Bill Mallonee, Lead On, Kindly Light (Album Review)

A few words about Bill Mallonee’s lush, cornucopia of songs.

Ending the Preface to his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes these words.  

It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another—but, of course, it is not likely.

Bill Mallonee’s newest offering, Lead on, Kindly Light faces a similar problem.  Mallonee would no doubt grant the poverty of his work, and he calls attention repeatedly to the darkness of this time.  But, much like Wittgenstein, he stubbornly hopes to bring light into one heart or another. No, it is not likely. We each have a heart full of weeds, tall weeds; it is hard for light to get in.  And even if we see a little light, true blue, we are too ponderous, too full of devices and of the 21st Century to rouse into concerted action. Mostly, like Nietzsche’s ‘Last Man’, we blink. And turn on the blue-light filter.  A little sleep, a little closing of the eyes in sleep. All apps, we lack application.  

Kindly Light is a dialogic album, lush with interlocutory guitars. Mallonee’s singing, his plain but precise phrasing, his wife Muriah’s delicate, tasteful harmonies, needlework through the songs, stitching together the different conceptual orders of melody and words.  Like exceptional conversation, the songs become bearers of meaning as wholes beyond what they are about, centrifugallyIn an elusive sense, they are meaningful in themselves, centripetally.

But, centrifugally, what are the songs about?  — About the accumulated weight of human experience, bourne by an individual but touching the lives of all: about the unappeasable hunger of the human imagination, the irrepressible vanity of human wishes, the endless tedium of another day and our sickened anxiety over wasted time, — about our damaged hearts and darkling fates.  There is no emigration from a world bursting with evil and sorrow, despite the fact that we all seem to have immigrated here. Death guards the borders, fencing us in.

That makes Kindly Light seem more about (the) darkness (of this time) than about light, and that is misleading.  The songs chart the path of light in the darkness, its dimming and brightening. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.  The light is there, never really gone, but we will not admit it.  It’s easier to lapse into darkness. A little sleep…

The songs of Kindly Light all are cries of, cries for, wakefulness, for admitting the light, fighting toward it, for it. But it is also a reminder that our spontaneity is ever a receptive spontaneity, that our words were never the first words, are never The Word.  And the light we admit, fight toward, fight for, will never allow us (to borrow John Henry Newman’s phrase) “to see the distant scene”. Light enough for the next step — that is what we can admit, fight toward, fight for. Some light in the brain, in the heart, enough to hazard everything, as we all do everyday, — no choice —, though we hide the fact from ourselves.  We do not choose or see our path but we have to walk nonetheless. Time forces our footfalls. Will we sleepwalk or take the single step, awake, we have light enough to see?

The songs are sermons but not of the televangelist variety that rules today, preachers on screens, holygrams.  No.  The sermonizer here is sermonizing himself: Mallonee is his own congregation.  He needs to hear what he is saying. We all need to be reminded more than informed.  No message here from on-high, UHF.  The message is sung from a modest place among the least of these, in poorness of spirit, from among the weeds by the wall.  

For fans of melody, there is much here, songs that stay in the ear of the mind, that end up being hummed almost absently during the day’s business.  The songs are unhurried, the guitars linger on, over and around the melodies. The listener is drawn into the dialog of the songs, asked to join it, given spaces to fill.  These songs are, as Mallonee says life is (in “A Borrowing of Bones”), “a gift by slow degrees…

No blinding flash of light & few epiphanies/No one really leaves with anything that is his own/You get your doubts and a borrowing of bones…

Mallonee gets his doubts and he gets ours.  All our bones are borrowed bones. We must return them in the end, like it or not.  But, until then — lead on, kindly light.  These songs hallow that light and, moonlike, reflect it back to the listener.      

Paying Visits

I have been paying visits on this trip–and talking.  I started at home, at my brother’s place, high and lonesome in the southern Ohio hills.  We played music together–he is a gifted singer and bassist.  We listened to tons of music, from The Johnson Mountain Boys to Frightened Rabbit.  We worked out old Greg Sage songs and old Connells songs.  My dad and mom joined us on Kent’s deck, and we sang bluegrass songs and enjoyed the view.


I stopped in Paducah to visit Shane Ward and Carly Lane.  Carly is one of my favorite writers, and Shane, her husband, is an artist, a sculptor.  We ate pizza and talked about writing, growing up, about intellectual life both inside and outside the academy, and about the strangenesses of academic philosophy.  We also ended up talking a lot about arguments for forms of color relativism, about objectivism, and about blue, a most shady color.

