Brilliant Mistake

In 1984, Elvis Costello undertook a series of solo concerts in which he shared the bill with T Bone Burnett, the Texan musician who had not yet become the svengali producer figure that he is known as today. These solo performances and the emerging creative partnership with Burnett led Costello to a specific vision for his work, as he expressed in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink:

“I was writing all my songs on a 1935 Martin 000-28. I wanted the acoustic guitar to be at the center of my next picture, because I was sick of yelling.”

The resulting album was 1986’s King of America with the song “Brilliant Mistake” serving as the opening track:

The song kicks off with a jazzy little bass run played by Jerry Scheff, most known for playing in the TCB Band, the infamous backing band for the other Elvis. Immediately, an ocean of acoustic guitars roar into the song as Costello holds true on his promise to have the acoustic guitar be the foundation of the album. How many guitars are playing in that intro? Two? Three? Twenty-seven? The backing group that Burnett assembles for the album shows off their professional playing on “Brilliant Mistake.” It’s not flashy as Costello and company put their emphasis on the song itself. Costello begins singing with the following words:

He thought he was the King of America
Where they pour Coca Cola just like vintage wine
Now I try hard not to become hysterical
But I’m not sure if I am laughing or crying.

This fascinating set of lyrics starts with a classic opening line, matched only by the audaciously funny rhyme of “America” with “hysterical.” As described before on Recliner Notes, Costello is a master of opening an album with lines that provide tantalizing hints about the themes he will explore on the rest of the record. As Costello wrote in the liner notes for the album’s re-release, the songs on the album

“focus on macabre tales and some of the grotesques that I had encountered on my own American travels…’Brilliant Mistake’ continue[s] the theme of exile and a simultaneous attraction and repulsion to an ideal. That is why the album is called King Of America. It is inherently contradictory.”

Costello expands on this idea in Unfaithful Music by writing:

 “For everything I thought I knew about America, you could say the opposite was the truth. It was the most wanton place and the most prohibitive, both seductive and prim. For every brash sales pitch and disposable thrill there was decency and strange, deep traditions that European clichés about America often overlooked.”

Costello’s thoughts on the United States mirror those of D.H. Lawrence, another Englishmen who sought an understanding of America through exile. In Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence writes about the impulse that attracted the original settlers to America in the first place:

“They came largely to get away—that most simple of motives. To get away. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves. Away from everything. That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been.”

This echoes Costello’s notion of America as a haven for those who have imposed a kind of self-exile on themselves as he writes in Unfaithful Music that “Brilliant Mistake” presents figures who are

“being deluded or imagining a life in exile—better a stranger in your own hometown than a stranger to your own better nature.”

Lawrence himself eventually ended up in the United States, on the run from censorship and many other things. His exile was not of his own choosing but a result of external forces. Lawrence has similar ideas as Costello about the inherent contradictions within the United States:

“Freedom anyhow? The land of the free! This the land of the free! Why, if I say anything that displeases them, the free mob will lynch me, and that’s my freedom. Free? Why I have never been in any country where the individual has such an abject fear of his fellow countrymen. Because, as I say, they are free to lynch him the moment he shows he is not one of them…It isn’t freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you find something you really positively want to be. And people in America have always been shouting about the things they are not.”

Costello sings the first chorus in the song:

It was a fine idea at the time
Now it’s a brilliant mistake.

These words about the original promise of America and its ongoing paradoxical nature align with the above quote from Lawrence. The gorgeous melody of the chorus is underlined by Costello overdubbing himself, providing a vocal harmony on the first line. In the second line, the main vocal part sings “Now it’s a” which is immediately echoed by the harmony vocal repeating “Now it’s a” and joining together for the title words, “brilliant mistake.” It is an engaging chorus, inviting an all-encompassing sing-along that includes many Americans, who may not know that Costello is referring to their home country. Or they do know about Costello’s intentions and wholeheartedly agree. Either way, it’s such a beautiful melody that everyone joins in this celebration of the contradiction of America.

The chorus is followed by an instrumental break led by Mitchell Froom’s keyboard which is answered by accordion played by T-Bone Wolk (yes, there are two people named “T-Bone ” involved with the recording of “Brilliant Mistake”). After the last little accordion fill, there’s a descending series of notes played by the keyboard and guitars which sound remarkably like the instrumentation played by Neil Young and his Nashville band in his 1972 hit “Heart of Gold.” Immediately after Young sings the last line in the chorus, “And I’m gettiin’ old,” there’s the same descending series of notes as in “Brilliant Mistake”:

This must be an homage on Costello’s part as his love of Neil Young is well-documented. Young’s song is an expression of his search for love, but these lines from “Heart of Gold” surely resonated with Costello:

I’ve been to Hollywood
I’ve been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean
For a heart of gold.

