Elvis Costello Countdown #6: “When I Was Cruel No. 2”

Elvis Costello has always been a guy who’s been able to maintain some mystery about his private life. As a result, the manner in which his fans perceive him is mainly derived from the persona he creates in his songs.

His acknowledgment and subverting of this perception of him is what gives “When I Was Cruel No. 2” its particular potency. The song invites listeners to envision the real-life Costello living within the bounds of its fictional world. Once they’ve made that leap, the songwriter toys with their expectations and makes them rethink any assumptions they’ve made about his personality based on the nature of his work.

Coming on an album (2002’s When I Was Cruel) that was billed as a return to his rock roots after years of forays into other genres, “When I Was Cruel No. 2” is actually anything but rock. It’s reminiscent of the ambient music in some 60’s art-house film, the strange sampled female voice adding a hint of exoticism. Elvis’ guitar ambles about the scene like a panther getting ready to pounce (recalling the guitar part in “Watching The Detectives,”) but the music never uncoils to release the tension, settling instead for a trance-like rhythm that sounds like a tango for the undead.

The song portrays Costello as the entertainment for a society wedding, and from that vantage point he casts his unblinking gaze on all of the humanity before him. It’s not somewhere you would expect him to be: One of the world’s finest musicians performing for drunken magnates and their vapid wives. (I don’t know if Elvis is one of the many musicians who plays corporate gigs for big bucks, but, if he ever did, he must have been taking notes for this song.) From the boat show model-turned-fourth wife to the bitter exes to the gossiping hangers-on, there isn’t one of these tortured souls that escapes the notice of the bandleader.

Up until the final verse, it’s still possible to imagine that the narrator is just a wedding-band musician, since he makes no references to himself. That’s when a combative newspaper editor recognizes him from way back in “’82.” His reminiscences with the singer reveal how their respective fortunes have been transformed: “‘You were a spoiled child then with a record to plug’/’And I was a shaven-headed seaside thug’/’Things haven’t really changed that much’/’One of us is still getting paid too much.'”

The chorus is where Costello upends our expectations. As the narrator surveys this scene full of joyless dancers and tarnished wealth, you might expect Elvis, given his past excoriations of such subject matter, to either revel in their misery or dismiss them altogether. Instead, he seems more dejected then anything else as he mewls out the refrain, “But it was so much easier/When I was cruel.”

It’s a fascinating line, suggesting that a younger version of Elvis could have blown through that scene and endured it all only by inflicting some damage himself. By contrast, the older version regards it all with weary heartbreak, perhaps because he can identify a bit too closely with all those sad eyes looking up at him on the bandstand.

“When I Was Cruel No. 2” can be enjoyed simply based on its unique music and Costello’s impressive lyrical feats. It gets even better though when you consider those features in conjunction with an appreciation of the song’s fascinating portrait of the artist as a man older, wiser, and no longer able to sneer away the pain.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)

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Elvis Costello Countdown #15: “New Amsterdam”

In 1982, Bruce Springsteen famously released his home demos as an actual album (Nebraska) when attempts to capture the songs with a full band lacked the power of the rough recordings. Although it wasn’t a whole album’s worth, Elvis Costello had a similar experience with the song “New Amsterdam” a few years earlier, and the end result was similarly captivating.

Costello recorded a demo of the contemplative track that would make its way onto Get Happy!! at a studio on London, playing all the instruments himself, even drums. He then took it to the Attractions, who tried to recreate the demo in full-band form. That attempt can be heard on the bonus disc of the Get Happy!! Rhino reissue; it’s clear from that evidence that something was lost in the translation and that Elvis made the right choice in putting the original on the album.

Maybe the reason that the one-man demo worked so well, and it does have a dreamy, melancholic vibe to it, is because the song is about one man’s loneliness. In particular, it’s the kind of loneliness that’s borne from being heartbroken while living in an unfamiliar city. “Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile,” Costello sings, capturing the feeling of being an Englishman in New York.

It was a stroke of genius to use the archaic name of New York as the song’s title, since it really emphasizes the strangeness of the narrator’s situation. Without a familiar face to whom he can tell his troubles, the guy becomes a stranger even to himself: “Twice shy and dog tired because you’ve been bitten/Everything you say now sounds like it was ghostwritten.”

