Art is life is life is art is love and all that stuff we’re so scared off. Richard and Linda Thompson released Shoot Out The Lights in 1982 and went on a tour supporting the critically acclaimed album. Linda ended the tour and left their marriage. The same year and two years before his divorce, Elvis Costello released Imperial Bedroom. Fresh off Born in The USA, Springsteen released Tunnel Of Love, a year later he was divorced.
The three albums are about sexual relationships at the point of maximum stress. They aren’t post-divorce albums like Here My Dear -rather they are in the albums in the midst of collapse. Costello’s lifestyle was destroying him and his first marriage; Springsteen was incapable of escaping who he was and what he wanted from marriage and Richard and Linda had embraced Islam but the religion wasn’t enough to save the spoiled brat manstar’s marriage. Costello is about relationships where communication has become impossible, Springsteen is about love lost in mistrust and the Thompson’s where the couples needs no longer coincide.
Richard and Linda’s is the most interesting (maybe the best as well) because we get to see both sides of the problem and also, to Richard’s credit I guess, just how off base he was. RC was an English folk rock legend and Linda an old pal of Sandy Denny on the Scottish folk circuit. They met up played together, recorded together and detailed their disastrous marriage in song. Springsteen was the top of the hip heap after recording with the E Street band the biggest album of their career and so he went small again, obsessed with love and the disguises of love, if R&K C were playing a hard folk rock often resorting to a guitar solo when words don’t work. When words do work one wonders if he might have been better off shutting up. “Who’s going to give you real happiness? Who’s going to give you contentedness? Who’s going to lead you? Who’s going to feed you? And cut you free?” You can see here RC’s problem, It’s the leading and feeding, he says he is the man in need while stuffing down your throat who is the master in the relationship.
This is plain speak compared to Springsteen. Springsteen, in what I believe is his strongest album to date, is baffled as to how to deal with the confusion that haunts Tunnel Of Love -an extended metaphor (and sometimes plainer than that) as to what happens when a big mistake is made. The tunnel isn’t a fairground ride, it is a pitch black ride where nothing is seeable, where it is easy for “two people to lose each” other and a strident guitar break is dark and scary. “Is it you?” Springsteen asks over and over again. “Maybe baby the gypsy lied.” “One step forwards and two steps back…” and and and “it ain’t bad feelins or nothing honey…” This was the biggest star in the world and he wrote an album about being completely clueless as to how to deal with romance. Engineered by Bob Clearmountain (and not produced by Landau!) and played mostly by Springsteen it is, in one sense, the personal to Nebraska’s political and also an act of freedom: a pushing away of stardom to study an emotional devastation.
Geoff Emerick, who engineered every Beatles album from Revolver to Abbey Road, produced Costello and the Attractions, and like the flooding of words that spills over the record sleeve, it is a flood of sound: as if, after all these years, Costello wanted to overwhelm his songs in sound and the record is like putting your head under water till you’re nearly drowned and the reason appears to be that he wants to express how he feels not why he feels it. In “Pidgin English” the words don’t seem able to express anything at all: “Silence is golden, money talks diamonds and ermine. There’s a word in Spanish, Italian and German, in sign language, morse code, semaphore and gibberish. Have you forgotten how to say it in your Pidgin English?” The relationship, the mispeak, the unkown desires, reach their nadir early: “The Long Honeymoon” segueing with a scream into “Man Out Of Time”. A life in ruins from a man out of time: it’s hard to know where Costello is left to turn: there is nowhere: everything is: the murder of love is complete by the end of the second song. Costello wants to be even handed, he wants to not just Alisonize the situation but his self-pity trips him up. I discovered years ago that when I don’t want to say something it help to talk a lot. Costello doesn’t just talk a lot he also over dubs himself into chorusses of Costello’s worrying out the words. He wants to speak but he wants to disappear at the same time.
Springsteen plain speaks down to his dirt farmer mumble and whinge but Springsteen’s problem isn’t Costello’s or RC’s. Those two guy KNOW WHAT’S WRONG BUT CAN’T FIGURE OUT HOW TO FIX IT. Springsteen sounds dazed on a terrific song like “When You’re Alone,” heart shaken on “Walk Like A Man,” guilty on “Two Faces”. The music is Springsteen rock but with a suggestion of country but not country like even country rock, more like the suggestion of a sorrow being shared: he doesn’t sound like Hank Williams, he sounds like a type of Hank Williams. Despite his every effort, Springsteen comes off like a hypocrite and am emotional cripple, Costello like a smug, self-deluding asshole, and Thompson worse than both.
If I had a sophies choice here, I think Thompson’s is the best here. It is definitely the best played. And it is a shaken up testament to what complete and total pricks men can be AND Linda is singing with him. In the song the married couple wrote together, “Did She Jump” works as straigh up metaphor: the possible suicide standing in for Linda’s soon to happen jumping out of the marriage. It is pretty upsetting stuff. “Forever always ends…” Linda states before reaching a question that plagues so many divorces (so many relationships, so many people leaving people) “Did she jump or was she pushed?” This is so far away from “Hokey Pokey” and “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight”. Instead, the bright lights are shot out and the marriage is dead.
None of these albums were anything more or less than the latest in careers which would stretch both backwards and forwards: they are part of an on going snap shot and part of the reason why all three musicians are among the greatest we have. I think the Springsteen and the Thompson are probably their best recorded works, Costello among his best. Thompson’s was a huge hit, Springsteen and Costello’s something of a return to earth. The songwriting on albums is excelelnt though none of these songs appear in their live shows any more.
But they are great indicators of how close all three guys can go into themselves to write songs: how willing they are to give up their most personal moments for the sake of a song. And maybe, as they give up love for song, why all three ended up divorced.
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