I left for Iowa City, where I visited my son, who just finished his second year (of three) in Iowa’s MFA program in Theater acting.  He and his girlfriend, Natalie, and I spent a lot of time talking, much of it about teaching, and much of it about what is makes sense to expect from students in a core philosophy or acting class.  I think we more or less agreed that about all you can hope for is to convince students that there is a real body of knowledge where philosophy and acting are concerned, and that they are mostly ignorant of that body of knowledge.  But that kind of instructed ignorance is profitable, and can feed later growth.


From there, I headed to Bozeman, Montana, where I spent a few days with my good friend and former student, David Dyas and his wife, Katie.  They live in an amazing spot, at the feet of the Bridger Mountains, in such proximity to them that I felt in supplication to the mountains for the entirety of my visit.  I got to hear several wonderful new songs Dave has written. I heard a lot of other new music, or music new to me.  We spent a lot of time talking about philosophy and public life, about religion and the shape of faith, and about the alarming willingness of chickens to cannibalize each other.  I spent a fascinating day with Dave and his father-in-law, Dan, in Yellowstone, where we talked of the fate of religious movements, bible translation and varieties of proverbial wisdom. Oh, and we watched Old Faithful do its faithful thing.


I went on to Taos, where I got back to work on a novel I am tinkering with.  I also got to spend a memorable morning with Bill Mallonee and his wife, Muriah.  We talked of the relationship between science and knowledge–not coextensive–and about religion and ‘worldly wisdom’.  I got to hear more about Muriah’s history, and about the specific circumstances (including guitar tunings) of the recording of The Vigilantes of Love’s *Jugular*.


I am now in Santa Fe.  My wife will join me here for a few days and I will be a regular tourist.  I am looking forward to that.  There are limits proscribed to self-inspection.

All along the way, I have been listening to Jane Austen.  I re-read all her novels at the beginning of each summer.  This year, because of the trip, I have listened to them rather than read them.  I expect to finish up on the final leg of driving back to Alabama.  I supplemented what I was listening to by re-reading Stuart Tave’s *Some Words of Jane Austen*, a book for which my respect knows no bounds.

stuart tave2

At a coffee shop in Taos, a woman noticed me reading Tave’s book and remarked pleasantly, “You don’t look like the right person to be reading that book.”

(When I interviewed for my job at Auburn, one of the faculty members looked at me disappointedly and pronounced:  “You do not look like a Plotinian scholar ought to look.”  I suppose I look like an elevator repairman ought to look–that is, like the stereotype of an elevator repairman.)


It turned out that what she meant was that I was a big, bearded man, and wearing an Auburn baseball cap.  Her husband, she confided to me, is an Austen fan, at least of the movies, but is always chagrined by the ratio of women to men at the screenings.  I don’t know what to say about that, but I will say that I find the (undoubtedly related) idea that achievement of Austen’s women is a woman’s achievement odd.  Surely, the specific shape of that achievement in each of the novels is due to the central character being a woman–and a woman in that particular place at that particular time–but what each achieves is broadly human, deeply human, and completely compelling.  –Oh, I would be more like Anne Elliot if only I could!


Between (Charlie Hickey, Music Review Essay)


This is Not Easy for Me 

Charlie Hickey

Patience with yourself is demanding, particularly when you are young.  You are prone to impatience with yourself; others are prone to impatience with you.  It can seem that your teenage years are a weary succession of one today “I am forever committed” and one tomorrow “On to the next thing…”.  A chorus of voices, your own often the loudest, keeps chanting: “Choose!”  But choosing is precisely what you really cannot do, not once and for all.  This is not the stage of life at which choosing, final choosing anyway, typically gets done.  The hard thing is to be between:  neither a child nor an adult, but on the way from one to the other.  It is hard to keep focused on the journey, –hard not to reach backwards in remembrance toward the voicelessness of childhood, with its attendant freedom, if you are lucky, beneath the rainbow of your parents’ love, –or hard not to reach forward in anticipation to the full voice of adulthood, with its attendant responsibilities, if you are lucky, toward those beneath the rainbow of your love.  The hard thing is to be between, not a child, not yet an adult, but composedly trans-ing  from one to the other.  To be between.

