All This Useless Beauty

In 1891, Oscar Wilde published the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray after a novella-length version was distributed as part of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. The novel included a preface by Wilde responding to the criticism the work had received when printed as part of the periodical. Wilde’s preface ends with the following lines:

We can forgive a man for making a useful
thing as long as he does not admire it. The
only excuse for making a useless thing is that
one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.

The series of aphorisms that make up the preface was Wilde’s advocacy of the concept of art-for-art’s sake, especially in light of critics calling his novel a “bad book” and placing moral judgements on Wilde himself as its author. When asked about the last line — “All art is quite useless” — Wilde penned a letter in response which expanded on the idea:

“Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.”

A little over one hundred years after Wilde reflects on the utility of art, Elvis Costello contemplates the same theme and more in the song “All This Useless Beauty,” a track off of the 1996 album of the same name:

Many of the songs on the album were originally written for other singers to perform Costello’s words. In the case of the title track, Costello wrote in the liner notes for the album that it was “originally written for that great voice from English folk music, June Tabor.” In those same liner notes, Costello muses further on the intention behind the songs and the resulting album:

“This record exists in the distance between an ideal and the reality. I’ve read that it is simply a collection of songs that I wrote for other singers – usually with the implication that this was a bad or inferior thing. True, I had the voice of certain singers in mind when many of these songs were composed. However, compared to the original blueprint, the final album contains only four previously recorded songs…If it was in any way an exercise, then it was one in creeping up on yourself, in order to trick out a song that would have otherwise remained elusive. It was the idealised version of a performer that caused me to compose. The content of the songs – the words and the actual music were of my imagining and I had always intended to sing the songs myself at some stage.”

This idea of “creeping up on yourself” as a songwriting exercise is what Costello says in 2001 at the time the liner notes were written, but he expands on the true objective of this process in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink:

“There were a number of years during the 1990s when I actually felt happier writing songs for other people to sing, even if some of them contained some of my most personal thoughts and feelings.”

The act of composing for others served as a kind of protective armor for Costello behind which he could allow his true voice to be heard within his art. “All This Useless Beauty” — as sung by June Tabor or Elvis Costello — is a work abounding with piercing emotions. The song opens with a series of gorgeous chords on the piano. For the album, Costello is once again reunited with The Attractions. The beautiful piano is provided by Steve Nieve, who is doing his best to summon the ghost of jazz pianist Bill Evans. Miles Davis once described Evans’ playing as sounding like “crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.” Evans’s performance of “All of You” from his 1961 album Sunday at the Village Vanguard is an actualization of Davis’s vision:

Nieve is able to capture Evans’s sound with his playing during “All This Useless Beauty.” Nieve’s piano is prominent throughout the rest of the album as Costello wrote later: “Arrangements were stripped down and more emphasis placed on the voice and the piano. This didn’t exactly help the feeling of group unity.“ This would be the last album produced and released by Elvis Costello & The Attractions. 

After Nieve’s piano intro, Costello enters and sings the opening lines:

It’s at times such as this she’d be tempted to spit
If she wasn’t so ladylike.

With only a few words, Costello conveys so much about the woman at the heart of the song, including her emotional state and the conventions of the society within which she lives. In fact, these opening lines could be mistaken as an observation from the pen of Oscar Wilde. Costello continues with his portrayal of this woman’s emotional state:

She imagines how she might have lived back when legends and history collide.

The woman is daydreaming of herself in the past. What time period does she fantasize for herself? Is it Victorian society that Wilde so cleverly mocked and adroitly lampooned? The next line introduces the second character of the song:

So she looks to her prince finding since he’s so charmingly slumped at her side.

The man with whom she is attached is far from ideal as Costello puns on the image of Prince Charming to turn him into a character that should be referred to as Prince Charmingly Slumped. Not only is her contempt of this man overwhelming to the point of making her want to spit, she’s finding herself adrift as Costello sings the closing line of the opening verse: “And she’s waiting for passion or humour to strike.” With this line, Costello tells us that he is not only writing about a bitter and lost woman, but he is also reflecting on the purpose of the artistic process. One can imagine that as a writer, Costello himself has found himself “waiting for passion or humour to strike.” Both the woman in the song and Costello-as-artist are seeking inspiration and finding themselves lacking. Costello immediately moves to the chorus:

What shall we do, what shall we do with all this useless beauty?
All this useless beauty.

The question asked in the chorus is one that the woman asks about herself: beauty can only allow her to go so far in the world. She has been called beautiful all of her life to such an extent that she has been the subject of art as noted in the first verse: “Those days are recalled on the gallery wall.” Her beauty has been the inspiration for artists. But to what purpose for her? What about her own passion? What about inspiration? For her, beauty is useless.

The question at the core of the chorus is also one that Costello is asking about his own artistic output. What happens with these beautiful songs that I write? Am I changing the world? Does it have any function? The notion of art as “useless beauty” implies a note of nihilism, a meaningless to the artistic pursuit. For Oscar Wilde, there’s freedom in that lack of responsibility. He is able to produce within the limitations that the artist’s only directive is to produce something unique and beautiful, nothing else. In the chorus of the song, Costello takes up Wilde’s vision from the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray of “useless beauty” and instead seems to be yearning for something more, something beyond simply beauty as an end to itself. 

Costello compounds these questions he has about the utility of his art by composing one of the most beautiful melodies of his career. It is superbly sung by Costello and the playing by The Attractions — especially Nieve — is exquisite. The construction of the piano lines accentuate the beauty of the song, further emphasizing the subject that Costello is considering; it’s a beautiful song about beauty. 

