My Flame Burns Blue
ow do these ideas come to Mr. Costello? Yes, I understand, it’s his muse, but still… Do you just wake up one morning and your muse says, “Get your coffee, today we’re doing an orchestral soundtrack to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and while you’re at it, let’s have some jazz arrangements of your rock songs”? You get to wondering whether the man (or possibly the muse) is showing off. If my muse treated me like that, I’d go on strike.
With his trademark porkpie hat, stubble and, blazer, Elvis Costello has for many years approximated the rakish, rumpled, slightly frumpy charisma of a film noir P.I.. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the man has finally recorded the soundtrack to his very own film noir, starring himself and Holland’s Metropole Orkest. You can hear Costello’s evident pleasure at playing opposite such a flexible, resourceful co-star as the 52-strong Orkest, plenty large enough to play every other role—from string-filled love interest to brassy villainy.
Though it’s a toss-up as to which is more ambitious, My Flame Burns Blue isn’t quite as wildly divergent from Costello’s previous oeuvre as Il Sogno, the orchestral Puck vehicle that accompanies Flame as a bonus disc. Costello does actually sing, and even works in an old Attractions tune. All the songs have been transmuted well beyond the range of a simple cover, as Costello makes clear in the fastidious, unbearably fussy liner notes, which individually dissect the composition and arrangement of each song. A semi-random sampling: “While preparing and proposing repertoire for the collaborative album with Anne Sofie von Otter For The Stars, I received permission from the estate of Billy Strayhorn to write a lyric for his last composition…”
Good thing the album is less stuck up than its notes. In fact, Flame is really rather good: classy in the way that the best big bands are, deploying pizzazz and dignity in roughly equal measure. And Costello takes obvious, deserved pleasure in reimagining songs like “Clubland” and “Watching the Detectives” with them, teasing the originals’ deceptive guitarplusdrums simplicity into explicit, complex tonal and rhythmic patterns; “Clubland” marries big band swing to latin syncopation and a queasy carnival passage. The twitchy, paranoid derangement of “Episode of Blonde” sounds more fully realized than its Imposters studio incarnation, particularly in the contrast of the sweet chorus and manic verse. Costello’s songwriting is like Mariah Carey’s voice: the range is so impressive it overwhelms lesser feelings (enjoyment, annoyance, mystification).
And some of the songs do overreach. “Favourite Hour” injects a measure of punk bombast into a yearning torch song, with mixed results. Costello’s voice is an odd beast, lurking somewhere between dental drill and the nasal throat lozenges of Phil Collins. Costello’s drawl masks the compulsive, cerebral precision of his singing; he slurs and swoops, but always ends up exactly where he wants. When he leaps for the upper register, it’s a hair-raising experience, like watching the class nerd shoot tequila: is he going to make it? And he does, to somewhat mixed effect; I found myself deeply impressed with his sostenuto suppleness and vibrato accuracy, but also wishing that Costello’s sostenuto wasn’t quite so sustained.
“God Give Me Strength,” the Burt Bacharach collaboration that closes the album is also its emotional core. The lush arrangement, which makes full use of both the Orkest’s strings and horns, is evocative and wistful without cloying. Costello’s subtle jazz phrasing sounds natural, instinctive, and when he leaps for the emotional summit, voice cracking with exertion or emotion, he bears the listener away with him.
So it mostly doesn’t matter if Costello the Rennaissance Punk is showing off. A Costello song has more intellect than an entire month’s worth of Top 40; if you’ve got it, flaunt it. With a 20-piece string section, ideally.