What Can Writers Learn From Songwriters? Elvis Costello

 Elvis Costello is an underrated lyricist. True, he has legions of fans and is widely respected in the industry. However, his name is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen when it comes to lyrics. But he would give both of them a run for their money with the quality of some of his writing. And like them both, he has his different periods.

When he started out, Elvis Costello was an angry young man. And it’s in those lyrics that the first lesson for writers is contained. I’ve spoken before (in posts about Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen) about the ability of these writers to write sparklingly witty but also quite vicious one-liners and Elvis is a master of that. Any writer who wants to write satire and witty put-downs need look no further than the King of snark. For example:

“She said she was working for the ABC news,
It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use.”

“I was a fine idea at the time,
But now I’m a brilliant mistake.”
“Brilliant Mistake”

“I can’t lie on this bed any more – it burns my skin.
You can take the truthful things you’ve said to me and fit them on the head of a pin.”
“Poor Napoleon”

Or one of my personal favourites:

“Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired…”
“Welcome to the Working Week”


Another thing that Elvis Costello can teach writers is how to write with disarming honesty. One of the most stunning examples of this is a song he wrote during the break-up of his marriage to his first wife. He actually addressed it in a number of songs, one of which – “Indoor Fireworks” – contains the lines:

“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.”

But the song that – for me – has the most brutal honesty of all is the song “I Want You”. This song is almost like a poem or even a short story and it reminds me a little of Joyce’s or Virginia Wolff’s stream-of-consciousness approach. It begins with the line:

“I want you,
You’ve had your fun you don’t get well no more.”

and slowly builds and builds with increasingly vicious rhetoric directed at his ex-wife.

“Did you mean to tell me but seem to forget?
Since when were you so generous and inarticulate?”

“It’s knowing that he knows you now after only guessing
It’s the thought of him undressing you or you undressing.”

“Did you call his name out as he held you down?
Oh no my darling not with that clown.”

It is – at times – painful to listen to, it is so brutal and brutally honest, and he certainly doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of either his wife or himself. But this is the honesty that every writer could learn from. And if none of these lyrics appeal to you … well, I’ll leave the last word to Mr. Costello himself:

“And if you don’t like my song then you can just go to hell
I don’t care if I’m right or wrong or if my typewriter can spell.”
“Little Atoms”

(Image: Click on pic for credits)

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3 thoughts on “What Can Writers Learn From Songwriters? Elvis Costello

  1. Great post! When I was at university with a split major in creative writing and poetry, I tried to bring in Elvis Costello lyrics because I found them so stunning and creative. (My teachers wouldn’t allow it and I still think they were wrong).

    One of Elvis Costello’s most literary albums which I listened to obsessively is The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky quartet:

    The hunted look, the haunted grace
    The empty laugh that you cultivate
    You fall into that false embrace
    And kiss the air about her face
    Who do you think you are?

    The tres bon mots you almost quote
    From your quiver of literary darts
    A thousand or so tuneless violins
    Thrilling your cheap little heart
    Who do you think you are?

    The whole album is like a book. So beautiful.

  2. This is a great post Derek. I’ve always liked Elvis Costello but never really stopped to actually hear or read the lyrics. Those lines from “Indoor Fireworks” and “I Want You” sent chills down my spine.

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