Thursday, October 17, 2013

Song #390 of 9999 - Alison by Elvis Costello

Song #390 of 9999

Title: Alison
Artist: Elvis Costello
Year: 1977
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):

                 A                                           E
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


  1. It is perfect, and it belies the idea that '77 was "the year of punk". That, I believe, had already been and gone 12 months earlier. And I probably need to stop commenting on everything you post, when you stop posting on songs I adore. Tell me, mister Music Theory guy (which I mean as a total compliment) what is it in these chords that create that mood of utter wistful sadness?

    1. Comment away! I love having a reader. :) Maybe, by definition, punk was over the moment it became mainstream, but you can't really be saying the debuts of The Clash, Sex Pistols (yes, I know--overrated), The Jam and Wire, as well as the release of Rocket to Russia signaled the end of punk. I think we have to assume the simultaneous debuts of Elvis and the Talking Heads, as well as the release of Low and "Heroes" signified the beginnings of New Wave, which would eventually overshadow punk but probably not until....1979? I don't know—haven't gotten that far yet. :)

      I really do think the IV-I progression (plagal cadence) has a lot to do with what you're describing. This is known as kind of a churchy or gospel progression and I think, whether we like it or not, that sentiment is ingrained in us so much so that we hear it and feel a certain kind of....peace. An outpouring, perhaps. I'm not sure this applies as "wistfulness" (or that we're discussing music theory anymore—psychology of music maybe?) but I do think the 1/2-step descent from the A (IV) to the G#m (iii) and the later descent by step from C#m (vi) to A (IV) during the verse creates a sense of musical gravity. The 1/2-step ascent from C#m (vi) to D (bVII) at the end of the verse reverses this downward trend and seems to hoist the song into the chorus (especially when followed by the B chord [V], which contains D# and completes the ascending chromatic line C#-D-D#-E). Does this all sound like a load of bollocks to you? :)

      Another thing I find interesting (this is why I stop myself at three paragraphs!) is the melodic line tend to rise in contrast to the almost constant downward progression of the chords. There's some nifty counterpoint that may or may not contribute to the melancholy. But one note I think really makes a difference is the G# he sings over the D chord (on the word "take" in the 5th line), which is a very powerful dissonance (a Lydian quality, if you will). Okay, enough—baseball awaits!