My Dark Life

In fall 1995, Elvis Costello was on a break recording music with his soon-to-be-broken-up backing band The Attractions for the eventual album All This Useless Beauty. As detailed in these two previous posts on Recliner Notes, the songs on All This Useless Beauty are filled with darkness, seeped in self-reflection considering the function of art and the artist as well as man’s true nature. During this recording break, Costello was invited to provide a song for a compilation album consisting of songs inspired by the 1990s science fiction / conspiracy television show The X-Files. Costello’s contribution, “My Dark Life”, was the result of an intense, single-day recording session in collaboration with a titan of musical theory and innovation:

Brian Eno is an artist, musician (though at times he has claimed that he is not one), producer, philosopher, strategist, and a public thinker. Eno has created an overwhelming body of work, both by himself and in partnership with other artists and bands. Among his many admirable qualities is his openness to questioning and changing processes, whether it is utilizing new technology or how one is simplifying interacting with another human being. He is always thinking about a new way to produce art. 

In 1996, Eno published the book A Year with Swollen Appendices which includes a diary of his working life in 1995, an especially fruitful year of collaboration for Eno. Among his projects in 1995 include working with U2, David Bowie, Jah Wobble, and Elvis Costello. Costello and Eno had not met before 1995, but the two knew each other by reputation. In A Year with Swollen Appendices, Eno records meeting Costello for the first time that year and then running into him at a private screening set up by Paul McCartney on November 8. On that date Eno notes about Costello: “I like him.” That must have been heartening for Costello because he writes in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink about the influence of Eno’s work, recalling:

“All the late hours and long miles that The Attractions and I had spent listening to that handful ofastonishing records Bowie recorded in Berlin with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, while we made our way across America for the first time. They pretty much kept us sane.”

In a later interview, Costello remembered that the next day after talking with Eno at the screening that he was approached about the X-Files tribute album by David Was, who asked:

“‘What about Brian Eno?’ I said, ‘What are you, a fucking mind reader?  I just met him yesterday…’ So I called [Eno] and said, ‘What about one day in the studio? And whatever we do is the record…’ Because I know he likes that kind of spontaneity. One day and no re-mixing.”

On November 10, Eno wrote in his diary that Costello called him on the phone:

“Told me at length about his weekend in St. Petersburg with a group of repulsive Anglos gloating over the chaotic collapse of Communism.”

A recording date was set for November 22. Eno must not have realized that the story that Costello had related about his St. Petersburg sojourn was the song that they would be working on as Eno wrote the following in diary about their day together on November 22:

“[Costello had] described today’s session as an ‘adventure’ for him – to go into a studio without much prepared and try to make something from scratch: something I’m good at, something he said he’s never done. But in fact he turned up with a completely (and minutely) written piece — even with manuscript paper and notation. He had every musical detail of the piece already in his mind, so all I could do was to create space bv leaving things out and contributing a nice sonic landscape. I was miffed at first – I kept thinking, ‘So what am I here for?’ I estimate I spent less than half an hour on my contributions to the piece – doing things quickly while he was out on the phone (at one point I told him to go and call his wife so I could get a few moments to work), or fitting them in while he was doing overdubs (while, of course, still paying attention to what he was overdubbing).”

Despite the misunderstanding between Costello and Eno, the “sonic landscape” that the pair create is one teeming with mystery and disquieting suggestions. The song opens with a clicking which could be a cymbal, a train picking up steam, or a sound sourced from a local factory. Various beeps and bloops can be heard before a guitar emerges, similar in sound to the noir-ish strangled guitar notes heard in Costello’s earlier song “Watching the Detectives.” A bass fades in and out as the noir guitar exclaims again. As Costello begins singing, a piano accompanies him for a line. It stops. In the next line, a distorted keyboard is the supporting instrument for Costello’s vocals. These musical elements fade in and out throughout the rest of the song. Costello is credited with providing vocals, guitar, bass, and piano whereas Eno’s credit for the song simply states, “gadgets.” In recalling the process of creating “My Dark Life,” Costello said:

“I really admired Brian’s ruthless and creative use of the erase button.”

