Elvis Costello and the Attractions – “Good Year for the Roses”

From Costello’s album of country covers came this single, which seemed to me at the time almost a novelty record, with a video pre-dating Awkward Family Photos. I couldn’t imagine who bought it, but someone must have as it got to number 6. I wasn’t really aware of country music, having experienced it first through my mother’s favourite, the indescribable Sidney Devine, and his west-coast (of Scotland) yodel, and I still associated it with his spangly polyester catsuits. (Like Costello, Sidney was a voracious consumer of genres, and had a “western” period ;).)

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Good Year for the Roses

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Good Year for the Roses

These days, country in its more credible, rootsy incarnation has crossed over into the contemporary scene, with authenticity amid the glitter, but there is an old-timey feel to this track; originally made not at all famous by George Jones, and an appropriate Costello cover. The wry wordplay, blue-collar mise en scène and melancholy of country are a perfect match for Costello, and this song’s protagonist is particularly suitable, struggling to conform and finding himself inadequate. He seems in a state of inertia, devastated yet apathetic, unable to change the trajectory of his relationship from order to entropy.

Typically, the song sounds more like the original than the original; the chocolate-boxy arrangement, with the sugary, chiming harmonies and the plangent wail of the pedal steel, is at odds with the mordant lyrics. I always found the schmaltzy sweetness of the sound something of a guilty pleasure, but was too young to really empathise with the lyrics.

Now the song sounds particularly bleak, using the breakdown of one marriage to illustrate the stifling conventionality of relationships, the comforting monotony of the thousand tiny tasks and duties required to maintain them, the pain of abandonment, and the absence of alternatives.

Roses are a common image in country songs, and here they are symbolic both of the happy ending and its illusory nature. By framing the central metaphor as a platitude, the song has its cake and eats it, both employing and undermining the sentimental cliché. It’s knowing, and grown-up, and the seemingly inevitable failure of even modest hopes is more profoundly heart-breaking than any histrionics.

Wendy

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