On his new EP, This Isn’t Easy For Me, 16-year old Charlie Hickey presents four songs about being between.  The songs are melodically assured, subtle, eschewing big musical poses for smaller, more intimate gestures.  None of the melodies leap out of the speaker–but all register over listenings and make a home in memory.  Hickey’s voice centers the album:  clear, warm, palpably human, it is a real voice, alive. But it is never showy, never cocky, never crooning, never plangent. Unlike many (and many older) singer-songwriters, Hickey never sends his voice on an errand while he stays behind.  He is there, right there, fully present in his voice.  This substantializes the songs, giving them power and immediacy.

The EP opens with “Broken”.

I’ve got so much love in my life
But I’m looking for some kind of tattered touch
Yeah I can live without it
But sometimes this livin’ is not quite enough

I feel the love of my family
It’s the only thing that really lets me sleep
But when the sleeping gets easy
Sometimes I wish that there was someone beside me

I’ll let my bones be broken when I can find someone to make me feel fixed
I’m looking for someone’s tattered kiss
We can’t go on living like this
We gotta find each other…

Not a typical song of teenaged love.  The addressee is more possible than actual, the distance between the two logical, not spatial.  Part of learning to love is being loved and achieving an open-eyed understanding of the cost of that love.  Familial love is not romantic love, of course, but the loves remain bound up with one another, and the first typically sets the stage for the second.  Hickey captures this beautifully:  he sleeps easy in the love of his family, and yet finds that the very ease of sleep allows him to long for something else, a different kind of love. At a certain point, familial love, however overflowing, is not all the love we wish for.  Our hearts prepare a place for someone else, prepare themselves for the work of loving in a new way.

Part of what makes the song memorable is Hickey’s willingness to acknowledge familial love and its role in fitting him for a new love.  Part of what makes it memorable is his ability to capture the new love while it is still a mere possibility, while he is still reaching out toward someone-he-knows-not-who, who he understands is reaching out, in reciprocal unknowing, toward him.  The final part is carried in its titular word, ‘broken’, and its conceptual rhyme, ‘tattered’.  Hickey treats the possibility realistically.  I mean that he recognizes the cost of love he is wishing for, understands that it will, precisely to the extent that it is real, exact things from him–but he is willing to face the exaction:  “I’ll let my bones be broken…”  He will face it because, again precisely to the extent it is real, it will also reward him:  “… when I can find someone to make me feel fixed.”  And it will cost the person he is reaching out toward–her touch and kiss will be tattered.  Even so, her touch and kiss will be what he needs.  And he will do for her what she has done for him.  Together, the broken and the tattered are fixed and repaired.

“Broken” reaches forward hopefully to new love.  But in the different mood of “I Like the Idea of Loving You”, Hickey expresses the natural diffidence the actual prospect of a new love can cause.

My neck gets sore from trying to keep my head turned away from you
You’re an open door and you’re closing on my fingers
My heart rings. it sounds like a warning bell from heaven
Saying don’t confuse me with anything real

I think I like the idea of loving you
I think I like the idea of loving you
I like the idea of loving you
Sometimes it lights a fire in me
Sometimes it lights a fire in me

This is not easy for me
I couldn’t let the promise of air just breathe
And I’m lying awake cause I couldn’t leave that hope alone
And I’ve been waiting for you or any other red rose that’s passing through
But I relive every little beautiful thing until I can’t see it’s colors anymore…

Commitment in possibility and commitment in actuality are radically different, however similar they may seem in conception.  January 2nd teaches us this unmercifully.  Still, substituting living in imagination for living in reality seduces us, especially in between, when what we hope for is neither inexistent nor in existence.  The work of realizing what we hope for we often want to dodge:  we like the idea of something but shrink from realizing it.  “Don’t confuse me with anything real.”  The problem is that the idea now seems like it must be realized (“Sometimes it lights a fire in me.”) but now seems like I should simply luxuriate in its ideality, waving my hand dismissively toward its reality.  “Almost thou persuadest me…”

Commitment is hard.  (“This isn’t easy for me.”) And so we attenuate it, delay it, by a series of prefixes, each expressive of a mental state:  ‘I think…’, ‘I like…’ even ‘I think I like…’ burying the proposed commitment deep in propositional attitudes.  –A related example:  James Thurber’s title for the fear of the fear of the fear of something:  phobophobophobia.  That is a towering, babbling fear.  –In between, this kind of stepping back from our steppings-back is all-too-common.  We are trying things on, seeing how we look.  But the problem of stepping back repetitiously is that it not only attentuates or delays commitment, it also leeches the color and the vitality from our experiences themselves.  Seeing the rose is one thing:  a visual plunge into a warm pool of saturated red.  But as we relive the seeing, it is as though our eyesight itself dims or the red cools and desaturates:  eventually we cannot see the rose’s color anymore.  I am, as it were, free with respect to what I relive in a way that I am not with respect to what I live–I have elbow room in reflection that I do not have in perception.  But still:  it is the rose that matters, the actual red rose, and if we pass on seeing it in favor of reliving seeing it, we start to lose our anchor in what matters.

