Song of the Day #4,981: ‘The Difference’ – Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello released a new album a few weeks ago, and I still haven’t listened to it all the way through.

There’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever write.

Once upon a time, a new Elvis Costello album was a major event in my life, like a Christmas day that happened every three or four years. But somewhere along the line, I stopped getting excited about Costello’s new music.

Actually, it’s been even longer than I thought. While I have listened to and enjoyed much of Costello’s output over the past two decades, 2002’s When I Was Cruel is the last Costello release I gobbled up and obsessed over the way I did his earlier albums.

I wonder if that’s about him or me. 2002 happens to be the year my first daughter arrived, so maybe my priorities shifted? However, I’ve obsessed over many a non-Costello album since then, so it’s not as if fatherhood diminished my appreciation for new music altogether.

Costello has released nearly 40 albums and is now 67 years old. I know all but a couple of his first 17 records by heart, and count several of them among my favorite albums by anybody.

But the more than half of his catalog that has come after 2002 doesn’t measure up to those early releases, at least not for me. I can point to gems in there, to be sure, but nothing that stirs me the way Get Happy!!, King of America or Imperial Bedroom still do.

I like what I’ve heard of the new album, A Boy Called If, but too often its songs remind me of earlier, better Elvis Costello songs. I applaud his desire to keep creating, and he still sounds great, but I think I have to accept that — at least when it comes to his new releases — I’ve moved from devoted to casual fan.

[Verse 1]
I pulled a petal from the flower to tell just where my fortune fell
About a boy beyond my caution before I lay beneath his spell

And he said, “Do you know, do you know
Do you by chance know wrong from right?
“Do you know, do you know, do you know
What turns pleasure to plight?
If you trust me, I know it may seem strange
I’ll show you the way down into the underworld”

[Verse 2]
I did just what he asked me to
Lifted my skirt to show him my shoe
Upon a reel of the finest fiddlehead
Light as the dance around Milady’s bed
The steps came faster at his insistence
Till he showed me all about the difference

“It’s not about the things I promised
It’s not about the vow we broke
If I am faithless or dishonest
It’s just the gaze that you provoke”

And he said, “Do you know, do you know
Do you by chance know wrong from right?
Do you know, do you know, do you know
What turns pleasure to plight?
If you kiss me, at first it may seem strange
I’ll show you the way into another world”

[Verse 3]
My father shamed me just like you
Buried my name in a glass or two
Till he came to me in his darkest house
He mistook me, took me for his spouse
And my cries for a woman in the distance
So I took this knife to show him the difference

Till he came to me in his darkest house
He mistook me, took me for his spouse
And my cries for the woman in the distance
So I used this knife to show him the difference

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,981: ‘The Difference’ – Elvis Costello

  1. Joey Jones says:

    Elvis Costello is very clever and can write moving songs (like Shipbuilding), but most of his arrangements or melodies do little for me.

    One big exception is I Almost Had A Weakness. He managed to make the most of the string quartet.

  2. Dana Gallup says:

    I have similar feelings as you do toward Costello’s 21st century output. However, at least for me, that lack of passionate fandom goes beyond Costello to a number of favorite artists who have continued to steadily put out new albums including Paul Simon, Elton John, Sting and Springsteen. Artists that put out new material less often, such as Ben Folds, Lyle Lovett and Randy Newman, fare better as their new releases feel more rare and vital.

    As we recently saw Billy Joel in concert, who hasn’t released new music in decades and has committed not to doing so, the thought occurred to me that he probably had the right idea. I suspect had he continued to release new albums every few years, none would likely measure up to his greatest work and I would similarly lose interest.

    I’m curious by the way whether you have similar feelings about Bob Dylan, who, at least in my opinion, has not put out new music comparable to his greatest work in decades.

    • Clay says:

      I, too, feel similarly about the late-career output of a lot of artists. And I had the same thought about Billy Joel, who is enjoying a lucrative touring schedule with no pressure to play anything but the classics.

      The last Bob Dylan album I really loved was 2006’s Modern Times. 2009’s Together Through Life also spent a fair amount of time in my album rotation.

      Since then, he has mostly focused on covers albums, and the two albums or original material he released didn’t do much for me.

      • Amy says:

        They’re classics for a reason, aren’t they? With so much music in the world, I simply don’t have the time or interest to hear more than a couple dozen songs by any single artist. I don’t fault a songwriter for feeling compelled to continue making music, but I do have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Billy Joel who sings, “these are the last words I’ll ever write” and means it, or the show runner who insists on ending a lucrative series when the time is right for the story, not the network. There’s also something to be said for introducing and supporting the up and coming talent, so perhaps any new music from an older artist should be collaborations with those fresh voices.

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