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.
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:
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.