The next song turns its attention to the real and to the seduction of escape from what is real.  “I’m Alive”:

Living in the arms of the past
And it’s wildest dreams for me
Old flames to light up just one more time
Weary guiding light

Waiting for the sun on my face to pass
So the hope of tomorrow can show me it’s face at last
When the moment’s grip gets tired of me
I just try to make the future last

I’m alive
In this very instant and my
Breath goes by
Unnoticed but true, you know that
All I have
Are these very moments cause they’re
All I have to run away to

Tomorrow’s always coming
It’s giving me a break
I do so much dreaming
I forget that I’m awake

Dreaming of the day
That don’t need me to be anything that I’m not
A day that is right now
A day that is alive…

The present is our happiness.  This is one of those things we have to tell ourselves over and over because we never quite effectively internalize it.  And that is because being present in the present leaves us vulnerable.  For the most part, we can render ourselves safe from the past, variously jettisoning, suppressing, muffling or misrepresenting it–or, more helpfully, we can gain distance from it and perspective on it. And we can render ourselves safe from the future, because it has no definite shape, and so no sharp edges.  We find in ourselves a will to absent the present, to run away from it.  But of course, if I run away to the past, then I am presently remembering, and if I run away to the future, I am presently daydreaming.  Try as I will, I cannot actually absent the present.  I am always in these very moments.  I succeed only in turning my attention from my vulnerability in the present, I do not render myself invulnerable in the present.  Any escape from the present is a present escape.

Hickey ends the album with “The Child in Me”, attempting to measure accurately the difference between the child he was and the man-in-becoming he has become.  Here, again, Hickey’s patience with himself is instructive.

Being in control is a concept that I sit and try to understand
Scared of fate but hey I guess it’s somewhat up to me in the end
Sitting here meditating on wishing myself the best
Years will grow around me and I’ll try to make the best

Of the child in me that stayed and played and only did the steps he made
But he got by and sometimes he cried

Sittin trying to keep my eyes on the ground
But they keep on going up
I shoot the question out of the gun
But don’t stay long enough to see where it hits me

Like I said, I wanna look down and see both our hands on the ground
Trying to grasp the same thing.  Maybe it’s common ground
It’s all coming down

The child in me that stayed and played
Is going places, looking into faces
And saying, what a beautiful day
And the child in me will make it where you’re going and he’ll meet you there

At sixteen, it is natural to disown your childhood for fear of being treated as a child.  But we often lose our grip on childlikeness in the hurry to discard childishness.  If we mature as we should, a kind of immaturity remains–something resistant to narrow prudence, gamesmanship, cynicism and faithlessness.  And that something is the child who stays and plays within us, if we allow him to do so.  If we exile that child, we exile ourselves from the kingdom, whether the one we now live in or the one that may be to come.  Wonder is spiritual youth; it preserves that plasticity of childhood, preserves a structure weak enough to be responsive but not so weak as to be nothing but response, to be nothing in itself.  To lose that child is to lose the best part of ourselves.  One of the reasons for the common happiness of childhood is that childhood is all present.  (The child has no past really, and has not yet become aware of the future as the future.)  And so childhood is also vulnerable.  And maybe that completes the lesson in Hickey’s sequence of songs:  the cost of happiness is invariably vulnerability.  Absolute safety includes safety from happiness.

Despite their thematic unity, Hickey’s songs musically are varied.  The tempo changes , and so does the instrumentation.  Hickey’s voice and guitar are the centerpiece, but not all there is.  The melodies are subtle–subtle, but hummable, singable.  You will find yourself singing along.

It is not often that someone between cables us a thoughtful report about what it is like to be between.  It takes a certain talent, and a certain strength of character, to make such a report.  Hickey gives one to us, and if we listen carefully, we can recognize in his the report we might have sent. In art, one criterion of getting it right is that what you create ceases to be yours alone and becomes everyone’s.