Eno wrote further in his diary on November 22:

“One very interesting thing about the piece: [Costello’s] orchestral approach. So a bass that only plays about five notes in the whole song – something no bass player would do spontaneously.”

A few weeks after the recording session, Eno records a conversation with Costello following on this same theme:

“Talking with Elvis Costello in the steam-room about the difference between scored and played music. When music is generated by a group of people playing, everyone tends to play most of the time. With scoring, you’re likely to use instruments when you need them. No one feels bad about standing round for three-quarters of an hour and then going ‘bong’ on a timp if that’s what the score demands. This is why scored music is more ‘colouristic’ and contoured than most pop – whole sections come and go; the dynamic and timbral ranges are very broad.”

Can we have more steam-room conversations between two musical geniuses that are recorded? Can this be a podcast hosted by Eno? Anyway, this concept that Eno and Costello are discussing in the steam-room speaks to the process they used to create the sonic landscape for “My Dark Life.” The restraint in Costello’s bass playing as well as the erasing of musical elements by Eno makes for a varied soundscape, moving from sparse musical accompaniment to a full band sound at other times. Eno says that within musical scores “whole sections come and go” similar to the shifting musical modes within “My Dark Life.” With that one song, Eno and Costello construct an entire soundtrack. 

“My Dark Life” has similar musical textures as the score that Jerry Goldsmith composed for the 1974 movie Chinatown. Take this selection from the soundtrack, titled “The Last of Ida”:

The track starts with a harp sound as strings and a lone trumpet alternate on the romantic, main theme of the score, summoning the feeling of mid-20th century Hollywood before the bottom falls out. A piano and chimes play off each other in unsettling rhythms as dissonant, horror-laden strings evoke darkness and build tension before cutting off suddenly before the warm, sad trumpet takes over again. It eases the apprehension somewhat and reminds the listener of the inherent mournfulness of the piece. It’s an extraordinary assembled piece, evoking diverse emotions and moods within a short three minute track. The following snippets from the score — “The Wrong Clue”; “JJ Gittes”; and the remarkable “End Title” — provide the full spectrum of how all of the musical elements, including strings, piano, harp, bells, and percussion, fit together to create a complete, to use Eno’s phrase, sonic landscape:

The main theme of Chinatown alternates between strings and piano, but it’s the forlorn and anguished trumpet that acts as the main character, providing a voice to the score. It acts as support for the story of the movie. For “My Dark Life,” there is no need for an instrument to stand in as a musical voice as Costello’s vocals provide the narrative point of view of the song. “My Dark Life” inhabits a similar pessimistic mood as Chinatown, one that Costello has returned to throughout his career. As Costello said in a 2004 Rolling Stone interview:

“There’s a style of film-noir song that I’ve been attracted to since ‘Watching the Detectives,’ that re-emerges as late as ‘My Dark Life’. A particular kind of mysterious figure reoccurs as a motif in those songs.”

That figure emerges immediately when Costello starts singing:

She says nobody wants to believe
You’re the same as everyone.
What makes me unique?
My Dark Life.

So much is revealed in these opening lines. There’s the introduction of a female character who spouts existential wisdom. A narrative voice is also established, answering this woman and presenting the theme of the song as the narrator admits to a secret, double life that makes him unique. 

After this overture, there’s a second section, not exactly a second verse as it doesn’t match the meter or melody of the first part. Costello sings:

There was a kink in the world
Sent that statue tumbling
An invitation east.
So we could watch it all crumbling.

This section initiates the narrative action of the song. Not only does Eno’s diary provide context for the song’s inspiration, but Costello told GQ the following in 2009:

“I went to see this Red Army-plundered collection of paintings, in St Petersburg. I wrote it about people involved in that.”

So the “kink in the world” in the song refers to geo-political uncertainty within Russia at the time that provides an opening for a Westerner to visit and observe what is happening on the ground in this previously unknown part of the world. 

After the first two sections, Costello and Eno introduce the chorus of the song, but it acts more like the main theme of the score that they have produced for this story. Costello sings:

She came off like a light and so softly she spoke:
“You don’t know, you don’t know about my dark life.”