Get Happy!! definitely features a Motown vibe on many of the songs, but Costello wisely knew enough not to get too carried away with some sort of unifying sound all the way through. Otherwise, an engaging pop ballad like “New Amsterdam” might not have gotten the green light. It’s inclusion makes the album a richer experience.

I can’t think of an occasion where Costello has written a song specifically about the trials and tribulations of life as a rock star on the road. Those songs, even when done well, tend to put up a barrier in front of the listener because the experience behind the song is specific to the performer. By contrast, anyone who has ever felt like they have no connection to the comforts of home can appreciate “New Amsterdam,” a lovely place to visit vicariously via Elvis’ pretty song even though you would never want to live there.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #24: “How To Be Dumb”

Full disclosure: I have never read The Big Wheel, Attractions’ bassist Bruce Thomas’ thinly-veiled account of the life of a rock star on the road, so I can’t speak to its merits. The only thing I can be sure of is that Elvis Costello didn’t like it too much. I don’t know if it was because Thomas was breaking some sort of rock star omerta or if he told tales that weren’t true or if he just painted an unflattering picture of the man he referred to in the book only as “the singer.” At least it inspired “How To Be Dumb,” which, while not a particularly good thing for Thomas, is certainly a good  thing for Elvis’ fans.

“How To Be Dumb” might be the most vituperative song on an album, Mighty Like A Rose, that’s full of venom. Indeed, it’s all the more potent for being an intensely personal attack. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it before: Never cheese off an eloquent songwriter, because they’ll always get the last word in on a record and it will usually be the definitive stroke of the back-and-forth argument.

The interesting thing is that Costello marries the song to a very Attractions-like arrangement, almost circus-like in its ebullience. Larry Knechtel plays the Steve Nieve role, adding frenetic piano fills, while Pete Thomas plays the Pete Thomas role, beating the tar of the drums. Most fetching of all is the little saxophone riff, played by Roger Lewis, that really brings the chorus to life. The music is triumphant, as if Elvis is signalling that he’s coming out on top of this tete-a-tete.

Costello paints Thomas as someone who is enjoying the kudos he’s receiving for his “brand new occupation” (and, it should be noted, the book did get some good reviews.) “And beautiful people stampede to the doorway,” he sings, “Of the funniest f*#!er in the world.” Yet he also makes it clear what he thinks of Thomas’ authenticity: “There’s a bright future/For all you professional liars.”

As the song goes on, the attacks get nastier. When you parse through all of Costello’s verbiage, you find out that he essentially calls his nemesis a gutless, jealous poseur. In the final lines, he sounds almost gleeful as he dehumanizes his former bassist: “Scratch your own head, stupid/Count up to three/Roll over on your back/Repeat after me/Don’t you know how to be dumb?” That might be the most damning insult of all, as Elvis insinuates that his longtime bandmate can’t even get stupidity right.

It’s too bad that things had to go down this way, but the two patched things up enough to play together again for a few albums before the separation became permanent, so that’s something. Hey, sometimes people don’t get along, and sometimes it deteriorates pretty badly. It’s just that, as public figures, this personal disagreement played out in front of the reading and listening audience at large.

This song sounds like it was cathartic for Elvis, and, as a listener, you can substitute your own personal enemies and get that same kind of satisfying jolt of musical revenge. “How To Be Dumb” turns out to be just the opposite of “You’re So Vain,” in that nobody would want this song to be about them.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #38: “That Day Is Done”

Earlier in the list, I talked about “Mistress And Maid,” an excellent song co-written by Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello that got away from Macca a bit when he brought it into the studio. Luckily, he had no such problems with “That Day Is Done,” which was impeccably rendered on Flowers In The Dirt, the Paul album which takes its title from lyrics in the song. McCartney renders the song with the mixture of grandeur and sorrow that the lyrics demand.

We are also lucky that Costello provided his own version of this heartfelt song on the extra disc of the All Useless Beauty reissue. In that take, Elvis is accompanied by legendary session man Larry Knechtel on piano and the inimitable Fairfield Four on backing vocals. This version, especially with those amazing backing vocalists on board, really drives home the song’s gospel influences.

“That Day Is Done” feels like the duo’s attempt to replicate some of the somber majesty of the early recordings of The Band, especially the Dylan-penned numbers “Tears Of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released.” The open spaces in the music, the gospel influences, the lyrics which come from the perspective of a man who can’t keep his promise to his love because death has intervened, all of that recalls the mystery and magic of those first two Band albums.