Affluence of Words: Coming of Age with Elvis Costello

Cover art

Oh, I just don’t know where to begin
(“Accidents Will Happen”)

Well, the door swings back and forward from the past into the present
(“Little Palaces”)

He’s the only singer fully to have mastered the come-hither snarl.

I was riding in my friend Tim’s compact car.  We were hurtling from Gallipolis to Cincinnati, Ohio.  We were going to see Elvis Costello.  Tim was a fan, but from a distance.  I’m not sure he ever entirely understood my devotion to Costello’s songs.

He listened to me indulgently through the din of This Year’s Model.  I was trying to explain.  “Other than the words of a few dead philosophers, his words mean more to me than anyone else’s.”

Why did they mean so much to me? Why do they?

I walked into a dorm room during my freshman year of college to find a new friend of mine, Jim, sitting on the far side of his bed with a guitar.  He had a cassette player sitting against the wall and was playing and singing along to a song I had never heard.  He seemed to be singing to the wall.  When he noticed me, I asked about the song.  He looked at me strangely when he told me that it was Elvis Costello.  He could see the name was news to me. I left his room that evening with a bootleg cassette of Imperial Bedroom.  I had no idea quite what to make of it at first.  The music was so different from what I knew.  But then the words began to hit me, like a spray of buckshot.

History repeats the old conceits
The glib replies, the same defeats
Keep your finger on important issues
With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues
I’m just the oily slick
On the windup world of the nervous tick
In a very fashionable hovel
(“Beyond Belief”)

I knew nothing about fashionable hovels, having grown up in a double-wide trailer in rural Appalachia, but I knew something about old conceits and glib replies, and about the intestine turnings of authenticity and inauthenticity.  I could imagine myself an oily slick.  This often feckless, rueful self-monitoring–its dry heave of self-disgust–was mine.  I knew it from the inside.  But it was not just what Costello expressed.  It was also his expression of it.  A complex irony needled through the words. Formal properties of the words themselves (other than rhyme) were being attended to, responded to, marshaled to purpose. Some game I knew and did not know was afoot among the words

I went to college with three disparate musics in my head.  My father’s bluegrass, my church’s acapella hymns and my own small collection of Devo and Gary Numan albums.  The latter was my attempt to find a music of my own, one that distanced itself from the living  human all-too-human qualities of the other two–the murder and regret of bluegrass, the sin and salvation of the hymns.  I wanted to hole up in Gary Numan’s embalmed “Cars”, in a place where I could be stable for days.

I listened to the cassette of Imperial Bedroom over and over, playing one side from beginning to end as I waited for sleep to fall each night.  “Beyond Belief” became the anthem of my freshman year.  It captured my dislocated fears and my feeling that my days were just a passing show, a phenomenalist’s play of welded-together sensations.

I’ve got a feeling
I’m going to get a lot of grief
Once this seemed so appealing
Now I am beyond belief

The last line exactly captured my own ambiguity, my sense that I was both the subject and the object of a frigid incredulity.

The other songs on the album mapped the failures of domesticity.  The bluegrass of my youth had often enough done the same, but typically the persona presented in those songs sang self-righteously or regretfully, with a cumbersome Cumberland’s sincerity.  Bluegrass can do high and lonesome, but it cannot do irony or alienation.  During that freshman year I was often lonely enough, I guess; but mainly I was struggling with self-alienation.  I didn’t care for my company.  I could do without me.

Tim and I arrived in Cincinnati as the August sunlight stretched and turned golden.  Costello was touring behind Goodbye Cruel World.  My luck was good that night.  Nick Lowe opened for Costello, and Lowe had Paul Carrack with him.  I more or less got to see Nick Lowe and Squeeze (Lowe and Carrack performed “Tempted”) before Costello came on.  Lowe mentioned at one point in his show that it was Costello’s birthday, and he played “The Rose of England” in honor of the occasion.

Other than the words of Costello, the words of my freshman year were the words of dead philosophers, particularly Plato and Plotinus and Schopenhauer and a couple of British Idealists–Bosanquet and Bradley.  Bosanquet and Bradley’s Victorian prose entranced me more perhaps than  their idealism, but I styled myself in those days an expatriated latter-day British absolute idealist.  I read Plato and Plotinus in a divinatory spirit, and read all of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation in one unblinking twenty-four hours.  Costello played on as I read on. I was 17–and the world was my will and my representation.

