Poor Fractured Atlas

In the beginning of D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, there is an account of how Zeus became “lord of the universe” by defeating the Titans who revolted against him and Zeus’s claim of dominion over them. In the wake of Zeus’s triumph, he punished various Titans for their participation in the insurgency. One sentence was particularly harsh:

“Atlas, the strongest of the Titans, was sent to the end of the world to carry forever the vault of the sky on his shoulders.”

Based on this myth, artists from across the ages have rendered the image of Atlas carrying his burden in their work. These representations touch on Atlas’s strength while also portraying his responsibility to the rest of the world as the result of a punishment. The gift of strength always comes with the burden of an obligation to others. Elvis Costello takes up the subject of Atlas in his song “Poor Fractured Atlas”:

The song is from Costello’s 1996 release All This Useless Beauty, the last album he would record with The Attractions. Though the tension within the members of the band could not be resolved, they were still capable of tremendous work. As Costello wrote looking back on this song:

“I believe that the elegant and restrained band performance of “Poor Fractured Atlas” is one of the very best Attractions recordings.”

The song opens with Steve Nieve playing arpeggios on the piano. There’s an achingly beautiful change from major chord to minor in the beginning passage of the song. The shift is unsettling, providing a bit of foreshadowing for the rest of the song. Costello begins singing:

He’s out in the woods with his squirrel gun
To try to recapture his anger.

Costello’s own painting of Atlas is off to an intriguing start. The idea of someone seeking to “recapture his anger” is already disturbing enough, but doing so through the act of killing an animal is even more disquieting. Costello continues:

He’s screaming some words at the top of his lungs
Until he begins to feel younger.

Costello says that summoning rage is Atlas’s process by which he is able “to feel younger.” Already, Costello is exhibiting a certain type of vanity that is a fundamental part of this man. He yearns to be vital and alive and the only way to do so is by releasing all of the valves for his anger. This is not a depiction of healthy behavior. The song proceeds:

But back at his desk in the city we find
Our trembling punch-drunken fighter
Who can’t find the strength now to punish the length
Of the ribbon in his little typewriter.

Atlas has returned from his purposefully rage-filled hunting trip and is “back at his desk in the city.” Costello describes him as a “trembling punch-drunken fighter” with the slow reactions as someone who has been subjected to repeated blows to the head. These hits are self-inflicted as his yearning to recapture some semblance of youthful feeling is only possible through subjecting himself to the worst kind of self-abuse. As a result, he can’t even perform basic functions such as operating his typewriter. Yet in Costello’s words — “punish the length / of the ribbon in his little typewriter” — is more than a little suggestive that we are no longer merely talking about the ability to do one’s job. There’s more than a hint that this is about a different kind of performance. “Punish the length” and “his little typewriter” have the inference of sexual inadequacy on the part of Atlas. Rage, insecurity, vanity, self-inflicted harm — Atlas exhibits all of the characteristics of a classic Elvis Costello character.

Before turning to the chorus, the melody of the verse needs to be lifted up for its beauty. Supported by Nieve’s exquisite piano, Costello adroitly delivers the melody with carefully crafted words. In the earlier Recliner Notes post about Costello’s songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney, there was a quote included from Costello’s 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink reflecting on one piece of songwriting discipline that Costello learned from one of popular music’s great melodists:

“One lesson that I learned from writing with Paul was that once the melodic shape was established, he would not negotiate about stretching the line rhythmically to accommodate a rhyme…I cheat shamelessly. The unevenly proportioned lines of my early songs drove The Attractions mad. They were difficult to memorize, as no two verses were exactly alike.”

“Poor Fractured Atlas” is an excellent example of Costello adhering to the restraint he learned from the ex-Beatle as the meter of the words of the verse match perfectly to the stately and alluring melody. 

Through this point, the song has been performed entirely by Costello with accompaniment by Nieve on piano. With the chorus, the rhythm section of The Attractions joins in. Costello sings the first line: “Poor Fractured Atlas.” These words introduce the title of the song. We officially hear the name of the man Costello has been describing heretofore. He is an Atlas who is losing or has lost his strength with the implication that he is a figure to be pitied. But there’s a possibility that “Poor Fractured Atlas” is a name that this man has given himself; he wants to share his broken nature with all, allowing him to wallow in self-pity. Costello continues with the chorus:

Threw himself across the mattress
Waving his withering pencil
As if it were a pirate’s cutlass.

