Live at the El Mocambo / Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
(Hip-O-Select / Hear Music; 2009)
By Christopher Alexander | 31 October 2009
Elvis Costello and the Attractions aren’t so much on fire at Toronto’s El Mocambo night club as they’re standing on a volcano. Naturally, there are eruptions: bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas create such a violent force during the breakneck “Lipstick Vogue” that the song’s bridge sounds like a spinning top. Bruce, having stretched the boundaries of the song’s home key, finally snaps them and plays high, trembling chords not found in any scale. Pete stays locked in to his hellish tempo but unleashes a volley of vertiginous snare rolls that makes the section difficult to follow. Keyboardist Steve Naive and Costello are in on the act as well, digging into one high, sloppy chord until the sound bleeds. There is a paroxysm, and there is release, but the rhythm musicians are still playing at a high rate of dexterity—Pete rolls the toms now, Bruce bubbles along on one low note; the threat of violence hasn’t abated. Indeed, it is only waiting for Costello to summon it back with the right words: “Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being.” And the band again jumps into a fury, spitting it at the singer as if to shout “Hallelujah.”
The Attractions on Live at El Mocambo are as good a rock band as any ever recorded, and Costello simultaneously hones their aggression into a pointed shape and rides their unformed, bilious wave. “Waiting for the End of the World,” a song almost defanged on My Aim is True (1977), is dizzying and elastic in the hands of the Attractions, expanded well past the length of the album version. Likewise, the band’s propulsive, intelligent sense of dynamic range makes the underwritten “The Beat” sound like an opus, a highlight here as it is on This Year’s Model (1978). Costello’s dissatisfaction at his own impotence is rendered into palpable nervous energy on “Mystery Dance,” while the thunderous push-pull of “Radio Radio” is used to condemn the medium. If, as Costello claims, “The radio is in the hand of such a lot of fools / Trying to anesthetize the way that you feel,” then a musical accompaniment this vibrant says more about the political economy of radio than anything the singer can dish out, which is saying rather a lot when the singer dishes out a self-aware line like “I want to bite the hand that feeds me / I want to bite that hand so badly.”
“It’s good to be back in a club,” Costello announces at one point, having found previous audiences lacking sufficiently rabid mania. The crowd cries for the ballad “Alison” and instead gets “Little Triggers,” an explicit wedding of sex, infatuation, and violence. “This is for all you Canadians,” he tells the Toronto crowd after the “Dallas version” or “Less Than Zero,” a song which renders the Zapruder film into pornography and, with that, North American history into frivolity. It’s as close to nihilism as this punk avatar gets. “We’ve come here from England to ask for the country back.” A crowd member tells him to go ahead. Costello responds at the start of “Pump it Up,” “He thinks I don’t mean it!” and though it occurs nine songs later at the show’s end, there’s every reason to think this conversation never stopped. The show is a dominating performance, and thirty years later one still has no choice but to submit.
Live at the El Mocambo has been widely bootlegged and even anthologized on Rykodisc’s 2½ Years (1993) box set. The reissues of vintage Costello discs have become downright Byzantine, and while there’s still some gold left in the vault (the three-disc Deluxe Edition of This Year’s Model, issued by Universal last year, contains a show from the same era that is almost as good as the one presented here), this is his first coherent reissue since the Rhino discs (still in print) ceased with King of America (1986). It’s a shame, then, that it casts a poor light on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, his most recent album with America‘s producer, T-Bone Burnett.
Sugarcane isn’t without charm. There’s a plangent, spooky reading of “Complicated Shadows,” a downbeat, romantic take on the chestnut “Change Partners,” an old Bing Crosby campfire sing-along called “I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came,” a song co-written with Loretta Lynn that bears her melancholy stamp and which is easily the best piece of writing here, and the there’s “Sulphur to Sugarcane,” an amusing “new song for the old campaign” where girls from Poughkeepsie “take their clothes off when they’re tipsy.” And: “But I hear in Ypsilanti / They don’t wear any panties” (They also “really like [his] sauce” in Worcester. What, they didn’t want all of him in Albany?).
Oh, charm abounds; what the album lacks is direction. “Complicated Shadows” dates back to 1996 and “I Dreamed of My Old Lover” is from 2004, an outtake from The Delivery Man sessions. Costello’s country albums are usually triumphs, but he’s never relied on the form the way he does here. King of America found Declan MacManus attempting to reinvent himself in his beloved country records, instead emerging irreducible and triumphant; only Elvis Costello could write a line like “She said she was working for ABC news / It was as much as the alphabet as she knew how to use,” which he did in “Brilliant Mistake.” Here, he’s evaporated into the form: anyone could’ve written “Down Among the Wines and Spirits,” which, if recent features are to be believed, is an autobiographical account of Costello’s alcoholism (“Down among the wine and spirits / Where a man gets what he merits / Once it was written in letters ‘bout nine feet tall / Now he sees how far he’s fallen”). Burnett and Costello’s professionalism keep this from being a slog—even the blandest songs, like “My All Time Doll,” are well-arranged and performed. But now it’s hard to believe the lascivious exploits detailed in “Sulfur to Sugarcane” when the woman who wanted to throw him away when he wasn’t broken produced such an avalanche in “Lipstick Vogue.” The latter song invigorates listeners, brings us to places we’d otherwise never see. It conquers us. The former song is merely wallpaper, no matter how pleasant.