what mood I’m in, there’s almost always something in his repertoire that scratches the itch. Yet for some reason, for the past few months, I’ve found him falling into that “on the backburner” category; I’m not sure any of his songs are on either my iPod or my phone at the moment, and except to write this column, it’s been a while since I’ve grabbed one of his discs off the shelf. This certainly is no reflection of the deep love I feel for his music, but rather a simple playing out of standard ebb-and-flow listening habits; things fade out of focus so that when they come around again we can love them like they’re new, all of which is natural and fine. Fine, that is, for the 99.9% of other artists in my collection about whom I haven’t committed to writing an online column. But for that small minority, what this means is that I have to look for new ways into the music, for opportunities to see it if not in a way that I’ve never seen it before, at least as a way that I’m not seeing it now, lest the whole enterprise come crashing to a screeching halt. And so, to do this, not unlike a married couple who revisits the site of their first date in order to rekindle some sense of their roots, this week I’m retracing my steps all the way back through the earliest days of my Elvis Costello fandom.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, my first Elvis Costello album was When I Was Cruel, which I bought on a whim on my nineteenth birthday in the summer of 2002, after various online publications had stamped it with their critics-choice seals and committed some 100,000 words to various incarnations of its “return to rock!” tagline. Since we wrote about this album in our last entry, I’ll skip the story ahead to the next scene: 1996’s All This Useless Beauty. After falling in love with Cruel, I immediately set out for more Costello music, using those same online publications as a shopping tool. As Costello’s catalog was in the process of being reissued by Rhino Records at the time, there were only a handful of his albums that were commercially available. A nascent Pitchfork junkie as many college-age music fans were in the summer of 2002, I read their reviews of all the current reissues and planned my spending spree accordingly, ultimately deciding that I should buy This Year’s Model, which had earned a raving “10.” But by the time I found my way to the record store and got to flipping through the racks, I’d confused the titles in my mind and instead purchased All This Useless Beauty, which had earned a respectful if unenthusiastic “7.” In hindsight, it was something of a happy accident. Not that This Year’s Model isn’t rightly ranked as a classic, but All This Useless Beauty was the perfect foil to When I Was Cruel—gentle, acoustic, and sweet without being saccharine, as opposed to Cruel’s piss and vinegar and digi-noise.
Co-written by Aimee Mann, her influence on the song is palpable
The song that kicks off All This Useless Beauty, “The Other End of the Telescope,” was co-written with Aimee Mann in the early 1990’s, corralled as many of his stray collaborative works from this period were onto this album. Mann’s influence on the track is palpable; its gently swaying melody resembles little else in Costello’s catalog, and there is a touch of vulnerability in the lyrics that seems somewhat at odds with the kinds of psychological defenses Elvis often puts up in songs like these. It’s one of those disarmingly perfect songs whose melody seems like it’s always been there, and whose lyrics are just obscure enough to be interpreted in whatever way the listener needs, yet not so obscure as to be unrelatable. When I first heard this song, it absolutely leapt out of the speakers at me; not that When I Was Cruel is bereft of melody by any stretch of the imagination, but compared to the spitfire wordplay of “Episode of Blonde” and the Dylanesque verse-cramming of “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” the precision and tenderness of “The Other End of the Telescope” really spotlighted the opposite end of this man’s artistic spectrum. As my other big musical obsessions of the day were Dylan, Tom Waits, and Neil Young, this song was the moment where I really got the sense that Costello belonged in that elite pantheon of songwriters who could more or less do anything.
“Telescope” may not have a concrete resemblance to any other song in Costello’s catalog
JORGE FARAH: Coincidentally, When I Was Cruel was also my first Elvis Costello album, which means that both Kevin and I are relatively recent Costello converts. And also like Kevin, All This Useless Beauty was among my first Elvis Costello purchases (not quite the second one—that was Brutal Youth—but probably the third or fourth). I still wonder if making my way through his discography in this scattered, disorganized sort of way, detached from all sense of temporal context, has shaped my overall perception of his body of work. A song like “The Other End of the Telescope” makes perfect sense to me as an Elvis Costello song in a way that may not hold true for someone who first became acquainted with Costello through My Aim is True. It may not have a concrete stylistic resemblance to any one song in his extensive catalog, but the mere fact that Costello would do a song like this—a grand, sweeping pop ballad with a conventionally pretty melody and a huge, soaring chorus—feels perfectly natural and fitting, because it was one of the very first things I ever heard by him. I understood it immediately as a part of Costello’s musical DNA.