The sexual inadquecy alluded to in the first verse now becomes even more clear. The “withering pencil” could be a signifier of impotence of a sexual nature, but also a recognition of Atlas’s part of a a fading relevancy to the other sex as well as to his family, his peers, and the cuture at large. The responsibility that he once had is now gone, leaving him feeling helpless. He uses this declining importance as a weapon, wielding his “withering pencil” like a “pirate’s cutlass.” Costello follows these lines by singing, “I’m almost certain he’s trying to increase his burden.” With this use of the first-person, we have an introduction of a narrator commenting on Atlas, noting that his grand pronouncements of self-pity only add to the significant load that Atlas carries. However, it’s a curious choice of words by the narrator, saying “I’m almost certain.” The narrator is sharing opinions on Atlas, but allowing themself distance with the recognition that they could be wrong. Costello ends the chorus with the following lines:

He said “That’s how the child in me planned it;
A woman wouldn’t understand it.”

It’s a complex series of chords that the band plays to reinforce the delicate melody which is handled expertly by Costello. Care is needed by Costello the singer as he needs to express the words written by Costello the lyricist who is trying to make plain that the sentiments being expressed are actually Atlas’s own words. “That’s how the child in me planned it” is a fascinating statement which seems to come in response to the narrator’s assertion of Atlas increasing his burden. Atlas admits to the childish nature of shouting from the rooftops about his feelings of inadequacy and impotence. But this is not impulsive behavior, rather Atlas says that it is deliberate: “That’s how the child in me planned it.” Then Atlas seems to laugh at his own arrogance and transgressive naughtiness by stating, “A woman wouldn’t understand it.” It’s a power statement by Atlas. Despite his continued trumpeting of perceived inferiority, he still feels superior to women who would seek to make him feel diminished. There’s no doubt that Atlas is a first-grade creep, and Costello exquisitely reveals and undresses the various aspects and impulses behind Atlas’s vanity.

After the chorus, Costello continues with the second verse:

I believe there was something that I wanted to say
Before I conclude this epistle.

The perspective is full-on first person as the narrator recognizes themselves as writing a piece that will eventually become the song “Poor Fractured Atlas.” As noted above when the narrator first enters the song, it is with uncertainty: “I’m almost certain…” When the narrator re-inserts their voice into the song — “I believe there was something that I wanted to say” — they do so in a halting manner yet again, as if uneasy about allowing themselves to comment on Atlas. Is this “I” Costello himself, or another character that he invented in the world of the song? More clues are presented as the verse continues:

But you would forgive me for holding my tongue
‘Cause man made the blade and the pistol.

The narrator admits to being tentative and “holding my tongue” for a very good reason: “man made the blade and the pistol.” The narrator is afraid of violence in reprisal to this “epistle” that they are writing, specifically referencing weapons used in duels when individuals called out one another for satisfaction when thought to have been insulted and wronged. Not only did man invent these weapons of death, but also:

Yes man made the waterfall over the dam
To temper his tantrum with magic.

Costello marvels at the capacity that humanity has for invention, not only instruments of violence, but also the ability to create something beautiful — “the waterfall over the dam.” But this “magic” is only a function of holding back, as a dam would, the demanding rage that comes with a “tantrum.” This aligns with the lines earlier in the song about Atlas “screaming some words at the top of his lungs / Until he begins to feel younger.” A tantrum is mostly thought of in reference to children. In the chorus, Atlas admits “That’s how the child in me planned it.” Tantrums usually happen in response to a child not being allowed to have something that they so desperately want. In “Poor Fractured Atlas,” Atlas is shown throughout as thinking himself as being rejected by women and society and his response is a childlike tantrum. Costello concludes the verse by singing:

Now you can’t be sure of that tent of azure
Since he punched a hole in the fabric.

In these lines, Costello shows that his earlier praise of man’s inventiveness was ironic by citing man’s outlandish capability for destruction, in this case, the hole in the ozone layer. Costello is saying that man has no real regard for natural beauty — the “tent of azure” has had a hole punched out of it — so this necessitates the creation of false, unnatural beauty such as the waterfall over the dam. 