Costello delivered a moving performance of this song at a tribute concert for Linda McCartney in 1999. Such painful occasions are why songs like this are written, because they pinpoint the myriad emotions inside of us better than we could ever possibly articulate them ourselves. That kind of beautiful sadness is generally the province of a master songwriter; “That Day Is Done” came from two of those masters, so the results are doubly heartrending.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #44: “Fallen”

Of the many twists and turns that Elvis Costello has taken following his muse, North is one path taken that feels like a missed opportunity. Elvis has proven throughout the years that he can write heart-wrenching ballads and elegant love songs on a par with some of the 20th-century’s finest composers, and by that I mean not just all composers, not just those contained within the rock idiom. The songs for this album are restrained and subtle, which may have been exactly what Elvis was attempting but still doesn’t make for the most invigorating listening.

North works best when listened to all at once as an atmospheric backdrop to other activities. In that context, it spins by amiably and the listener can enjoy the luxurious melodies and the tasteful accompaniment without putting too much work into it. But, on a song-by-song basis, it lacks the kind of animation and spunk that Elvis has brought to just about every other project with which he’s been involved. I listen to the album once in a while, but the fact that it fades into the background behind whatever else might be occupying my time makes it rare among Costello albums.

The once song that, for me, truly stands out is “Fallen.” Which might seem odd because it might be the most muted track on the album. Elvis sings in hushed tones for much of the track, as if afraid to let his emotions go unchecked. The instrumentation is relatively spare as well, but that works in its favor considering that Steve Nieve is on board. His timing is just right; the spaces he leaves in between his piano chords speak volumes. The orchestration makes a quick appearance in the second half of the song and then falls away, leaving the lonely narrator to his current state of bemused isolation.

Keeping with the less-is-more theme, Costello’s lyrics contain relatively few words but manage to say a whole lot. The narrator walks through a beautiful fall scene and muses on the passing time, how he once ran roughshod over everything is his path but now sees that the tables have turned on him: “But now I clearly see how cruel the young can be.” This change of fortunes was brought on by the collapse of his ideals: “And I believed that life was wonderful/Right up to the moment when love went wrong.”

The title of the song can be viewed many different ways. We can fall in love or fall from grace. I feel like this character is somewhere in between the two extremes, wounded from past experiences but starting on the road to recovery, a little tentative but with hope tugging at his heart. “Fallen” captures this nether region in achingly lovely fashion, a song that can’t help but breaking out from the pack despite all of its restraint.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #52: “God Give Me Strength”

If you’re a pop music fan of any kind, I highly suggest you check out Grace Of My Heart, the 1996 movie that prominently features “God Give Me Strength,” the collaboration between Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach that led to Painted From Memory. It’s fun to watch the film and spot who the different fictional characters are supposed to represent. It would take only casual knowledge of that era in music to recognize stand-ins for Carole King, Lesley Gore, Brian Wilson, and Phil Spector. I don’t know if the 60’s were really like that, with every major musical personality haphazardly interacting with each other, but it’s a fun fantasy to indulge.

In the film, the main character, a King stand-in played by Illeana Douglas, gets up the courage to perform a composition she wants to record herself in front of the Wilson stand-in, played by, I kid you not, Matt Dillon. Eventually, she does record it, with the help of the Spectorian producer, but it turns into a “River Deep-Mountain High”-like flop because it’s just too personal for mass consumption.

Listening to the song in the Costello-Bacharach version, you can sort of hear it in that context, as this massive account of a break-up that may cut a little too close to the bone for everyone in the audience. The verses are an eloquent evocation of sorrow, as would be expected from a songwriter like Elvis and a tune-spinner like Bacharach. In the bridge, however, things are amped up to a harrowing level, as the emotions turn to the darker side: “See, I’m only human/I want him to hurt,” sings Costello, and his barely-controlled voice bellow betray the wounds accrued from this experience that no span of time could ever hope to heal.

In the first two refrains, Costello uses a soft falsetto to sing the title phrase. In the last one, he uncorks another powerful howl, one you might call cathartic if you actually believed it would lessen the narrator’s pain in any way. “God Give Me Strength” manages to transcend the specificity of its Hollywood origins, even as it hangs onto its stature as a work of unbearably painful honesty.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)