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This week’s pick: “All This Useless Beauty,” released on All This Useless Beauty (1996)
“Nonsense prevails, modesty fails / Grace and virtue turn into stupidity”
It’s surprising these downbeat lines are crucial in a song that concludes what I like to call “our beauty trilogy” of the last few weeks.
I ruled this out from Song of the Week early on because I’ve always considered it one of Costello’s later greatest hits—in a league with “God Give Me Strength.” It makes a regular appearances in his live sets (especially the solo and orchestral shows); it’s the title of one of his best albums; and it’s even been covered. Yet every time I do a straw poll among fans who know more than just the hits, I get blank stares. It’s just as underexposed as anything we feature here. That it instantly impresses anyone who hears it doesn’t mean it doesn’t need our help.
Over the last few weeks we’ve featured songs that take on faded glory or fantasy projection as they celebrate a physical object, a place, or even an an idea. “All This Useless Beauty” takes a look at the downside—real life so poorly measuring up to unrealistic ideals, the difference between a romantic and elevated idea, and the disappointment and degradation that often result when that distance just can’t be reconciled.
If you don’t pay attention to the words (and they’re kind of hard to miss, at least by the time the title refrain hits) you might be taken in by the song’s actual beauty: the cascading piano lines that wouldn’t be out of place in a solo classical recital, juxtaposed against a waltz cadence with magnificent crescendos. But don’t let that fool you into missing the difference between what you’re hearing and what this is really about—the great love songs that have led so many into bad relationships based in false expectations, the glamorous period pieces that never made you look beyond the costumes and art direction to the downside of real life, the realization that the very things we seek in art to elevate us are the same things that, if taken to extreme, can turn on you.
You’ll never visit a museum in the quite the same way ever again.
David Gorman: This is a beautiful song. It’d be easy to chalk that up to the recording—the lovely piano lines, the gently supportive rhythm section that knows when to disappear and when to step in to drive a point home, the minimalist strings and woodwinds that weave around an organ that keeps things just eerie enough, and then these gorgeous little melodies buried deep in the mix that justify any amount of money spent on a pair of great headphones. It’s the kind of song that makes me wish I knew more about classical music because I know these thrills abound in that intimidating, chisled-in-marble repertoire. Elvis has name-dropped Schubert and has made more overtly classical records than this, but this is where I was truly awestruck—where I finally heard his connection to classical music as something intuitive and thrilling.
But “All This Useless Beauty” is more than a studio success. Over the years, I’ve heard Elvis perform this song stripped back to just him and his guitar, as a duet with his pianist, with The Attractions, and recently with a full orchestra. Each version holds up and proves the mettle of the song at its core. It’s a melody to get lost in, whether it’s being hummed alone or artfully embellished by the finest orchestras in the world.
And those lyrics. It’s not that I don’t care about song lyrics and it’s not that I don’t regularly connect deeply with them, but it’s rare that I think about them as literature. Hell, I typically cringe at the preciousness and pretension of songwriters whose lyrics are praised for being just that. But I heard these and I wanted to read them on a page, think about them, talk about them like poetry. Maybe it was the references to ancient art (I’ve long been obsessed with Greek and Roman art and mythology) that sucked me in. The way it was all used to set up the everyday defeat of how we feel when we wake up to the realities of a failed relationship delivered that rush of sad-bastard melancholic empathy that had driven my record collection all along.
There are quotable lines that stand on their own (I can’t think of a better description of our current political aristocracy than “our leaders have feasts on the backsides of beasts, they still think they’re the gods of antiquity”) but “All This Useless Beauty” is so much more than the sum of those parts. It’s words, music, production and musicianship at the level of the highest art. If you could hang a song in a museum to be marveled at, considered, dissected and enshrined, it would sit beautifully beside those paintings on the gallery wall Elvis sings about.
There’s a lot of beauty in our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist, but we don’t consider any of it useless.