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Presley vs Costello - Advantage, Elvis

Posted by Al Barger on January 05, 2005 02:34 AM (See all posts by Al Barger)

Elvis is king. Everyone knows that. The question, of course, is which one- Presley or Costello?

With due respect to Elvis the First, if your criteria for picking the king are based on technical artistic achievement, Elvis Costello totally rules. For starters, Costello rates as one of the dozen or so best songwriters in the rock music tradition, where Presley wasn't a songwriter at all.

Given that, though, there's still something missing. Costello's great, but somehow isn't quite Elvis. What exactly did Presley have on Costello? You could also think of this as a way of exploring Costello's artistic limitations.

I've got a few ideas on that. I've been listening to an all-Elvis music mix. It's rather instructive to hear the two bouncing off one another. I picked up several points of dominance for Presley.

First of all, Elvis Presley had a really rare animal magnetism. By this I do not mean simply sex appeal. He drew heterosexual men in with that dynamic force about as strongly as women. I don't know how to analyze this magnetism, how to break it down. I don't know that it would do any good. The other obvious example of this in his generation was Marlon Brando.

This magnetism may be more a gift from God than the result of any study or work, but it sure comes through. Obviously, watching Elvis just draws you in, even in ridiculous movie roles. Then, there's the prime experience of watching him singing on stage.

It comes right through even just in his voice, however, as evidenced by his actual records. Anyone can make a great song sound good, but Elvis could turn a mediocre, generic song like "Milkcow Blues Boogie" or "I Love You Because" into an unforgettable classic. He breathed life into all kinds of material that would lie there flat for most people.

Costello has many artistic advantages over Elvis Presley, but no mere mortal Englishman could compete with that presence. Costello has actually developed into one of the best vocalists in the history of recorded pop music, but he could never have made "That's Alright, Mama" into a cultural landmark.

"Lovable" initially came up in the Elvis mix sounding strong. Costello's rockabilly song is just much better written, more memorable and witty than most of Elvis' Sun songs. Costello sang it with great gusto, and a sharp arrangement. Yet hearing them back to back, it's still no "Milkcow Blues Boogie" - much less being any competition to "Baby, Let's Play House."

[Counter examples, songs where Costello has achieved maximum visceral or magnetic presence: "Lipstick Vogue" "I Want You" "The Name of This Thing Is Not Love" and definitely the infamous live 1977 SNL performance of "Radio, Radio."]

On the other hand, Elvis could never have sung "Lovable," even though it would have been broadly right down the center of his performing style. Elvis would never have been able get his mouth around all that college boy wordplay.

Which gets us to Elvis' second point of advantage over Costello: emotional directness. Costello might come up with lots of witty moves that Elvis couldn't have fathomed, smart college boy stuff. That doesn't necessarily always make for superior music, though.

Costello certainly understands this, and often compensates. He gets Hank Williams. Nonetheless, Costello's extreme self-consciousness sometimes gets between him and the audience at least a bit, despite his best intentions.

For example, one Costello song that distinctly lost points in my Elvis mix has been "God's Comic." Now, Costello wrote a classic song with a catchy and distinctive melody, exceptionally witty lyrics, and a totally unique sound from anything else in the history of recorded music.

Yet it very clearly loses something significant in the Elvis mix. It sounds limp, efette or enfeebled. This isn't a matter of not having enough beat. Simple old "Love Me Tender" has more basic emotional impact.

"God's Comic" has a witty lyric and high comic production to backlight the central emotional angst of the outstanding melody. From the lyrics, it would seem to be of the there's-no-God-looking-out-for-us variety.

Yet for all that brilliance and even real feelings behind it, the song loses a little but significant bit of effect for all the contrivance. He loses emotional pressure in the hose going through all the intellectual kinks.

