You Can't See It Any Clearer
That Fatal Mailing List #64: "American Mirror" (2016)
As the man himself says, imagination is a powerful deceiver.
Alongside my deep obsession with Elvis Costello, I am also deeply obsessed with Bruce Springsteen (among other things, all of which I’m sure will merit a mention at some point during this long worthy enterprise). Scratch the surface of Springsteen’s music, and there’s depths to be plumbed that will take you about as far down as you are prepared to go. If you’re eventually so enamored of the man’s music that you are psyched to hear him in his bedroom laying down a 90-second acoustic guitar demo of a song that he probably never played again in his life, that’s out there. Google is your friend.
Of course, part of that appeal is that Springsteen never phones it in; his tossed-off bedroom demos are better than some albums that artists labor over for months. But another part is this idea of imaginary music, songs that exist more brightly in the mind because they’ve never been properly recorded, and likely never will be. Because imaginary music can never be fully realized, you can never be fully satisfied as a listener, and so it’s compulsory to return to these works over and over again, dreaming of what could have been.
(My favorite of Springsteen’s imaginary songs is known by a few titles but perhaps most widely as “Out on the Run (Looking for Love).” As far as the indispensable Brucebase knows, he played it three times in a rehearsal on March 30, 1979. There’s no evidence he ever took the song into the studio; so far two archival releases (Tracks and the River boxed set The Ties That Bind) haven’t coughed up any evidence that the song was even a contender. But it sounds pretty developed in terms of arrangement, and goddamn, the way it springs out like a bullet from a gun and Roy Bittan is already rattling out incredible piano fills and that key change on the bridge…! Have mercy.)
EC has had his share of imaginary music too, though not as much as Springsteen. My sense as a fan has been that Costello has never been as searching as the Boss when it comes time to make a record, and Springsteen went through long periods in his career where he would lay down any number of songs that sprung from his guitar and then sort through the potentials to figure out what he wanted to say.
At this point, Costello’s work on his long-gestating musical adaptation of A Face in the Crowd feels like imaginary music (although I desperately hope it isn’t and we’ll see it on Broadway or on a two-disc concept recording any moment now). Costello started talking about his adaptation of the 1957 Elia Kazan/Budd Schulberg film in 2016, although he may also have been talking about adapting the original short story by Schulberg. Over the course of 2016 and 2017, Costello debuted a number of these songs live.
As I did last time we talked about a song from Face in the Crowd, you really need to read the exceptional piece by Steven Hanna on the EC Song By Song blog, which stitches all the known songs together into something like a possible narrative with good analysis along the way. Today we turn to “American Mirror,” a song that the blog suggests could belong to female lead Marcia Jeffries or to supporting character (and conscience of the story) Mel Miller.
A Face in the Crowd is a sardonic parable about a random country bumpkin who appears on a radio show, finds an immediate audience, and then is inflated quickly to megastar status, with an undercurrent of hate and desperation throbbing beneath his good-ol-boy perspective on the world. “American Mirror” plays as a summation, or an exhortation, or both; it sounds like an “11 o’clock number” if I’ve ever heard one.
All of the Face in the Crowd songs I’ve heard have been intriguing and beautiful but this is the first one that feels like an instant classic. Again, I recommend you to Hanna’s interpretation, which I could not begin to match:
Demagogues rise and fall, at least in the comforting world of drama. Perhaps in real life they don’t fall quickly enough – Costello himself referred to the terrifying examples of Hitler and Mussolini, who went much farther than Lonesome Rhodes ever has a chance to. But, as Costello has Mel say in his musical’s closing moments, “we’re all in this thing together.” It’s clear Costello thinks of the show as Marcia’s, so it’s unlikely he’d give Mel the last word – there’s probably at least one more Marcia number after this, a coda to close out the night – but it’s hard to imagine a stronger sentiment to send a Broadway audience out into the theater-district streets with than the beautiful professions that conclude “American Mirror”:
There’s more than enough of this wealth to share
There’s more than enough of this blame to bear
There’s more than enough of this shame to share
And you couldn’t see it any clearer
In this American mirror…
As Costello heads into that chorus, there’s a shift in the song, from a gospel-infused mid-tempo ballad to a more uptempo, driving rock song. The key shifts completely and the hook unfolds, as catchy and redemptive a moment as he’s ever written. Redemptive, but for who? We’re watching a drama unfold on stage and in lyric, but we’re also looking into that American mirror and wondering if the clarity we’re seeking is in the characters we see, or in ourselves.