Six Damn Fine Degrees #51: Elvis Costello’s I Want You (1986)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

I want to say that Elvis Costello’s 1986 song “I Want You” is a love song, but it’s like saying a volcanic eruption is about elevated temperatures. It’s so much a misnomer it is almost a lie. Let’s say that the first few seconds, oh my baby, baby, are some sort of spectacularly failed attempt at a love song, and then the egg shell breaks from the inside, and all the pathos, all the jealousy and obsession of a relationship gone south, burst out, red-hot and seething. Please excuse my French, but that song is a fucking hand-grenade of self-pity.

It’s taken from Blood & Chocolate, one of Costello’s best albums if you ask me, but it’s telling that his band, the Attractions, would not make another album with Costello for the next eight years. It’s not just because of this song, but relationships in the band had soured before that. I don’t know how much of those internal problems have found their way into recording I Want You, but creative adversity might have added to the atmosphere of something having come to a painful close. If you listen to the song on your stereo, Costello’s voice, sometimes jarring, sometimes painfully intimate, sounds like it will spill out of the loudspeakers and make small puddles of poisoned honey on your living-room floor.

Since “I Want You” is not a duet, we only have the male I’s point of view, and none of the woman’s. According to him, she has betrayed him, which, in a heterosexual context, means that she has slept with another man. Is he just jealous that she has found another guy after their breakup, or has she cheated on him? To some men (lesser men at that), this is the same thing, oh no, my darling, not with that clown, because the other guy, in some men’s self-estimation, is always the worse choice, no-one who wants you could want you more. Yeah, I’m the guy for you, can’t you see? But if the song would not be from the I’s point of view, it would not be nearly as good, or as revealing. It’s a six and a half minute whopper of a song; no wonder Michael Winterbottom could make a whole movie out of it.

Costello does not mince words here, but if you have ever read or watched any of his interviews, it cannot come as a surprise to you that Mr McManus does say exactly what he means – even if he means it only in the moment he is saying it. But it is exactly that quality that the song needs: It’s the thought of you undressing him, or you undressing. Apart from the fact that we can only guess what happened between the two, he must lie awake, gnashing his teeth, or smoking and drinking, trying in vain to delete the images of what he thinks has happened – and what he thinks has happened is always stronger of what has really happened. His guesses are probably all wrong (it’s knowing that he knows you now after only guessing), but how would that help? The images cannot be unseen, or uncreated. Oh boy, oh boy, us males are so good at feeding our inferiority complexes while maintaining that we are actually caring, considerate and tender when we are not.

I’ll say this for the song: it does not spare the male I any more than it does spare the departed female lover, but since the self-revelation on the side of the male I is so much more telling, it says much more about him than it says about the woman he is addressing, since his view of her is skewered and biased and uttered with the pain of departure at best and vitriolic hatred at worst. Talk about toxic masculinity. Musically, the song stays with you, because it is so slow and contains an absolute joke of a guitar solo while putting all its sensuality in its melody. The music already knows that all is over, while the lyrics still cling to the last vestiges of a relationship that is so over.

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