After the final verse, Costello sings the chorus once again. As the song ends, he repeats the final line — “A woman wouldn’t understand it” — three times. As noted above, these words are said by Atlas, a quotation according to the construction of the song. Yet here is Costello singing the line and emphasizing the point through repetition. The reiteration takes the words out of Atlas’s mouth and instead becomes, not only Costello’s voice, but the voice of the narrator, the one who is writing the “epistle” that constitutes the song. This voice takes Atlas’s own words to strike back at him as if to say, “You’re right, I don’t understand your rage, your violence, your destruction, your self-centered wanton nature.” Through this reversal, the voice of the narrator is revealed to be feminine saying, “You’re right, a woman — such as myself — doesn’t understand you.” 

Costello’s use of irony in “Poor Fractured Atlas” recalls the work of Jane Austen, a master of the ironic voice, especially when commenting on the affairs of men and women in society. In her 1818 novel Northanger Abbey, Austen writes:

“She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance – a misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well−informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

Austen is commenting on how reason cannot be utilized when faced with vanity. In fact, reason in a woman can be thought of as a “misfortune” when confronted with the vanity of man since man can’t begin to use rational thought in those circumstances. In “Poor Fractured Atlas,” Costello swims in the same waters as Austen, taking this concept further, portraying Atlas’s vanity — the world owes him something for holding up the world — and the narrator’s complete bafflement in what to do with this tantrum-laden childlike man. 

As noted in the previous Recliner Notes post on the title song from All This Useless Beauty, Costello wrote many of the songs for the album for other singers to sing. He does not specifically comment on whether he had the same intention for “Poor Fractured Atlas.” This would be a natural inclination since we have established the narrator’s voice as being female. Costello singing the words “A woman wouldn’t understand it” over and over again at the end of the song can lead a listener to wonder about Costello’s aim. Maybe someone is half-listening to the song and all that comes through are these words being sung in a distinctive male voice, not hearing the female perspective that Costello takes on but only Atlas’s words. This could conclude with an uneasiness and a rightful questioning into if Costello himself is as much of a creep as Atlas is.

The ambiguity of the point of view of the song — What character is speaking? Who is “I”? Who is the singer actually speaking for? — seems deliberate on Costello’s part. He wants the listener to be unsure about what part of the song is authentic and what is ironic. It all contributes to the dynamics Costello is illustrating within “Poor Fractured Atlas” as he grapples with the push and pull of power and emotions through a compelling portrait of subtlety, complexity, light, dark, and shade.

Image: Atlas supporting the heavens, signed “A.D.” (probably Abraham van Diepenbeeck, 1596–1675), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

3 thoughts on “Poor Fractured Atlas

  1. A wonderful, multicoloured and pleasantly sprawling reflection, Scott.
    The McCartney influence seems to me to be a good find and quite convincingly demonstrated, and I love the kind of bridges you create, like the one to Jane Austen.

    An addition, if you’ll allow me: the beginning, the “achingly beautiful change from major chord to minor in the beginning passage of the song”, seems to me to be simply copied from Beethoven. (It is almost identical to the opening of the Moonlight Sonata). Which, incidentally, did put me on the wrong track at the time – for a long time I thought that Costello, with “Poor Fractured Atlas”, was somehow trying to make some point about Beethoven.

    Keep on shipbuilding & diving for pearls!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good catch by Jochen on Moonlight Sonata! The meaning of the song becomes even more clear when the lyrics are viewed in the context of the “men’s movement” which was very much in vogue in the 1990s, which on the surface was an easy target of criticism, the going off to get in touch with that inner child and play drums in the woods outside the company of women and all that. Elvis is joining the bunch and taking a pot shot at it, or at least at men who don’t dig deep, think doing that’s all it takes to be a real man, and find upon return that nothing much has changed. It’s a step better than the fella “charmingly slumped at her side” in “All This Useless Beauty” who is completely unconscious of the psychological and mythological archetypes driving his actions, but a lot more is required, Elvis isn’t saying what, and his view of the men’s movement is superficial. And he best be careful of putting women on a pedestal even while remarking on real injustices done to them by men unaware of their motivations and treating them as playthings rather than as human beings. That can be a two way street, the Hindus didn’t have the goddess Kali for nothing 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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