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:)
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