Elvis Costello at Hyde Park

The Costello Variations

Elvis Costello at Hyde Park

So I am watching Elvis Costello & The Imposters’ performance at Hyde Park on AXS TV. It was pre-Royal Baby. No lullabies were included. An hour-or-so-long set of the hits being rat-a-tat-tatted out with the drive of Pete Thomas on the drums like a high-speed stamping press.. Accidentswillhappenican’tstandupforfallingdownhighfidelityalisonradioradio. Barely a pause. At one point, a roadie has to step back away from Elvis as he attempts to swap out a guitar. Elvis sweats. He sweats some more. The crowd stands around. Nieve fiddles around with the knobs on his keyboards. Elvis chews—what?—gum. Davey smiles like Karl Pilkington. The band plays on and on and on and on and on.

And something occurred to me.

When Elvis started the set, his vocals were cringe-worthy. He was off in pitch. Off in timing. Just off.

But what was he off of? It was off of the versions of those songs as I have come to know them from his recordings. To be sure, I have seen him live many times. But even there, the sound of the songs, by and large, had to be comparatively close approximations of what had originally appeared on the recordings. Sure, he would mix things up—adding something of a reggae approach to “Watching the Detectives”—but again, all of the audio cues had to line up in some way with what had been released on My Aim Is True.

Here’s the thing: Is it possible for Elvis (or any other artist who is performing his or her own work) to do an off version of one of their pieces? After all, what it is departing from is something that that person had done, as well, and had that person (or a producer or whomever) decided to have another recorded version, another approach that is different from the one that we have come to expect to hear, then wouldn’t the version that we now know be, in some nontrivial way, off from what we expect?

How do we know that there isn’t a deliberate effort to sound crappy? How do we know that the artist just doesn’t want to seem as though he or she has forgotten the words or that their ability to vocalize isn’t want it was some 35 years ago.

What if, say, Costello was to put out My Aim Is True: The Laryngitis Sessions? Wouldn’t a scratchy, barely-audible rendition of “Waiting for the End of the World” be as valid as the “straight” version that we’re familiar with?

We expect everything to default to a definitive version. Variants are acceptable, but only within certain parameters.

Rock and roll doesn’t necessarily work that way. But our expectations do.

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