Song of the Day #98: ‘New Lace Sleeves’ – Elvis Costello

It’s pretty amazing that, if you set aside the theme-week duet with Lucinda Williams, I’ve written about 96 songs without featuring a solo Elvis Costello tune. Elvis is the king of my music collection. I have pretty much everything he’s ever recorded, from the early post-punk Attractions albums through his experimental Beatles-esque stuff, on to the chamber music and Burt Bacharach detours and back to his recent return to his rock-and-roll roots.

He’s the most prolific and fascinating songwriter I know and an artist whose love of music — all kinds of music — is infectious. In many ways, loving Costello means not just being a fan but a student. A student of language and a student of sound.

My first exposure to Costello came courtesy of my sister and future brother-in-law, who gave me King of America as a birthday present twenty years ago. That album, which I still count among his three best, hooked me instantly. I moved on to Imperial Bedroom, another of his finest works, and the newly-released Spike and then started gobbling up his back catalog.

Trust became another favorite, particularly the song ‘New Lace Sleeves.’ It’s an expertly crafted tune… I love the way the drums start things off before the guitar riff rises in the mix, and I adore the thick bass line that joins the party along with Costello’s voice.

I think the real genius of the song comes in the second verse, which Elvis sings as well as anything in his discography.

The salty lips of the socialite sisters
With their continental fingers that have
Never seen working blisters
Oh I know they’ve got their problems
I wish I was one of them
They say daddy’s coming home soon
With his sergeant stripes and his empire mug and spoon


I love the double meaning of the “I wish I was one of them” line… one of the problems or one of the socialites, or both?

I also love the first line of the chorus, so provocative:

And you say
The teacher never told you anything but white lies
But you never see the lies
That you believe


Such wonderful songwriting, such a wonderful song. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I suspect Costello will show up here again soon enough, perhaps in a theme week like one of his heroes, Bob Dylan. I look forward to it.

2 thoughts on “Song of the Day #98: ‘New Lace Sleeves’ – Elvis Costello

  1. Dana says:

    Although the phrase may be a commercial cliche, it really is wonderful to give the “gift of music.” The “gift” of Elvis was handed down to me about 21 years ago by my friend Ned. We were in Cambridge, Englad. Of a group of 20 or so American students there for the summer, Ned and I connected almost immediately over a shared passion for music, a shared cynical sense of humor and a general irreverance. Ned was already an Elvis junkie at that time and he was eager to share his mixed “best of” tapes with me. I gobbled up those tapes like candy–I refused to return them all summer. I must have listened to tracks from King of America, Imperial Bedroom, Trust, and assorted other gems from Elvis’ early works dozens of times. I found every song to be simply flat out wonderful, and yet, among the greatness, songs like New Lace Sleeves — as well as Beyond Belief, Shipbuilding, Hoover Factory and Human Hands– stood out and had me hooked as if they were laced with musical heroine.

    Over the past 20 years, I feel that Elvis remains one of the few exceptional artists who can continue to put out interesting, relevant, great albums. He is, by a fair stretch, my favorite musician. He is both the reason I love music and the reason I became an attorney–realizing that, whatever songwriting talent I might have, I could never be in the same league as artists like him.

    Although Clay and I have bonded over many things over the years, I have particulary enjoyed bonding over Costello. So, allow me to “go off mike with this one” and say, “Here’s to another 20 years of bonding over Elvis.”.

  2. Amy says:

    What a strange video. I want to meet the person who set those images to Costello’s song. I know you don’t want us to pay attention to the videos, but that was just too odd not to warrant a comment.

    On to the music… Elvis is exceptional. He was the first singer songwriter I remember truly thinking of as an “artist” in every sense of that word. I remember debating with my father about Costello’s talent being as great as Mozart’s (I don’t remember faring well in that debate; I just remember having it :-). I’ve never been able to identify the musical structure of a song, but I was never more aware of the intricacy and craft that I wasn’t “getting” than when I listened to Costello. Still, listening never felt like work; it was never intimidating. Far from it. Just as I feel excited at the notion of walking into the theater to see a movie directed by one of my favorite directors, knowing that his master of the craft will mean that I am going to be taken on a journey by a strong guide, I approach listening to an Elvis Costello song with equal enthusiasm. I might not be able to identify what he’s doing, but I can appreciate the effect his music creates. Some of my favorites are Alison, Beyond Belief, Human Hands, Shipbuilding, I’ll Wear it Proudly, but they all impress me. There is a lot of music that I like, probably even more than Costello’s music, but there are very few “artists” I admire more.

    I, too, look forward to a week of more great Costello tunes like this one.

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