From 1994's Brutal Youth — one of the many albums I missed in my apostate years when I wasn't paying attention to Elvis Costello.
Mea culpa, mea culpa.
Somewhere in Elvis's UNINDEXED autobiography/memoir/apologia Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (yes, I am that geek who's read all 672 pages) I seem to recall that he explains that this song was inspired by a visit to a ritzy resort with his then-wife Cait O'Riordan. I could spend an hour or so looking it up, but why? The song stands as it is — and as it is, it's a Dante-esque vision of our modern inferno.
Despite the crunchy dissonance at the beginning, this is a seductively sprightly track, with twinkly splashes of piano and perky tom-toms. "This is hell, this is hell I am sorry to tell you / Never gets better or worse / But you'll get used to it after a spell / For heaven is hell in reverse." But whoever said the devil wasn't an upbeat con man?
We start out in a nightclub, with pouting barmen and a flickering neon sign. At one end of the bar, there's a "failed Don Juan in the big bow-tie" making leering advances; at the other end, our protagonist is making an equal fool of himself: "The shirt you wore with courage and the violet nylon suit / Reappear upon your back and undermine the polished line you try to shoot."
Well, I'm that EngLit bore who has read Milton and Dante and C.S, Lewis — and I have to say, EC's vision of Hell is totally in line with the EngLit view of things. Wherein Hell is not just Technicolor flames and physical torments, but also the crippling moments of self doubt — or, as Elvis puts it, "It's the small humiliations that your memory piles up."
And it can happen even in what seems like paradise: "Endless balmy breezes, perfect sunsets framed / Vintage wine for breakfast and naked starlets floating in Champagne," (Yes, now I see the resort in this song.) But if something's missing inside you — in this case, if "the passions of your youth are tranquilized and tamed" — then even paradise can feel like Hell.
The line that's lodged in my brain on an endless loop? This brilliant couplet: "My Favorite Things is playing again and again / But it's by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane." I'm flashing to the great 1967 Stanley Donen film Bedazzled (please, forget the 2000 remake), where the darkly brilliant Peter Cook plays the Devil, and whenever things go rogue, what's his safe word? Julie Andrews!
You can't tell me that my man Elvis hasn't seen that film. I know he has. Just as I know he is intimately familiar with Coltrane's track.
So what are your favorite things? Elvis is asking you to choose. What's heaven for you, and what is hell?
And knowing that you may have to live with your choice for at least four years...