Song of the Day #260: ‘Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4’ – Elvis Costello

mightylikearoseProbably the most notable thing about Costello’s next album, Mighty Like a Rose, is the monstrous beard he grew to accompany its release. Costello says he grew the beard to get through an Irish winter and kept it around because it irritated people so much.

The songs, for the most part, aren’t as memorable as Costello’s facial hair. About half of the 14 tracks are forgettable and the rest are just a little bit above average. But there is one major exception. The album’s final track, a circus hymn with the oddball title ‘Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4,’ could well be my favorite Elvis Costello song of all time.

The melody is so lovely and Costello’s vocal performance so heart-wrenching… it feels like a classic old Irish ditty that’s sung in pubs as the final round approaches. Most powerful of all is the final stanza, heavy with double meaning:

Please don’t let me fear anything I cannot explain
I can’t believe, I’ll never believe in anything again

Does he refuse to believe he’ll never believe in anything again? Or is he hopelessly resigned to that fate? I lean toward the optimistic former interpretation.

During the early part of this decade, Costello would finish concerts with an a capella version of this song, turning off the microphone and belting it out to the hushed crowds. I had the privilege of attending one of those shows and it was almost uncomfortably intimate, huddling at the foot of the stage with a hundred other fans as the man delivered this poignant masterpiece.

(Note: That performance also provided a running joke between my brother-in-law and me, where we’ll say in our best British accent “I’m going off mic for this one!”)

I like this song so much that I found a way around the YouTube limitations and I’m offering it up as embedded audio below. This isn’t a solution for all songs because of space limitations and copyright concerns, but I thought it was worth the effort for this one.

I saw a girl who’d found her consolation
She said “One day my Prince of Peace will come”
Above her head a portrait of her father
The wilted favour that he gave her still fastened to the frame
“They’ve got his bones and everything he owns
I’ve got his name”

Well you can laugh at this sentimental story
But in time you’ll have to make amends
The sudden chill where lovers doubt their immortality
As the clouds cover the sky the evening ends
Describing a picture of eyes finally closing
As you sometimes glimpse terrible faces in the fire
We’ll I’m the lucky goon
Who composed this tune
from birds arranged on the high wire

Who on earth is tapping at the window?
Does that face still linger at the pane?
I saw you shiver though the room was like a furnace
A shadow of regret across a young mother’s face
So toll the bell or rock the cradle
Please don’t let me fear anything I cannot explain
I can’t believe, I’ll never believe in anything again

7 thoughts on “Song of the Day #260: ‘Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4’ – Elvis Costello

  1. Dana says:

    Wow, I didn’t know this song ranked so highly for you, though you do love your circus music. My affection for the song, no doubt, went up considerably when he did that amazing “off mic” version in concert. Can you find that version to post?

    I agree that this album is uneven and certainly a bit of a let down from IB, KOA, Blood and Chocolate and Spike. Still, in addtion to the song you feature today, I think there are some other noteworthy tracks including All Grown Up, Invasion Hit Parade, and So Like Candy.

  2. Amy says:

    I never knew this was the “off mic” song, and I’m not sure I know this song (or this album) much at all. Listening to it now, and reading the lyric, I agree that the former interpretation is the more likely one. He refuses to accept it could be so. They’re great lines, and I love the title of the song, too. I had no idea it was one of your favorites; I’ll have to give this album a listen, as it has managed to stay completely under my radar.

  3. Eirik says:

    Back in 91 when it was released and I was 16 I ranked this album as the best album ever made and Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4 as one the best song ever made. Now I struggle to see what made me like this album so much, but Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4 is still up there among the best songs ever made in my opinion. Hence its nice to see that there’s at least one other person who holds this song in such high regard. I found this site in my quest to see if there actually was anyone who had written anything about this song.

    I’m still not 100 percent sure what the lyrics are all about, though, as I struggle to find the red line, if there is one. Anyway its the tune, his singing (his best vocal performance ever) and the production that makes the song for me.

    Of the other songs on Might like a rose I still listen to How to be dumb and Georgie and her rival now and then.

  4. karen wagner says:

    I must agree whole heartedly.Best EC song period!Does he play it in most of his concerts?

  5. Adam Lane says:

    This song chokes me up.

  6. It was good to find you! Since you are in Montauk, I will report that I was Poet Laureate of Suffolk County (which includes Montauk) from 2005-2007. Words matter a great deal to me. I got to meet Costello once and told him just how much his lyrics mattered to me as a poet. I told him that I put him in the same class as Dylan and Tom Waits. He replied that he felt he was just good at crossword puzzles. Nonetheless, I have been haunted for years by this song. It is brilliant, and the juztaposition of the heavy religious imagery with the Kurt Weill type calliope music is genius. I do think that he is a man who does not believe in Gods or religion and yet he is wondering if he will never believe in anything like that again. The great composer Ennio Morricone (Cinema Paradiso) once stated that he was someone who did not believe and he regretted that fact. Maybe it is the same kind of sentiment. It is hard to believe something that you were once convinced could not be true. Thanks for this post and I am sorry that it took me so long to find it.

  7. Kevin says:

    I always thought this song was about the novel, Dracula. So many lines could be interpreted as such.

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