The second verse centers on the relationship of between the woman, Useless Beauty, and her partner, Prince Charmingly Slumped:

Good Friday arrived, the sky darkened on time
‘Til he almost began to negotiate
She held his head like a baby and said “It’s okay if you cry”
Now he wants her to dress as if you couldn’t guess
He desires to impress his associates
But he’s part ugly beast and Hellenic deceased
So she finds that the mixture is hard to deny.

In Costello’s contemplation of beauty, the depiction of the man becomes uglier as the song proceeds. Prince Charmingly Slumped is completely dependent on her for his emotional needs, but then tries to control her to such an extent as to direct her clothing choices “to impress his associates.” Despite these shortcomings, she is still attracted to him. Why? Costello describes him as being “part ugly beast and Hellenic deceased.” The meaning of the second part of the illustration is obscure. “Hellenic” is a reference to the Greek people of ancient history. Perhaps the phrase “Hellenic deceased” refers to the practice of how the ancient Greeks prepared the lost ones for death. According to a study of Hellenic death rituals, “Upon a person’s decease, the eyes and mouth are closed to allow the psyche to leave the body. A coin can be placed in the mouth to pay Chiron for passage across the river Styx.” In this reading of Costello’s words, Useless Beauty cannot deny the combination of her partner’s animal appeal as well as a “psyche” that has left the body but one with ready access to coins. Namely, he is rich with a boorish temperament that cannot stand objection or rejection. 

After another gorgeous pass through the chorus, Costello and the band move to the bridge. Costello shifts in an upper register, singing:

She won’t practice the looks from the great tragic books
That were later disgraced to face celluloid
It won’t even make sense but you can bet
If she isn’t a sweetheart or plaything or pet
The film turns her into an unveiled threat.

In these lines, Costello takes up different types of artistic endeavors that attempt to capture the beauty of a woman, specifically films and the “great tragic books.” The woman in the song won’t participate in these endeavors as she won’t allow herself to be “a sweetheart of plaything or pet” anymore. Her appearance in a movie would amount to “an unveiled threat.” She won’t let her beauty speak for her anymore. In the subtext of the song —Costello’s ongoing investigation into the purpose of art —he, like the woman in the song, questions different artistic mediums and their inability to capture the beauty of the world. Instead of a noble pursuit, film should be regarded suspiciously, “an unveiled threat” to an innocent and unsuspecting audience.

After the bridge, the song moves to the final verse, though neither of the characters Prince Charmingly Slumped nor Useless Beauty are outwardly named. Despite this, Costello tells us of their fate: “Nonsense prevails, modesty fails / Grace and virtue turn into stupidity.” Costello is saying that as time goes by, the conflict within their relationship, which is represented by the word choice “barricade,” dwindles and amounts to nothing more than “a pale compromise.” Any of the ideals that she represented and stood for — “grace and virtue” — are gone. As Costello renders a final judgment on this relationship, he also depicts an artist’s typical trajectory, starting out with firm aesthetic beliefs and stances, but eventually letting those ideals fade away. As the artist falters, there is an opening for captains of industry to take advantage of artists and art. Costello says that “leaders have feasts on the backsides of beasts.” They chomp away and gorge themselves, flaunting the opulence of the wealth that they have accumulated in the name of art. While not creators, they take credit for the art produced in the absence of the artist. As Costello sings: “They still think they’re the gods of antiquity.” Costello finishes the song with the following lines:

If something you missed didn’t even exist
It was just an ideal — is it such a surprise?

These lines seem to be Costello’s final refutation of Wilde’s art-for-art’s sake position. If the artist is no longer trying for something greater than solely beauty, then the pursuit is “just an ideal” that can be passed over and discarded without a second thought. Costello rhetorically asks “Is it such a surprise” that the artist is left out and replaced by those that “think they’re the gods of antiquity”? The captains of industry thus become the final arbiters of taste. With these words, the song captures Costello’s realization of the artist’s abdication of responsibility in the name of beauty-for-beauty’s sake. There is judgment here on Costello’s part, but the call that he is making is directed inward. In looking back on the song, Costello reflected: 

“None of these lyrics contained any anger toward the characters, only disappointment that they had settled for so little. I could just as easily have been talking to myself.”

After the final verse, Costello and The Attractions sing and play the chorus twice. Costello sings the chorus in a higher octave, his voice filled with passion and intent. As the second chorus is completed, a strange coda plays. It sounds like an old music box that does not work as intended through age and disuse. The tracks of the gears that produce the music from the music box don’t quite fit together anymore. The initial beauty of the music has been lost and has transformed into something else. The vision of the original artistic creation is gone. The coda is a musical representation of the last line of the song. If the artist forgets to care about the “ideal,” neglecting their obligation towards art, “is it any surprise” if the art doesn’t operate the way that it should. 

Five years after the release of the song, Costello wrote:

“This is the first of my albums to be named after a song actually included on the disc. The title All this Useless Beauty was used in sarcastic acknowledgement of the likely fate of this record.”

In submitting the album that contained this song to his record company, Costello was handing over his art to those that think “they’re the gods of antiquity.” He is beholden to them through his recording contract, but guesses that the album will not find an audience because the recording company itself has given up trying on behalf of Costello’s art. By naming the album after this song, he emphasizes his internal struggle represented by the song. This ensures that those who are able to hear about the latest release from Elvis Costello by simply knowing the album title are aware of his meditations on the responsibilities of the artist.

Everything about “All This Useless Beauty” is masterful by Costello and The Attractions. The writing and the performance of the song meld into one as the musical accompaniment matches the beauty about which Costello writes. Naming the album after the song unifies Costello’s vision as it reflects how he is grappling with questions about artistic intent, process, duty, and burden.  

Image: Kippelboy, Conservation-restoration workshops of Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, in Barcelona, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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