In Ten Tracks: Elvis Costello

In Ten Tracks is a selection of tracks that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mixtapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on an artist’s Greatest Hits collection.

YouTube Spotify

Note: Due to licensing issues, “I Almost Had a Weakness” and “Ship of Fools” are not available via Spotify. These are replaced with the tracks “Battered Old Bird” and “American Without Tears.” In addition, the Bill Frisell edition of “Love Field” is not available and has been replaced with the original album version from Goodbye Cruel World.

45   No, it’s not about the current occupant of the White House. This song was from Costello’s 2002 album When I Was Cruel and was written on the occasion of his 45th birthday. The term ’45’ applies to the year, to a 45 rpm single, and to the caliber of a gun. The song looks back on the years of Costello’s life in 9-year intervals from the hear of his birth to his 45th birthday. “There’s a stack of shellac and vinyl/Which is yours now and which is mine?”  

I Almost Had a Weakness  This song cycle (The Juliet Letters) for strings and voice was released in 1993, a collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet. The conceit was that the songs are all letters of different kinds–love letters, hate letters, a suicide note, a request for help from Juliet Capulet.  The piece was a true collaboration, in that all five musicians contribute to both the composition of the music and the lyrics. “I Almost Had a Weakness” is a rant by an aunt about her ‘bastard’ nephew and his no-neck monster kids: “Cause when I die, the cats and dogs will jump up and down/And you little swines will get nothing/Though I almost had a weakness.”

The Other Side of Summer  1991’s Mighty Like a Rose was the first new Costello album I purchased on CD, and this lead-off song has always been a playlist favorite. Costello’s lyrics skewer the idea of the perfect summer with a song about all the darker aspects of the season from homelessness to unwanted pregnancy to not being good looking enough, all with Beach Boys-inspired background vocals.

The lyrics “Madman standing by the side of the road saying/’Look at my eyes, look at my eyes, look at my eyes, look at my eyes'” always reminds me of the hitchhiking scene from the TV adaptation of Jackie Collins’ Hollywood Wives. And he famously snarks at John Lennon with the lines “Was it a millionaire/Who said imagine no possessions…”

Veronica  One of several songs Costello and Paul McCartney wrote together and recorded demos of. Some of the songs ended up on McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt album, while Costello parceled songs out over several albums. This one was on Spike, one of his best selling U.S. releases, and it’s a beautiful and personal portrait of an elderly woman who slips in and out of her memories, based on Costello’s own grandmother.

“It was a strange thing to have been called in to co-write songs for Paul ‘s next record and to start out with something so personal, as it would have been so very easy to set these words to slow melancholic music of my own. I wanted the song to defy the decay and have some sense of joy, and I suppose the music that Paul and I wrote together even ended up smuggling the story of ‘Veronica’ onto the radio.”  

Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Blue Rider Press 2015

Accidents Will Happen  This version, recorded Live at Hollywood High in 1978, was released as a seven inch EP along with original pressings of Armed Forces. Costello sings the song at a slower tempo, accompanied only by Steve Nieve at the piano.  From the beginning, Costello and Nieve had a special musical relationship, with the keyboard player’s staccato organ and rococo piano fill-ins providing the perfect foil for Costello’s lyrics. Eventually, the duo went out on the road together in an intimate tour to promote Costello’s 1996 album All This Useless Beauty. Those dates were recorded and released on five promotional-only CDs, which were later collected in the box set Costello & Nieve. In 1978, this performance put the world on notice that Costello was much more than a one trick, new wave, angry young man.

Waiting for the End of the World  The final track from Elvis Costello’s debut album My Aim is True, this song has all of the in your face immediacy that Elvis Costello was initially known for. In this ’78 live performance he’s backed by the Attractions, though on the album he’s backed by a pickup band, Clover, that later turned into Huey Lewis’ the News. 

Love Field  Version with Bill Frisell recorded live at the Meltdown Festival in 1995. Frisell’s gently moving, the cloud-like background is perfect for this dreamy song that came from Goodbye Cruel World, which Costello has declared to be the worst album he and the Attractions made together. The songs are good but the production is weirdly off, and the arrangements don’t have their usual sharp focus. But this song…it creates its own bubble of feverish fantasy and dreamscape, not at all like anything Costello had done before or, really, since. It says something that Costello selected this song to include on his 2-CD hand-curated greatest hits collections Girls Girls Girls.

Ship of Fools  Originally recorded for the Grateful Dead tribute album Deadicated, Elvis Costello makes this song his own, simultaneously giving respect to the Dead’s performance and putting an extra shine on one of Garcia’s most beautiful songs. He revisited the song with Steve Nieve in a May 5, 1995 performance at the Filmore in San Francisco. This version is the final track on Disc 2 of the 5 disc U.S.-only release Costello and Nieve, recorded at dates in five American cities. 

In the Darkest Place  Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach have individually created some of my favorite pop songs, so it is no surprise that I loved the 1998 release Painted From Memory, a collaboration between the songwriting giants. There are so many great songs on this album it’s difficult to single one out, but the album’s opening gambit, “In the Darkest Place” serves as a wonderful overture. Featuring Costello’s tortured lyrics over Bacharach’s aching melodies and sunny California pop arrangements it’s perfectly balanced between the two artists, as though they were meant to work together. 

Shipbuilding  The most poetic, observational anti-war song ever, written during Great Britain’s Falkland Islands conflict. Robert Wyatt recorded it first, shortly after the conflict ended, and Costello released his version on Punch the Clock (1982). Costello’s version features a gorgeous string arrangement by David Bedford, who orchestrated and conducted orchestral versions of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge. Costello also brought in jazz trumpet player Chet Baker, who was in the twilight of his career. Baker played and sang Costello’s “Almost Blue” in performances throughout the remaining six years of his life.

–Marshall Bowden–

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