Costello is on his own search for truth and purity as an exile in America, but can’t find it within the land of the “brilliant mistake.” In the second verse of “Brilliant Mistake,” Costello presents a portrait of a figure that to him represents America’s worst contradictions:

She said that she was working for the ABC News
It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use
Her perfume was unspeakable
It lingered in the air
Like her artificial laughter.

This is not at all a kind representation by Costello of this female character, but rather a biting portrayal. As the verse progresses, the woman speaks of the multiple love affairs she has had, including one man who is known to both her and the narrator. He may be a celebrity in some sense as the narrator says:

“Oh” I said “I see you know him”
“Isn’t that very fortunate for you.”

There’s a shift in perspective in the chorus as Costello sings it from the woman’s point of view, saying of this male celebrity from her past:

He was a fine idea at the time
Now he’s a brilliant mistake.

By saying these words, It’s unclear if she is referring to her former paramour’s celebrity status or her own personal interaction with him. Is she regretful of that love affair or is she regretful on behalf of America that he was thought to be worthy of extra attention? Costello leaves the interpretation open. Either way, it’s a harsh portrayal of the female character. 

The final verse of the song starts with the same opening lines of the song: “He thought he was the King of America.” The guitars fall away as Costello sings the beginning of this verse accompanied only by a keyboard and an occasional thump from the drums. He calls the country a “boulevard of broken dreams” which is achieved through “A trick they do with mirrors and with chemicals.” Costello once wrote that there could be a mistaken interpretation of this line:

“It means celluloid and mirrors, movie cameras. It occurred to me the other day that people will think it’s a reference to cocaine.” 

Costello places the location of the song firmly within in the land of Hollywood, a place where, as he sings:

The words of love in whispers
And the axe of love in screams.

It’s an apt description of the Hollywood axiom that violence sells. In Costello’s eyes, Hollywood and America are one and the same in this respect, downplaying “words of love” when “the axe of love” is what gets the attention and sells tickets. Once again, Costello’s thoughts run parallel with Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature:

“The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the under-consciousness so devilish. Destroy! destroy! destroy! hums the under-consciousness. Love and produce! Love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness. And the world hears only the Love-and-produce cackle. Refuses to hear the hum of destruction underneath.”

Costello’s “axe of love” is the same as Lawrence’s “under-consciousness,” bent on destruction. America has undergone a shift as the destruction that Lawrence describes was once merely a “hum” below the surface, but, in Costello’s America, it is now a “scream.” Violence and destruction has been embraced, out in the open, for everyone to see and purchase in Costello’s vision of Hollywood and America. The full band kicks back as Costello’s narrator considers America’s misguided priorities and says:

I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this lovin’ feeling disappear
Like it was common sense.

Here, Costello seems to be saying that he wishes he could be rid of this present America, to put aside his love for it knowing that that is what “common sense” would dictate to a rational person. Costello’s yearning for an America of the past, a mythic Golden Age, is reinforced by his lyrical nod to the 1964 hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by The Righteous Brothers. Costello answers these own thoughts by singing a new version of the chorus:

I was a fine idea at the time
Now I’m a brilliant mistake.

In the third and final chorus, Costello once again shifts the viewpoint of the song. Now he uses the first-person pronoun. Costello has cleverly crafted the lines of the chorus to fit the previous lines of the third verse. He sings in the final verse that he wishes he could “talk in the past and not the present tense.” In this last chorus, the first line is in the past tense referring to when Costello himself “was a fine idea,” but the next line is in the present tense. It is a recognition that he himself is a “brilliant mistake.” Costello is including himself in America’s contradictions and destruction. For all the ugliness of the portrayal of the woman in the second verse, Costello knows that he is more craven and shallow than she is. For all the misbegotten and violent art-as-product churned out by Hollywood, he knows that he participates in that same system not only as a consumer but also by permitting his own art and own self image to be sold as a product. This is reinforced by Costello repeating the first-person chorus a second time, each with the doubled vocal lines with multiple Costellos recognizing himself/themselves as a “brilliant mistake.”

Costello has revealed much about himself in multiple songs, especially “Brilliant Mistake.” Leave it to D.H. Lawrence to yet again provide the perfect quotation about artists and expression of self through their art:

“Art-speech is the only truth. An artist is usually a damned liar, but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth of his day. And that is all that matters…Truly art is a sort of subterfuge. But thank God for it, we can see through the subterfuge if we choose. Art has two great functions. First, it provides an emotional experience. And then, if we have the courage of our own feelings, it becomes a mine of practical truth. We have had the feelings ad nauseam. But we’ve never dared dig the actual truth out of them, the truth that concerns us, whether it concerns our grandchildren or not.”

For everything that Costello says in his quotes about the process of composing “Brilliant Mistake” and how he thinks the song reflects on the concept of America, the core truth that Costello shares in his own act of “art-speech” with the song is his own sadness as a man-in-exile and a deep yearning for connection. He is truly the King of America. 

Image: Michael E. Arth, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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