I walked the campus with my head down, lost, genuinely lost, in my thoughts.  The fallen leaves of a Wooster autumn scattered as I walked along.  I nearly ran into a woman.  She scolded me for walking with my head down.  I muttered a line from Proverbs in response:  “Ponder the path of thy feet.”  But the truth is that the words in my head were simply more real to me than my feet or the leaves or the autumn landscape.  Meaning plagued me more than being.  Being was taking care of itself.  Meaning I needed to tend.

Pretty words don’t mean much anymore
I don’t mean to be mean much anymore
All I see are snapshots, big shots, tender spots
mug shots, machine slots
Till you don’t know what’s what
You don’t know what you got
(“Pretty Words”)

Costello’s songs were often slightly deranged lists, efforts to anatomize experience or to bind together its loose ends.  Sometimes the lists were quite mad–sequential but otherwise disunited.  It all fit my moods, sense-making and sense-unmaking in turn, witness to the daily rise and fall of my life.

My love of words drew me to Costello and deepened because of him.  He has left his fingerprints on my verbal imagination.  He is capable, like Lewis Carroll or James Thurber, of making nonsense so delightful that the paucity or mere parody of sense do not matter.  He can write nonsense or semi-sense so moving that it slits you from your guggle to your zatch, from here to here.

You’re sending me tulips mistaken for lilies
You give me your lip after punching me silly
You turned my head till it rolled down the brain drain
II had any sense now I wouldn’t want it back again

New Amsterdam it’s become much too much
Till I have the possession of everything she touches
Till I step on the brake to get out of her clutches
Till I speak double dutch to a real double duchess

Down on the mainspring, listen to the tick tock
Clock all the faces that move in on your block
Twice shy and dog tired because you’ve been bitten
Everything you say now sounds like it was ghost-written
(“New Amsterdam”)

There’s a girl in this dress
There’s always a girl in distress
(“Shabby Doll”)

I fell in love and then got flushed by love during my freshman year.  Costello’s wary love songs–with their obligatory escape hatches or hidden tunnels–matched my skittish paranoia that love stories were cautionary tales.

I won’t walk with my head bowed
Beyond caution where lovers walk
Your love walks where three’s a crowd
Beyond caution where lovers walk

Lovers walk, lovers scramble
Beyond caution where lovers walk
Lovers step, shuffle and gamble
Beyond caution where lovers walk
(“Lovers Walk”)

My father played bluegrass.  Back in the 50’s, he cut classes for most of a term at Marshall University and practiced the mandolin.  He had heard that Eck Gibson and the Mountaineer Ramblers, a local group of some acclaim, planned to head to the studio but without a mandolin player. My father, never ordinarily one for rash acts, showed up at the studio the day that the group was scheduled to begin recording.  Dad talked his way into an audition and got the gig.

My father did not talk much.  At home, when it was too dark to work, he picked up his guitar or his mandolin and played.  I can hardly remember him in doors without an instrument in his hands.  As a small boy, I spent many weekends at the homes of other bluegrass players, usually the lone child in the house, nursing a warming Pepsi and listening.  I listened a lot.  I still have a head full of bluegrass songs, songs of loneliness and homesickness and failed farms and love gone wrong, songs of dying  little girls and dreadful snakes.  I don’t know how much of it I understood at first but I began to understand it, and to understand something of the darker corners of the adult world.

I can no longer remember the list of songs Costello played that August night.  Many of the songs on Goodbye but others too; I was especially eager for songs off Get Happy! and Trust.  I had spent long hours listening to both and wondering about the cover photo on the latter.  That above-his-sunglasses glance away came to seem essential to the music to me.  I coveted the indirection of the music.  I wanted to be told things in ways somehow consistent with my finding them out for myself. Costello’s lyrics obliged.

The sun set before the show reached its finale.  Costello came out and played a few songs by himself.  The band rejoined him, played another few songs and then they finished.  The stage lights went down and we drove home in the dark.

The hymns that stuck with me most were hymns whose lyrics were by Isaac Watts. I especially loved his “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”.  I had no way of knowing it as a child, when the song first took up lodging in my memory, but the song is a full-on spiritual exercise.  So too are many of Costello’s songs.  (Perhaps this is a vestige of his Catholic upbringing?)  They require that we adopt, in a way resembling Costello’s own adoption of it, the persona of the song.  We are then shown the persona, often shown its tragedy, and shown it as caused by various of the character flaws of the persona.

