Artist: Elvis Costello
Album: My Aim is True
How cool was Elvis Costello in 1977! Here is a guy whose aesthetic is punk rock. But he shows up looking like Buddy Holly with his nerdy glasses and adopts a name that seems a cross between a washed up icon (we all love Elvis, but in 1977—just before his death—he was a wreck) and a fat comedian (I'm talking Lou Costello, but in reality, the name was adopted from his father's stage name). But he pulls it all off because he writes great songs with varied subject matter that seem to transcend genre.
Costello's strength of conviction and downright fearlessness are exemplified in a 1977 Saturday Night Live performance where he stopped mere bars into "Less Than Zero," the song his record company insisted he play, and launched into "Radio, Radio," a new song which he explicitly promised not to play. His antics earned him a ten-year ban from performing on Saturday Night Live (oh right, I guess they weren't as irreverent as they let on) but also laid the groundwork for future legendary status. That he did this while his career was off to a sputter of a start in the US makes it all the more impressive. Here's a video of the incident:
And now "Alison." "Alison" is a gorgeous song by any standard. And while the lyrics are worth a good hard look, I'm going to get into the song structure a bit and leave the interpretation to you. What I find fascinating about this song is how hard it resists the tonic. Rooted in the key of E, the song commences on the subdominant (A) after a brief introduction and establishes the key by way of a plagal cadence (IV-I):
Oh, it's so funny to be seeing you after so long girl
After that first line, the tonic jumps ship with Costello poking around the midsection of the key:
A (IV) G#m (iii) C#m (vi) B(V)
And with the way you look I understand that you are not impressed.
A (IV) G#m (iii) C#m (vi) D (bVII) B(V)
But I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress.
The tonic finally returns during the chorus and even then it's delayed by the subdominant, but the resulting cadence is so satisfying:
A(IV) E (I)
The rising syncopated melody that follows is one of my favorite moments in all of pop. The rhythmic spacing of the words (I know this world is killing you) combined with Costello's almost strained delivery is almost chill-inducing. Kudos to the arranger for having the band mimic the rhythm of the vocal line and to producer Nick Lowe for doubling the vocal track in unison at that moment. It's perfect.
By the way, according to my sources (*cough*—Wikipedia), the entirety of My Aim is True was recorded in four 6-hour sessions. This is a great reminder for all my musician friends out there toiling over some project you've had on your computer for a year. :D