Elvis Costello and Graham Parker have written better songs than these: more harrowing, more inspirational, more emotional and more complicated. But, you know, lately?
“My Three Sons” is about the stop-time of having a new baby in the house (in Elvis’s case, it was two, twins). It begins in the morning, when the baby’s cries, sounding like an air raid warning, awaken everyone; it ends as the day is closing and “old men and infants are dozing.” The music captures a nursery-room hush, shadows from a nightlight, the reassuring sound of the baby’s breathing. Elvis sings in a patient, reflective voice about themes common to any parent: regrets about being absent, the wish for a sorrow-free life for your child you know can never come true, the dazed (sleep-deprived?) sense of gratitude. Because he’s Elvis, at one point he even tosses out, “What I give to one, the other cannot take away,” as though already preparing them for his King Lear moment.
I like how gentle the song is. I like how Elvis includes his already-grown son from a previous marriage in it, even at the risk of inviting ridicule for appropriating the name of a cheesy sixties sitcom. But mostly I like that the song is about something. Listening again to the album that it comes from, Momofuku, which is actually one of the recent Elvis albums I’ve enjoyed more, it seems like so many of the songs are either totally opaque, sung from the inside of some character only Elvis could ever know, or the types of rants that are Elvis’s default songwriting style (I picture him sitting down in the morning at his writing desk: “Okay, what pissed me off yesterday?”) There was a time such rants really connected with me (“Tiny Steps,” “You Belong to Me,”) but their familiarity and obscurity has turned my reaction closer to what I often said as a father myself, validating my toddler son’s tantrums: “You seem to be very upset about something.” Though it would never occur to anyone to have to say to Elvis, “use your words.”
“First Responder” picks the story up some years later, as Graham Parker lets his teenage son know the world is a rough place and his son is going to hit some “hard knocks and road blocks,” but good old Dad will always be there for him, his “first responder” in whatever mode of transportation can be found at a moment’s notice.
It’s a warm, funny, rocking little song, and I’m sure Graham himself would consider it lightweight, but that’s what makes it so appealing. Similar to Elvis, I’ve already heard Graham rail against Fox News or sheep-like people divorced from their emotions and desires (and enjoyed these songs!) so it’s a welcome change of pace to see a more human face peek through, a voice that captures the teasing, trusting, self-aware relationship I strive for with my own teenager:
But sometimes you’re gonna need a helping hand
Don’t worry about it kid I understand
But you better have a good reason
Don’t drag me outta bed unless you really do
Would I want Elvis and Graham to only sing about being fathers? No, of course not. But I do have history with these guys, and it’s nice that occasionally those histories can coincide again, instead of hearing yet another song about how opposed they are to greed or hypocrisy or deceitful women. Now, if they could write a song explaining to me how even the greediest people are themselves often opposed to greed, without apparent conflict–that I’d be eager to hear.