Midway through the Eighties things started to change. Bands you’d been listening happily to were no longer around or no longer doing their best stuff. Some who had been off their game for a while went completely off the rails, trying things they would never have done in saner times. Everything became “blockbuster” minded, wholly without irony. You could see it, if you were paying attention, in the terms by which everything was judged.
Around that time Elvis Costello got tired of being Elvis Costello. Granted, “Elvis Costello” was the perhaps not entirely sensible name dreamed up, on the spur of the moment seemingly, by one Declan McManus. And now he was beginning to regret borrowing the King’s name, or maybe he was just beginning to regret getting stuck with all that Angry Young Man baggage that had suited him so well in the late Seventies, but which he was already trying to ditch for lounge-lizard savvy and Geoff Emerick-engineered pyrotechnics. Was he hitting the mid-career slump, something that even Stax-style horns or a dose of Darryl Hall or Paul McCartney couldn’t fix?
He’d already tried a Country sojourn with an album of covers, 1981’s Almost Blue. But maybe there was still something to be found there, and anyway maybe it was time to find other musicians than the erstwhile Attractions, who had seen him through all the changes to date. So, inspired by working with T-Bone Burnett, a rather eclectic dude in his own right, McManus/Costello booked time in LA with guys who used to play with the real Elvis as well as Gram Parsons (Costello had already done an amazing job on two Parsons tunes, “I’m Your Toy” and “How Much I Lied” on Almost Blue). The result, released in 1986, is one of Costello’s best albums of the Eighties (billed as “The Elvis Costello Show”). And why not call it The King of America just to rub a bit of salt in.
Today’s song is one of my favorite tracks from the album, showing how Costello can work a ballad with torch-song pretensions, making it an occasion for getting misty at the right moments, and keeping twang at bay even while inviting it with his very sensitive acoustic guitar. It would be a great C&W song, almost (except its lyrics are a bit too sophisticated, so, OK, maybe it could be a Gram Parsons’ song—it would’ve been interesting to hear him do it as a duet with Emmylou).
The song sets up the idea that “indoors fireworks” are what happen when lovers are getting it on. Though it may be hard not to think of “skyrockets in flight,” Costello cleverly makes the fireworks not so safe—“can still burn your fingers,” “we swore were safe as houses.” Not spectacular like those in the sky, they “can still dazzle and delight,” then the kicker: “or bring a tear when the smoke gets in your eye.” Smoke in one’s eye has long been a figure for not seeing clearly in love affairs (see the song by The Platters: “when a lovely flame dies / smoke gets in your eyes”), so here the smoke of those fireworks—little orgasmic sparks—can bring a tear (from being moved) but also the tears of knowing what one would rather not. It’s all “parlour games” and “make believe.” And EC even throws in a sop to the soap opera nature of all lovers’ spats: “everybody loves a happy ending / But we don’t even try / We go straight past pretending / To the part where everybody loves to cry.” Break out the hankies!
It’s going to end sadly, and badly. But EC keeps so much brio in the game, it’s hard to see this as a depressed or despairing song. It’s full of a joie de vivre (“You were the spice in life / The gin in my vermouth”) that should equate to well-worth preserving amours. “Though the sparks would fly / I thought our love was fireproof” he quips, then gives a bit of the old push-and-purr: “Sometimes we’d fight in public, darling / With very little cause / But different kinds of sparks would fly / When we got on our own behind closed doors.” The contrast between public and private is something that endeared this song to me, being, myself, a veteran of both public and private conflagrations. It was good to hear EC work the relation between the two things so well. It’s the difference between giving a shit and not.
Of course, one might say it’s always better when it’s all simpatico, but. Me and EC in this song know better. I’m with him on this one and, in 1986 when this song became one of my go-to songs, there already had been and would be again just those kinds of scenes.
Which is why, I suppose, the ending of this song is one I’m very fond of. Indeed, I like to sing this song quietly to myself when no one’s listening. Let’s face it, you can’t be much of a performer if you can’t milk that last verse for all its worth:
It’s time to tell the truth / These things have to be faced / My fuse is burning out / And all that powder’s gone to waste (bear in mind I’ve been singing this since I was 27).
But don’t think for a moment, dear / That we’ll ever be through / I’ll build a bonfire of my dreams / And burn a broken effigy of me and you.
Burn a bro-ken ef-fi-gy of / me’n’you. You see the figures of the two of them collapsing together in a little bonfire, a bonfire of the dreams of something more or else or other. From fireworks we get to fire, the all-consuming kind, the kind that just leaves ashes for someone to sweep up later (see Gram Parsons: “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning”).
And the long delay at the end of the final chorus is choice too: “when the smoke gets in . . . your . . . . . . . eye.”