It’s uncertain if the “she” in the chorus is the same female voice that is heard in the overture. Is it a different woman that the narrator encounters in St. Petersburg? Or does “she” act as a representation of Russia as a whole? The “dark life” is in reference not only to the narrator, but also about the society in Russia that is not normally shown in the media. The main theme continues with Costello singing:

And you think you’re a guest, you’re a tourist at best
Peering into the corners of my dark life.

Perspective shifts here as the “you” seems to indicate that the narrator is speaking to himself, realizing that his presence is not as welcome as he first thought. Additionally, this experience is allowing himself to consider his own dark life. The narrator shares even more details within the chorus/main theme:

Now that you tear your dreams from consumptive ballerinas
She’ll stand on tiptoe for you in a grey and tattered tutu
She stays where she is because of voyeurs like these
With an accusative look that says “My Dark Life.”

The discomfort is evident throughout these words as the narrator considers his previous fantasies about “consumptive ballerinas,” and suddenly the reality of this vision is thrust in front of him and the others on his junket. As an actual ballerina is forced to perform in her “grey and tattered tutu” it forces him to recognize the creepy, voyeuristic nature of the entire endeavor. It’s the actual ballerina, not the illusion, who indicts the narrator with a glare, asking, “Is my dark life enough for you to get off?”

The song shifts again to a structure similar to the overture as Costello sings:

Rubber men await you then in each beguiling alley
To shake you and to pierce you and remind you of
My Dark Life.

The narrator shares further dystopian visions — or are they hallucinations? — of “rubber men” waiting in dark alleys. “Beguiling” is the operative word as it exposes the narrator’s desire to embrace the degradations around him. It would be so easy for him to submit himself fully to this dark life. The music shifts as Costello sings “of” and holds the note. The rhythm stops and Costello sings in an upper register, asserting the title phrase in single whole notes: My. Dark. Life. A piano and keyboard match the whole notes sung by Costello. Costello and Eno are placing a particular emphasis on this phrase at this exact moment. Again, it has the feeling of a score of a movie as the music changes abruptly to highlight and accentuate the images on screen. In this case, there’s no visual accompaniment so the emphasis is used to stress the importance of the words being sung by Costello. Eno and Costello want the audience to consider their own dark lives; the secrets that we keep to ourselves, whether they are past actions or the deepest emotions that we suppress so as not to reveal the capacity we have for true ugliness. 

The noir-ish guitar sounds again and the song transitions back into the second section with Costello singing the following lines:

Enter the pious elite, in their preening finery
And bang the tambourine
They’re dining on rice paper scenery
See how the villain attracts envious glances from everyone.

The details presented by Costello demonstrates his talent for scene-setting: “preening finery”; “rice paper scenery”; and the “villain” who sounds as though he’s straight out of a Bond film. Costello doesn’t miss the opportunity to juxtapose these observations about ultra-rich Westerners with an account of the “she” in the song:

She’s waitressing by day
It doesn’t bring in much money now.

The song moves back to the chorus/main theme:

And his strong concealed arms set off bells and alarms
In the strangest locations of My Dark Life.

The narrator notices the villain’s “strong concealed arms” which is jarring and reminds him of something from his past. Or, perhaps the narrator too is thinking about a Bond film. Costello continues:

But the fantasy slipped as he tipped her in cigarettes
She tries to smile very graciously when she wants to kill him.

Any hope that she has of a Cinderella-type “fantasy” of the villain taking her away from her own dark life is gone as he instead exhibits his knowledge of how much power he has by tipping in cigarettes. Of course, these cigarettes are valuable in a post-Soviet economy, whereas they hardly hold any financial worth to the villain. He knows that she’s aware that this is an act of degradation on his part, but he doesn’t care. She tries to hide her murderous feelings towards him, but can’t fully, even though she is supposed to take this debasement by smiling “very graciously.” It gets worse as Costello finishes the chorus/main theme by singing:

Now the victory is sweet, you’ll get down on your knees
It’s the perfect position for kissing western leather.

