A drive with National Ransom
Elvis Costello remains one of the few artists in which the nation recalls the name, but can’t recount many accomplishments by name, like Norman Mailer or Norman Rockwell or Greg Norman. At least, that’s been my experience — transitory Costello comments.
And that’s when some hip guy wearing a classy colored tattoo will jump in, “You’ve never listened to Elvis Costello. Oh, he’s great.” But my gut tells me that even ardent fans approach Costello similarly to a creperie — you love em’, but rarely go out of your way to get there.
I also suspect the average music-goer, which I admit is extremely subjective, who has heard of Elvis Costello never starts listening to him because they are subconsciously confused about how to approach. In the back of your mind, you know you’re not approaching an album, but a career. And what if you pick the wrong starting point?
But this might be one of those problems we over think, like trying to enter the Lazy River Pool during traffic without upsetting the waters. Eventually, we accept that mistakes will be made, but it’s worth jumping in. I guess that’s how I feel about National Ransom, Costello’s latest album.
On the cover of National Ransom, a wolf in top hat flees the scene of a burning crime with bundles of cash, suggesting that those citizens most responsible for the Great Recession knew their actions were both dishonest and harmful to the foundation of America. For the most part, I do not want to believe the latter — it suggests too much intelligence. But who knows? My frustration is balanced between faulty gambling techniques and a lack of complete understanding. It’s unique cover art nevertheless, and the album, complete with lyrics, is aesthetically pleasing to flip through.
Driving on Missouri Bottom Road through a time warp tunnel of psychedelic November leaves, songs about culture and politics and women burst forth from the stereo. And my interest is women — something I can at least pretend to understand.
In “That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving,” Costello consoles a friend: “He’s not good to you the way he is / He’s beyond forgiving and believing.” Suddenly, I recognize my faults, and how anyone who spoke these sentiments to my previous girlfriends was diagnosing the relationship so blindly but perhaps accurately.
Costello’s voice harmoniously bounces with the acoustic guitar and mandolin on “A Slow Drag with Josephine,” the most beautiful song I’ve participated in, thought with in 2010.
Yes, despite the tumultuous times most of us have inherited, there are still women to miss, long for and apologize to: “I’m sorry for what I might do more than / what I have done.”
And I emerge from the curvaceous circle of paper stars into the flatlands of Earth City, convincing myself that songs cannot change a culture’s response toward golden parachutes, but only inflame attitudes: “They’re running wild / Just like some childish tantrum / Meanwhile we’re working every day / Paying off the National Ransom.” Costello nailed a popular emotion about collapse of our economy. It’s a similar theme unearthed in Joseph Campbell journeys, when the hero, in this case the average citizen, rhetorically asks, “What did I do? Why do I have to suffer? Why me?”
It is certainly possible that I am misreading Costello, like a Wall Street suit erroneously analyzing the market and placing dangerous bets, when I wonder if there is not metaphor about the economy at play when Costello sings about women: “I lost you / You slipped from your costume / Like an actress in this tragedy / You’re just an apparition in a haunting mystery / I fear that you’ve passed over me… / And there’s nothing I can do because / I lost you.”