Friday, March 4, 2022

Here comes Mr. Misery

Sometimes perversity wins out. I've been listening a lot lately to "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" from Elvis Costello and The Attractions' 1986 album Blood And Chocolate, a song I was fairly obsessed with when the album came out, and one which is still tactile and graphic to me in its ugliness—and I mean that was a supreme compliment. Blood and Chocolate is a famously difficult album to love; released in the same calendar year as the breakthrough King of America, it features stormy songs swiftly banged together on Costello's "clanky" 1930s' Gibson Century acoustic guitar, tunes that were uncomfortable, irksome, in a spiteful mood. Band members, particularly Costello and bassist Bruce Thomas, were mired in a tense and unhappy period, and producer Nick Lowe took advantage of this by suggesting the group set up up their live monitor system and blast away in one cavernous studio (Olympic, in London) at stage volume, cutting the songs live in as few takes as possible and with minimal overdubs. Allegedly he wanted to get the whole thing over before the band killed each other. In his 2002 liner notes for the album's reissue, Costello put it succinctly: "This is a record of people beating and twanging things with a fair amount of yelling." 

I loved, and love, the album for the visceral ways it cuts when you listen, its unpleasant odors. I was going through intense bouts of depression, girl trouble, general, unfathomable ennui when the record came out, and something in the grossness of "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" spoke to me, soundtracked my own lousiness and my obnoxious insistence on suffering with it. The song, as is typical with Costello, went through a couple of variations before arriving at the morose, self-deprecating version on
Blood and Chocolate. "The music had started out as a bright pop melody," Costello wrote for the 1995 reissue, "but [in the studio] I placed it in an almost impossibly low register which made me sound as if I was either seething or gasping for breath." Method Singing, he called it. Perfect. (I've always imagined the earlier "bright" arrangement as sounding something like the jaunty "Fish 'N' Chip Paper" from 1981's Trust.) Costello describes the song as "tale of a man driven mad by love." Mr. Misery, an ID I pathetically adopted at the time, is "contemplating murder again," so "he must be in love." In many ways the singing persona is common to many Costello tunes: he's bitter, abandoned, obsessed, seething at it all, mean-spirited. The heartbroken guy who's had too much to drink and who's now alone in his room, with nothing around to keep his demons at bay. Home isn't where it used to be....

Yet what truly drags this song down is Costello's perverse vocal, the aural equivalent of the stench coming off of a loser. He commits fully to his "method singing," bringing to life a man you don't want to spend time with, whose woefulness is a grim reminder of just how low we're all capable of getting emotionally. The arrangement is so agonizingly slow it feels as if the song's going backwards, or is at least stuck, the musicians almost visibly struggling with the inertia (even Pete Thomas's muscular drumming can't push through), and now we're stuck too, with the misery and the miserable man, in a room with the door locked. The melody ascends and descends forlornly, yet the song's darkly funny—from the title phrase to the generally derisive tone to lines like "You're tired of talking and you can't drink it down / So you hang around and drown instead," but the jokes are at the man's expense, all the more uncomfortable for that. Costello, characteristically moving in his lyrics from commentary to direct address and back again, is knowing: he's acting here, practically onstage, singing with his eyes glinting and his mouth corners imperceptibly raised, aware of how obnoxious and off-putting the man in the song is being. Listening, I remembered two great lines from Costello's 2014 autobiography Unfinished Music & Disappearing Ink. He's considering the autobiographical impulse in his songs:
I changed every “I” to “we,” so as to share the blame that was entirely my own, and then changed “I” to “he” to further cover my tracks. 
For all the appearances that these songs were a diary or a confession, I’d say that real life was much more harrowing and happens in slower motion than its dramatized form in song.
Knowing that Costello's first marriage crumbled in acrimony only a couple years before he wrote this song, I wonder at how knife-edge of all of this must've felt for him. He's singing in the third person, but the persona he conjures and mercilessly mocks is so vivid and absurdly melancholy that you feel you're in his skin. Who's mocking whom? Form and content, that eternal marriage. The whole thing just drones.

The last verse is devastating in its dry dismissal of the man and his problems, which are so darkly urgent to him:
The day ended as it began
He was seconds older than the man he was this morning
And the world has wiped its mouth since then
Or maybe it was yawning
In his liner notes Costello tips the hat to Bruce Thomas, praising his "fine bass playing" ("as accordions and spoons fly past his window") during the closing minute of the song, a mock-dramatic coda that's indifferent to the singer's anguish, the song gradually pulling wide until it unmoors a universal truth: sometimes our ugliest side is our most authentic side, and sometimes the ugliness sticks around.

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