Consider this a negative spiritual exercise; it works through a bad, not a good example.  (“No man is good for nothing; he can always serve as a bad example.”   –Someone should explore the similarities between Costello and Nestroy.)  The songs alert you to your own flaws or beginnings of flaws to the extent that you find the persona a good fit.  Costello’s goal, I take it, is to implicate us in the world of such a persona, and to ask us if that is where, who we want to be.

The irony–sometimes transmuting into satire–in Costello’s songs is his way of flinging himself against the world without posturing.  It is a function of his desire for the world to be good and his conviction that it is bad, and that he, too, would be good but is often bad.  His unwillingness to acquiesce to that badness, even if it takes the relatively innocuous form of conformity or of spiritless drudging, drives the music.  But his awareness of himself and of his own flaws and conformity and drudging forbid self-righteousness.

I wouldn’t see Costello live  again for another 15 years or so.  The next time I saw him with my wife in Atlanta, Georgia.  I had grown up (some).  He had grown older.  But the words were still there, his and mine. When talking to my grad school teacher, Lewis White Beck, I once attributed (rightly) a distinction to the philosopher, C. I. Lewis.  I called it “Lewis’ distinction”.  Beck chided me.  “Kelly, we are friends, but you should not refer to me by my first name in a paper.”  I explained that I hadn’t; I had referred to C. I. Lewis and not Lewis White Beck.  Beck looked down, embarrassed.  Then, brightening, he looked up and said:  “I have been using that distinction for so long I thought it was mine.”  By the time I saw Costello for a second time, I had been using his words for so long I thought they were mine.

There’s a hand on a wire that leads to my mouth
I can hear you knocking but I’m not coming out
Don’t want to be a puppet or a ventriloquist
‘Cause there’s no ventilation on a critical list
Fingers creeping up my spine are not mine to resist
Strict time

Toughen up, toughen up
Keep your lip buttoned up
Strict time
(“Strict Time”)

Puzzled and perplexed by a failed love and by my failure at philosophy, I dropped out of school at the end of my freshman year.  I packed my philosophy books in boxes and took them home, putting them in an empty corner of Dad’s tool shed.  Months would pass before I reopened those boxes, tearing away scabs.  But Get Happy! was in my tape deck all the while.

But he’s not the man you’d think that he can be
I don’t know why you can’t see
That he is only the imposter
That he is only the imposter

When I said that I was lying
I might have been lying
Never let me hear you say
You’re not trying, no, no
(“The Imposter”)

Elvis Costello, Wordmongery?

I am reading Costello’s memoir.  It has made me rethink his songs, made me aware of how I have related to them.  I have always been devoted to the wordplay, the “verbal gymnastics”, in his songs.  I realize now that I have been so devoted that I have often let the meaning of the song as a whole simply slip into the background.  I foregrounded Costello’s words and the formal relationships among them he exploits so deftly and imaginatively.  (I have no doubt he has left his fingerprints on my verbal imagination.)  Reading about the circumstances of the songs has made me more aware than before of what I had let slip into the background. It made me consider again the role of the wordplay in the whole, how it serves or complicates or resists the meaning of the whole.

I have an old essay–maybe twenty years old–about Costello.  I may dig it up and see if it can be reanimated in the light of these new considerations.  If it can, I will share it here.

Elvis Costello > Spectacle: Elvis Costello With...

Jason Slatton’s *We Are Nighttime Travelers* (Music Review)

“Beauty is difficult.” So said Ezra Pound. He was not wrong.

But what did he mean? Fairly obviously, he meant that creating beauty demands self-discipline, self-denial. Of course self-discipline and self-denial can be achieved while beauty remains fugitive. Beauty cannot be taken captive simply by self-control. Pound also meant, perhaps less obviously, that living in openness to beauty and in search of it, is difficult. Beauty does not sell itself cheap, even less give itself away. To find it, to take it in, we have to be in order, fit for it. Beauty is difficult–to create and to receive.

I begin here because crucial lines on Jason Slatton’s new album, We are Nighttime Travellers, are these (borrowed from Dylan):

But I feel nothing for their game,/
Where beauty goes unrecognized
Dark Eyes

Beauty, both (the conditions of) its creation and (the conditions of) its recognition, absorbs Slatton and shapes the album. Slatton sings of a life in which beauty does not go unrecognized, and he sings of the struggles and the rewards of such a life, the task of staying fit for beauty, the task of remaining open to it.

