Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink


Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink
By Elvis Costello
Viking/Penguin – £25.00

Life takes much longer that the average pop song. It is full of wrong choices and inconvenient, abandoned responsibilities. It is much more painful and less easily forgiven.

Whatever way one chooses to look at or consider it, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, is a wildly colourful and at times, more than majestic read. There again, this memoir has been wonderfully written by that of a singular man; none other than the overtly respected and bespectacled singer/songwriter, Elvis Costello.

And what a terrific read it is.

Even at 670 pages, almost all of the book’s thirty-seven chapters are an acutely informative as well as idiosyncratically intriguing collection of varying reads. The sort of which is perhaps best described as that of the most entertaining and revealing of persuasions.

Part of the reason for this lies behind the recent barrage of published hop-along memoirs and biographies, most of which are ill-conceived, docile, tediously flippant and horribly written – this includes Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless, also reviewed on this site. Then again, there’s not many authors who would have the nuance and the intelligence, let alone the inclination, to write: ”Even when songs have their origins in real events or are portraits of actual people, they do not remain in that realm very long, at least not if they are to endure […] I was deliberately using words in a manner that did not always accumulate to literal sense. I reasoned that there could be multiple realities and moral perspectives, tenses and genders all in the same verses, telling myself that if you could do this in painting, then you could do it in song.”

One doesn’t often stumble upon such accuracy or self-reflection of one’s own work, but by one of Costello’s own admissions,: everyday he writes the book. As such, both sound of mind and sound of silence have long since made their indelible mark upon much of the more perplexing proliferation of the writer’s work; tangible areas of which have herein, clearly been given both the time they deserve and inspection they warrant.

The aforementioned quotes with regards the execution of song writing, is further elaborated upon when the author rather philosophically continues:
”How long can a wound remain unhealed?
I might lament my betrayals, shamefaced at the pain they caused, or regard the impetuous acts of my youth with pity or more benevolence, but I don’t think of that brief affair every time I sing ‘Party Girl.’ It is a drama to be visited differently with each performance?Sometimes these songs seem more or less alive to the tragedy or the tenderness of the lyrics. That depends on the moment, the roar of the crowd, the lateness of the hour. The listener might find their own private story in any of these songs or have no deeper curiosity than whether it was track five or six on an album released a lifetime ago.
Would you like a song less or would like a song more if you knew exactly the identity of that ‘Party Girl’ or, for that matter, ‘Alison”’?

The mere fact that such depth of analysis is scattered throughout Unfaithful Music is what partially accounts for this book being such an un-put-downable, refreshing, almost forensic read.

Whether you’re reading about snippets of Costello’s childhood in London and Liverpool, his almost untouchable band, The Attractions (”The difference was that The Attractions could play rings around everybody else. I just had to stand in the middle and sing”), a menagerie of anecdotes that focus on his time spent with such artists as Nick Lowe, Mick Jones, Johnny Cash, T-Bone Burnett or James Burton, the profound influence of his father, or indeed, such revelatory self-introspection as the following: ”It is hard to live with someone who repeatedly hurls himself into the oblivion of alcohol and anger. It’s harder still when that person is you or someone you are pretending to love.”

This really is one of those books that leaves (almost) no stone unturned. That said, one cannot help but feel that a lot has invariably been left out.

What is included mind, is admittedly, a lot to assimilate through. Not to mention digest, understand and ultimately embrace – even if only from that of a lyrical perspective: ”I knew that I could become estranged from all that I held dear: vows I’d made, homes that I had and would soon be broken, trust that I could betray, in hotel rooms in which I merely lodged, rehearsing lies to say. I was only twenty-two when I wrote:

There’s a stranger in the house
Nobody’s seen his face
But everybody says he’s taken my place
There’s a stranger in the house
No one will ever see
But everybody says he looks like me

”I know this world is killing you
My aim is true

To be honest, I wanted to read this book the very day it came out, simply because I (instinctively) knew Elvis Costello, the author, would not disappoint and would without any shadow of any doubt, almost heroically rise to the occasion.

That he absolutely has risen to the occasion and then some, should come as no great surprise. Reason being, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink quintessentially traverses all of the terrain one would expect (and unceremoniously ticks all of the boxes within that expectation).

David Marx


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