The villain knows he has full advantage over her and he relishes in it. The gratitude that he expects from her is complete acquiescence and submission, hinting at a sexual act in which he receives pleasure without reciprocation. It is truly the darkest of details that Costello shares within “My Dark Life.” The scene represents the utter depths of the loathsome attitudes of this group from the West, showing their awareness of their own advantages and how that knowledge is seeped in a pleased contempt. Who are these people and where do they come from? Costello tells us:

So they came from Ugly Texas and from Nameless Tennessee
From Peculiar Missouri.

Tom Waits is the master of using place names in songs. Examples from his work include “Mayor’s Income, Tennessee”; “east of East St. Louis”; and “Hushpukena.” Helpful people on the internet even created The Tom Waits Map to help easily locate the spots memorialized in his songs. In one interview, Waits — somewhat tongue-cheek — describes his songwriting approach:

“I think all songs should have weather in them, names of towns and streets, and they should have a couple of sailors. I think those are just song prerequisites. Every song needs to be anatomically correct. You need weather, you need the name of the town, something to eat. Every song needs certain ingredients to be balanced. You’re writing a song and you need a town and you look out the window and you see St. Louis Cardinals on some kid’s t-shirt. You said, okay, we’ll use that.”

Costello is using the place names in “My Dark Life” to characterize the Westerners who make up the Russian junket. Although “Ugly Texas” is an invention, Nameless, TN and Peculiar, MO are actual locations that Costello may have been holding in reserve for just the right moment to use them in one of his songs. In the live version of “My Dark Life” from Costello & Nieve that features only Costello on acoustic guitar, the crowd rightfully laughs at the place names, a welcome moment of comedy within the pessimism of “My Dark Life.”

The song ends in an unsettling way as Costello sings:

Then remnants of red army bandsmen
Played “America the Beautiful.”

The piano accompanies Costello’s words in a new melodic figure. Neither the piano nor Costello are exactly playing the tune of “America the Beautiful”, but it’s close. It’s reflective of the ironic and disconcerting image of the Russian army band playing a song trumpeting the virtues of, until recently, its most bitter enemy. Those are the final words that Costello sings. The song ends with the keyboard rhythm playing underneath the piano which repeats the close-to-”America the Beauty” tune and also the “my dark life” melodic piece. The movie score ends with a fadeout; a fittingly enigmatic conclusion saturated with ambiguity that provides doubts about the entire musical and narrative presentation. 

In the GQ interview, Costello said about “My Dark Life”: “That song wasn’t about me…Still, when you stand on a stage and sing those words, the impression is—.” Costello cut himself off from finishing the sentence to move onto another thought. Yet, he acknowledges the inability of audiences to separate the image of Costello as the singer of “My Dark Life” from the narrator who participates in the actions described within the song. It is called “My Dark Life” after all. Costello would later say about the song:

“There’s a lot going on in that song.…Truthfully, I think it has more plot than a lot of X-Files episodes. I love The X-Files, but the whole point of them is to be enigmatic.”

Despite his feeling “superfluous” in the recording process, Eno was pleased with the outcome of their collaboration as he writes in his diary:

“The result was very good – unlike typical H. E. or E. C. I suppose if we described the whole thing as ‘me producing an Elvis Costello song’ it was a very successful day.”

For his part, Costello was ecstatic with the recording and has always been positive about the experience with Eno in interviews and his writing as represented by the following recollection:

“The session lasted for a straight fourteen hours but the outcome was one of my very favourite tracks.”

“My Dark Life” is a standalone piece of immense mystery and power, outside of any other Costello or Eno album. Utilizing scoring techniques, Costello and Eno jointly create a musical piece that encompasses the feeling of a complete film narrative and production within the boundaries of a strictly audio experience. The song works as an exquisite work of art, yet it also leaves one wishing that Costello and Eno would collaborate again and produce an entire album worth of cinematic soundscapes. 

Note: “My Dark Life” is not available on Spotify, so the following playlist includes the other songs referenced in the above post. Please listen to the embedded video to hear “My Dark Life.”

Image: Miss Katie Stone, Newski, St. St Petersburg, Russia. [Between 1909 and 1919] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/2016820900/.

3 thoughts on “My Dark Life

  1. Another misconception from the westerner’s point of view: the band playing what he thinks is the Seekers’ ‘The Carnival’s Over’ when it is ‘Stenka Razin’, a Russian folk song.

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