My world is slowly spinning/
Dismantling and then beginning/
Blood shaking through a tired heart
And She Goes On

Remaining capable of beauty—its creation or its reception—means that we have to keep making ourselves new, that we cannot allow our past to enclose us. We have to become practiced beginners; able again and again to dismantle all that cushions the shock of beauty. It can be an exhausting, frightening business—a life of repetitious ‘repentance’ and renewal. Becoming tired of it leads into games in which beauty goes unrecognized—in which it is either absent, or its role is played by some stand-in, some false beauty. Something, anything less demanding. –Plato understood this better than anyone.

This need to start again, to refresh oneself, is registered several times on the album. But it is not a need frigidly to abandon the past, to deny it. No, the goal of Slatton’s personas is to master it, to find a way to understand it and internalize it so that it becomes a living part of them instead of a gathering sediment threatening to entomb them. As they work to be alive, open to beauty, they also become more complicated, more experienced. –How to retain, manage, an increasingly sophisticated naivety? The album records the struggle. It concedes implicitly that there is no perfect achievement of the goal; at best, it is a July possession: we may make it to summer, but there are still stifling days, thunderstorms. We win to lose and win again. Beauty is never done with us; we can never be done with beauty. We tire; it dims. It shines again; we reawaken.   So it goes.

The dimming of beauty figures in several songs and in complicated ways.

I’m planting flowers/
In the cold, black dirt/
Just to keep the my last connection alive/
And all these gods I’m praying to/
They bring me everything but you
Chet Baker

Did you make it out alive?/
Did you ever find your wings?/
Did you find a place to rest/
In the empty everything?

These mudtrack boots/
Are full of rain and nails/
The dark fills in/
Where the light has failed/
The neon dirt is turning/
Red as blood/
You can see your story/
Written in the mud
Confident Thieves

These moments do not finish the story, dark and muddy though they are.

Honey let in the air/
Yeah, its cold but we can drift/
All the flowers bloom/
From the light across the room/
We can watch the nighttime lift

The album acknowledges nighttime, reckons time spent in the dark. But, it is more importantly an album that acknowledges and searches for (to quote Pound once more)

A little light, like a rushlight
to lead back to splendour.

The songs of We are Nighttime Travelers are meditatively paced, contemplative. They take root somewhere between the ear and the mind, in a space they grow to fill. The melodies are sweet—very sweet, but muted. The album is a series of small gestures–small gestures freighted with large meanings, like the beckoning hand of a lover. The playing is impressive throughout, sensitive and deliberate. The songcraft is impeccable. Slatton’s vocals do what is necessary and no more: they stand in front of the music but do not preen, never claim more than their due.

The songs unite thematically, as I have suggested. They unite thematically around a lofty ideal. But they do this by keeping ordinary time, by living through and valuing moments—and the details the moments house.

Paint peeling off the walls/
I think about it as it/
Falls around my feet/
A little of this kind of thing/
Goes a long, long way…

It’s the lonely silence in your place/
It’s the empty morning that I face/
It’s the way you cry/
You take me over
Chet Baker

 I kept you in my book of days/
But you come ringing back again/
Don’t you?/
Don’t you?
Book of Days

These are songs of noticing, of taking notice. And once someone has taken notice of something, anything, there is no telling what he may notice next.

The iceberg drunks/
Are drifting slow and tired/
The silver moon hangs/
On circus wires/
Down here something is about to give/
And the barb-wire stars/
Whisper I might live
Confident Thieves

To remain capable of beauty is to own our limitations: we have to bear it in our mortality.

Everything rests on fragile bones/
Everything rests on fragile bones

Perhaps, for the gods, beauty reveals itself as neighborly, easy. But for us it is strange, a stranger.  It beckons us as it keeps its distance, crooking its finger as it steps backward.

And all these gods I’m praying to/
They bring me everything but you/
Everything but you/
Everything but you
Chet Baker

 We Are Nighttime Travelers knows that the material is the vehicle of the spiritual. It knows that to be open to beauty is neither to be open to something other than a wife, a child, a song, nor is it to be open to a single characteristic of a wife, a child, a song—at the expense of all the others. It is instead a way of being open to a wife’s, a child’s, a song’s unique and unified way of being beautiful. There is a certain intimacy between a wife and her beauty, a child and her beauty, a song and its beauty. That certain intimacy is essential to beauty—and despite the fact that beauty is lofty, strange, distant, it is also somehow here among us, to be found, if we find it, in our common lives. Everything rests on fragile bones.

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