"Alison" by Elvis Costello: Murder Ballad?

I read a while back (could very well have been on this board) that the song “Alison” by Elvis Costello was about him killing his ex. That interpretation had never occurred to me, but now when I listen to it, it’s the only reading that makes sense, especially with the “I think somebody better put out the big light” line. Considering his dark lyrics (especially in the early years) and his avowal at the time that the only things that motivated him were “revenge and guilt”, it seems even more likely. It also elevates the song to a whole new level, IMO. It transforms it from a straight ballad (albeit one that still has its share of bitterness) into something much more profound, and adds a whole other (double? Triple?) clever twist on the “My aim is true” chorus. There have certainly been other songs by popular artists with darker lyrical content than the general public caught on to - “Every Breath You Take”, “With Or Without You”, “The One I Love” by R.E.M. - and hiding bitter/angry/depressing lyrics in essentially upbeat music has been a staple of (good) pop since at least The Beatles, but this, if it really is about a murder, is the most well-done example I can think of, especially since it’s not at all obvious (at least, it wasn’t to me) what it “really means”.

So, any thoughts? Anybody else interpret the song this way? Do you think this is way off-base? I’m sticking with this angle, because I appreciate it more that way, but I’d be interested to hear other people’s ideas.

Well, I’ve always heard it as a song about the girl who got away, and how much better she would have been with him, but now he’ll just move on.

I have always assumed that there was that interpretation available…

The whole “you’ve compromised your life and, knowing what I know about what you could have become, I think you should end it now” aspect is in the lyrics, to my ears…

Could as easily be a suicide song.

Yeah, but the “My aim is true” refrain works better with the morder interpretation (assuming he’s going to kill her with a gun).

Yeah, that’s pretty much how I always heard it, but it’s not nearly as much fun.

“Murder interpretation”, even.

A few interesting ideas here including EC’s comments. It’s a chiller.

Well, Costello himself has said he didn’t write it as a murder ballad.

But the words themselves certainly don’t preclude such an interpretation. However, if somebody has to die in the song, I’m going to go with the suicide interpretation.

One thing that’s absolutely certain is that it’s no love song.

I’ve heard the song many, many times, and I never saw it as murder or suicide. It seems to me that Alison was once his girlfriend (or perhaps even his sister) and she found another guy, Elvis’s friend. Elvis is mighty bitter about it. Now, she’s terribly unhappy in her new relationship (this world is killing you). It hurts him to see her suffer. I think the “put out the big light” means either the couple ought to break up, or just don’t show it to him anymore.

When he sang, “I know you were lovin’ somebody, I only know it wasn’t mine,” it seemed to me he meant you weren’t lovin’ my body. Perhaps that means he never slept with her, and he wishes it was him instead. I did not read it as pregnancy. When he sings, “my aim is true,” he means, “you know I’m seeing it clearly. I’m telling it like it is.”

It’s a kissoff song, but not a murder song. It’s more like, “Leave my life forever, you sorry bitch.” That’s my opinion.

I just always assumed it was a love song to a woman who was killed after her wedding.

Well I see you’ve got a husband now.
Did he leave your pretty fingers lying
in the wedding cake?
You used to hold him right in your hand.
I’ll bet he took all he could take.

The song always struck me as Elvis’ ballad to a woman he loved from afar, and he’s only able to tell her his feelings now that she’s dead.

Well, seeing as it was the inspiration for my eldest’s name, I hope not.
Pretty much my fave song by my fave artist for a couple of decades, and I never caught such a connex.
Certainly not as obviously murderous as Watching the Detectives…

Yeah, there’s another one you could analyze all day and never really get to the bottom of. Just like a lot of his songs, actually: “Green Shirt”, “I Want You”…pretty much all of Blood & Chocolate, really. He got more literal after that (Spike onward ), but his early stuff lends itself to varied interpretations much more readily.

Anyway, thanks for the responses. I always like hearing other people’s takes on these things - especially since my own take usually turns out to be 180 degrees off from the songwriter’s intent.

I always looked at it as she was a little crazy…always kind of lost. She dumped him and started with a string of bad relationships. She’s unable to find happiness and he’s unable to help her and unable to stop loving her. Bittahsweet. But mostly bittah.