Case In Point

Since I am a committed, long-term fan of Elvis Costello (so much so that I can still say that after his series of unfortunate collaborations), let me point to him as a perpetrator of bad rhyme.

In the Oscar-nominated “Scarlet Tide” (you’ll have to scroll down to get to it), he writes,

Man goes beyond his own decision
Gets caught up in the mechanism
Of swindlers who act like kings
And brokers who break everything
The dark of night was swiftly fading
Close to the dawn of the day
Why would I want him
Just to lose him again

That makes me wince every time I hear it — not just because “decision” and “mechanism” don’t rhyme, but because of the aggravating circumstances. First, Costello is a demonstrably ingenious writer — we know he can do much, much better. Second, this song presents itself as a weighty meditation on humanity, love, and destiny; the more seriously I’m supposed to take the song, the less slack I’m willing to cut the composition. Third, both arrangements that I’ve heard — one from the Cold Mountain film soundtrack, performed by Alison Kraus, and one from Costello’s own album The Delivery Man — bring the lyrics clearly, distinctly to the aural foreground.

If the Ramones mixed a barely-audible “decision”/“mechanism” pair with their over-amplified guitars in a raucous amphetamine-fueled bop through high school romance at Coney Island, I’d be inclined to smile at the absurdity of it, or perhaps roll my eyes (now I’m trying to imagine the Kings of Leon playing “Scarlet Tide”). If it came up in a song from the vernacular tradition that employs high-flown vocabulary for self-consciously elevated effects, I might even admire it. When the song is presented with contextual cues that bespeak deliberate artiness, that couple flat-out clunks, and drags the rest of the song downward with it. EC is a hero of mine, and I like a lot about this song, but that rhyme kills the thing.

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