Elvis Costello is a wonderful short story writer; he just happens to do it in song. We can't always assume he's being autobiographical — sometimes he just has a set of characters in mind and wants to tell their story (I call this "the Randy Newman defense"). And if along the way, a little of Elvis' personal experience works its way in, well that's just an occupational hazard.
"Long Honeymoon," from 1982's Imperial Bedroom, shows Elvis straining at the boundaries of the rock 'n' roll genre. (A boundary that the Rolling Stones, for example, never seem to find constricting — which is why I listen to so much more of Elvis Costello than the Rolling Stones.) At the time, he says, he was listening to Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra records, not rock music; he also had recently begun composing on piano instead of guitar, which just may account for the blossoming of his melodic gift.
The story's almost soap opera — a young wife waiting anxiously for her new husband to come home. But given the cabaret-style arrangement, with Steve Nieve's cocktail-lounge piano and movie-music accordion (Elvis's suspenseful guitar line is pure Twilight Zone), we're clearly going for character development over plot. The phone rings, jangling her nerves; her imagination runs riot, picturing him out on a date, recalling lurid news stories about break-in murders. Doubt and paranoia set in, and even though it's in third person from the woman's point of view, Elvis doesn't just play the narrator — he apes a female wail of hysteria pretty convincingly. His voice trembles, oozing sympathy for the poor thing.
"Little things just seem to undermine her / Confidence in him" — we've all been there. But who knew that Elvis Costello, of all people, would understand how fear mushrooms in a woman's mind when she's alone late at night? "Who can she turn to / When the chance of coincidence is slim? / 'Cause the baby isn't old enough to speak..." Oh, jeez, there's a baby now too — how shrewd of him to let that detail wander into the picture only now. I can't help but think of Elvis's own young wife, waiting home with their baby boy while he was out leading the life of a newly discovered rock star. I'm dying to know if Elvis was thinking of that when he wrote this.
When I say it's a short story, it's more Raymond Carver than John Updike — a single epiphanal scene, rather than a laid-out plot. The phrase "long honeymoon" should sound happy, like extended bliss, but this is really about the sickening moment of realization that The Honeymoon Is Over. When the song ends, the husband still hasn't come home, but we know everything about their marriage — more than we want to know, actually ("he was late this time last week..." — and by the way, why ISN'T her best friend answering her phone either?). Those melodramatic instrumental accents, the serpentine melodic lines, Elvis's woeful vocal stylings, all make me dread the worst. Somehow, I don't want to know how this story ends.