Costello struggles with simple emotions and sentiments. He might make an intellectual decision to will himself to try, but he could never really properly sing "Mama Liked the Roses." His hyperactive self-consciousness would trip him up. You'd be able to hear him thinking about singing, and hitting his performance marks. Elvis, on the other hand, was missing his Mama, and his soul at that moment was an open book. That was straight from his heart to yours, even the cheesy spoken word bridge.

[Counter examples, where Costello has been most seemingly emotionally direct: "Either Side of the Same Town" "Peace, Love and Understanding" or perhaps "Party Girl"]

Finally, though, Elvis' biggest advantage over Costello is spiritual. Elvis Presley had a spiritual openess and aspiration which Costello could never touch.

For starters, think of their broadest respective statements of humanism. Costello gave a highly articulated expression of lower level human despair: "What's so funny about peace, love and understanding." Contrast this to the finale of Elvis' famous 1968 television special, "If I Can Dream." Elvis is reaching out toward something holy and transcendent that Costello could never touch.

Consider the spiritual cowering of Costello's "Monkey to Man," from his modern classic album The Delivery Man. It rocks righteously, with a catchy melody, and a sharp wit as he laments the day that "the vicious creature took the jump from monkey to man." It's a fine pop song, but he's still literally nothing but an overeducated monkey cowering in his cage, no matter the haughty wit of his denunciations. He's stuck spiritually at a low rung on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, as it were.

Walking through the hollow in the cool haze of the New Year's first Sunday dusk, my mp3 player went from the Darwinic despair of "Monkey to Man" directly to the otherworldly ascendence of Elvis "In the Garden." Elvis sure meant about 100 times more than Costello right at that moment.

Gospel, in short, is the biggest critical artistic difference between Elvis and Costello. Declan McManus doesn't have that kind of SOUL. These higher, most truly profound realms of sublime human emotional experience are closed to the monkey. Soul music comes from the church. Elvis was there, Costello wasn't. Listen to Elvis sing "Peace in the Valley" and weep at the purity and unearthly peace. What's Costello got to compete with that?

Getting to those emotions does not necessarily require religious belief, though. Among many possible examples, consider Jimi Hendrix' hymn to "Little Wing" or the ultimate Paul McCartney love song, "Maybe I'm Amazed." (Elvis should have sung these.) They're reaching out to some moment of purity or blissful perfection. They have effectively re-directed those spiritual urges into goddess worship.

"Maybe I'm Amazed" indeed represents just what Costello seemingly most cannot do: a pure, straight love song. They're ALL polluted, nuanced expressions of frustrated love for foolish whores or apologies for his own ill behavior, anything and every damned thing but simple wonder and pleasure. Costello could never compete in the presentation of even the simple, staple romantic pleasures of "Love Me Tender" or "Wear My Ring."

[Counter examples, where Costello breaks on through to the other side or at least has a happy relationship: ...hmm. I'm drawing a blank here.]

In short summary then, Costello is one of the greatest songwriters and record makers ever, speaking more clearly to my daily experience than any other musician ever. But on Sunday, Costello simply can't take the place of Elvis.

Elvis Presley - the word made flesh

Amazing Grace: His Greatest Sacred Performances
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Release date: 25 October, 1994

Elvis - The '68 Comeback Special (Deluxe Edition DVD)
DVD from Bmg Distribution (VI
Release date: 22 June, 2004

ELV1S 30 #1 Hits
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Release date: 24 September, 2002

12" Elvis Presley Figure "68 Special"
Toy from McFarlane Toys

Spike (With Bonus Disc)
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Release date: 21 August, 2001

Elvis Series 2 Figure: "Rockabilly" Early Sixties
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Release date: 18 August, 2004

This Year's Model (With Bonus Disc)
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Release date: 19 February, 2002

The Delivery Man
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Release date: 21 September, 2004

Armed Forces
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Release date: 19 November, 2002

Elvis At Sun
Elvis Presley
Music from Bmg Heritage
Release date: 22 June, 2004


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