I once expressed to a friend my desire to be able to erase from my memory all of my favorite songs so that I might have the experience of hearing them again for the first time. It seemed to me that if I listened to a song I loved too often, I ran the risk of wearing it out. I was afraid that eventually it wouldn’t move me in quite the same way. I would still want, maybe even need, to hear it, but the level of emotional intensity simply wouldn’t be as high. With every listen, I would be looking for the magic and it would be gone. The passion would be traded for a friendly laugh, some small talk, and a pleasant goodbye until I felt like meeting up again. I have come to realize this is not so with the really great songs, the ones that are new every time, the true loves. It is certainly not so with “Alison.”
Every time is the first time with “Alison.” Always tender, always awkward, always violent. It is impossible not to be lured in by the opening bars. She’s swaying in the corner, looking unimpressed, wondering if he’s going to come over and ask her how she’s been. I try to walk away, change the station, press stop on the player. I can’t ever resist her, even though I know it would be easier that way. The drumbeat is quiet and steady, the guitar riffs small, beautiful embellishments. Elvis Costello’s voice is the perfect blend of compassion and haughtiness. At first glance, she’s all sexy slow dances, dresses removed by other men, a string of imagined lovers accepted and rejected while he stood apart. Costello and his backing band get fired up. Cymbals crash, another voice joins in.
A lifetime flashes by while he’s speaking to her. Years pass in moments between the chorus and the second verse. Memories are relived, anger and jealousy and the saddest kind of love dredged up. No matter how many times I sing along, I always think I’ve missed some lines. Youth and sexiness have been traded for anguished reflection. It doesn’t get much more haunting than the image of “pretty fingers lying in the wedding cake.” And now maybe she’s going on about whatever, in that way the most intimate strangers sometimes do, and he just wants her to shut the hell up. When Costello sings, “Sometimes I wish that I could STOP you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say,” all the background sound drops away, and that “STOP” slaps me in the face. Without fail, I flinch, stung but also grateful. I couldn’t take anymore either.
As Costello murmurs “my aim is true” repeatedly over the guitar fade, I have envisioned a number of things happening—a man reaching out to touch her face, throwing his head back and crying her name, getting down on his knees and begging, or pulling a gun from his jacket. At the song’s close, I am left torn up, disappointed that it’s over, and longing to know what comes next. I’ve fallen for “Alison,” too, and I hate her for leaving us this way.