The Windup World of the Nervous Tick
History repeats the old conceits
The glib replies the same defeats
Keep your finger on important issues
With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues
I'm just the oily slick
On the windup world of the nervous tick
In a very fashionable hovel
—Elvis Costello, "Beyond Belief"
Love begins with a question. In our first substantial conversation, the young woman who became my wife wanted to know if I had any thoughts concerning the meaning of Elvis Costello's last radio hit, "Veronica," a Paul McCartney-collaboration from his 1989 album, Spike. Little did she know that contemplating Elvis Costello lyrics was (and is) one of my favorite pastimes. And oh the joys of being asked to indulge an explication (by a female, no less)! I happily explained that the song is an ode to his grandmother, whose knowing glances and romantic memories survive a quietly ordered existence surrounded by nursing home personnel ("They call her a name that they never get right / And if they don't, then nobody else will"). In between her vacant stares, Costello notes the occasional smile and the penetrating look of recognition and derives an abiding encouragement from both. My wife-to-be was satisfied by my answer, and I was, to say the least, deeply gratified by her satisfaction. It was her favorite Costello song, as it turns out, and I couldn't have asked for a more fertile bit of common ground.
The affectionate interrogation that drives a song like "Veronica" ("Is it all in that pretty little head of yours?") is a defining trait of Costello's entire catalogue. The hasty listener will protest that this aging punk rocker is primarily possessed by the cleverly worded rant, the posture of a spurned lover, and a mostly unmatched cynicism. But this is only the work of pr machinery (admittedly encouraged by the man himself) that screeched to a halt 20 years ago. A close listen to "Alison" ("I know this world is killing you") or the twangy, countrified demos of his early work will reveal a more subtle context and ...