Because I missed all the hoopla surrounding All This Useless Beauty being a “collection of songs written for other artists”—and also because I never really bother to read the songwriting credits in the liner notes—I didn’t find out that this song was co-written with the great Aimee Mann until much later. Even today, I can’t perceive it as anything but an Elvis Costello composition, even if, according to Elvis’s own recollection, Mann wrote the actual tune while he contributed lyrics. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally listened to Mann’s own version, from Til Tuesday’s third and final album Everything’s Different Now. Much like the contrast between Elvis’s take on “Do You Know What I’m Saying” from the Gwendolyn Letters demo versus Wendy James’s polished single recording, the side-by-side comparison between these two versions of the same song provide an interesting look at how different interpreters may perceive the same composition; which aspects they choose to highlight or obscure, which turns to take in the vocal melody and instrumentation. The Til Tuesday version of the song is lovely, and features backup vocals from Elvis himself, but it lacks the sense of dynamics of the track that opens All This Useless Beauty. I know exactly what Kevin means when he talks about this song “leaping out of the speakers”; there’s a very deliberate choice in the Attractions arrangement to accentuate the transition between verse and chorus, in playing style and in volume. Meanwhile, Mann’s version is comparably louder and more consistent in the playing throughout.
The Til Tuesday version is also a lot more heavily adorned, employing strings, tambourine, French horn, and layers upon layers of guitar (which, in addition to Elvis’s choice in vocal harmonies and the more pronounced waltz feel of the song, give this version a vaguely Celtic feel that is very much in line with the music Elvis was recording in the late 80s and early 90s). One of the things I love the most about the Attractions version is how bare-bones it is without ever feeling like it’s lacking any punch; how Steve’s keyboards fill out the harmonic space around the vocals more-or-less by themselves, and the guitar barely even feels like it’s there. Elvis himself delivers a powerhouse performance, his vocals featuring prominently in the mix, gliding in and out of the quiet vibrato in the verses to the full-on belt of the chorus, employing every trick in his arsenal and committing to the drama in the song’s lyrics.
This is a song about proportions—how we register things in our own hearts and minds vs. how these things really are
KEVIN DAVIS: Like many Costello songs, a lot of the specific references in these lyrics can be hard to pin down, but the general sentiment of them comes across pretty clearly. As the title alludes to, “The Other End of the Telescope” is a song about proportions—how we register things in our own hearts and minds vs. how these things really are. The song contains repeated references to differences in perspective between the singer and the song’s subject (presumably a romantic interest), and/or differences in the degree of importance we may place on the same thing at two different times: “Words that turned out to be as big as smoke/As smoke disappears in the air”; “I know it don’t make a difference to you/But oh, it sure made a difference to me”; “I don’t want to hurt you now, but I think you’re shrinking”; “I never noticed you could be so small.” Varying perceptions of physical size is a recurring theme in the song, finally tied together by the tangible image of the telescope, a tool whose specific job is to distort an individual’s perception of an object’s actual size. I’ve read interpretations of this song before which suggest that the “other end” makes reference to someone looking through the wrong end of the telescope, such that the object on the other end becomes smaller rather than larger, and indeed some of the language in the song supports this theory. However, the sentiment of the song suggests differently to me; when the singer says, “You’ll see me off in the distance, I hope/At the other end of the telescope,” I’ve always heard this as a sort of wish that the subject of the song remembers the singer with a degree of significance perhaps disproportionate to his actual long-term relevance to her life, as we can safely assume is the case in the reverse (“But oh, it sure made a difference to me”). The remarkable thing about this song is that, for as many details exist throughout the lyrics to support this underlying theme, the fairly complex overarching concept comes across pretty clearly right out of the gate. And when you’re nineteen, finding yourself having deep and bizarre conversations with fascinating, mysterious new people seemingly every time you wander down a new corridor on campus, this song’s notion of short-term chance encounters registering as disproportionately significant feels astute. At that time in my life, I was sure I was having at least half a dozen conversations a week which were way more important to me than they were to the people with whom I was having them.
“The Other End of the Telescope” also features tastefully restrained accompaniment from the Attractions, characteristic of the songs on All This Useless Beauty. Perhaps the song’s most defining flourish to me is Steve Nieve’s comping during the chorus, echoing Costello’s vocal melody (“At the other end…”); the selective placement of melodic fills really makes Beauty a standout album for Nieve across the board, especially for a man who has no problem utterly filling a song to the brim with notes. This is just another of the ways in which All This Useless Beauty was the perfect second Costello album for me; after the grit and distortion, the traditional prettiness of this album ensured that as I went down the long and winding road of this man’s career, I’d be prepared for anything.
“The Other End Of The Telescope” joins the galaxy of songs on our ongoing Elvis Costello Song Of The Week Playlist. Check it out: