Song of the Day #261: ‘Taking My Life in Your Hands’ – Elvis Costello

julietlettOK, when an artist’s new release is a concept album about written correspondence performed entirely with a string quartet, he’s admittedly opening himself up to charges of pretentiousness. So yes, The Juliet Letters is sort of by definition a pretentious album.

But the thing is, it works. I’ve never listened to a string quartet in my life but I love every minute of this album. And of course that’s due to the songwriting, which is uniformly excellent on this collection. At least half of these 20 songs are as melodically sublime and lyrically clever as anything Costello has written for guitars and pianos as opposed to violins and cellos.

Among my favorites are ‘This Sad Burlesque,’ a somber ballad about the royal family; ‘Damnation’s Cellar,’ about a time machine that can bring historic figures back from the dead; and ‘I Almost Had a Weakness,’ a comically spiteful screed by a dowager who refuses to write her surviving relatives into her will:

I really mustn’t grumble
(‘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 most moving song on the album is ‘The First to Leave,’ a letter left behind by a dead man or woman for the surviving spouse. The deceased is a believer in an afterlife; the survivor is not.

But if I should give you up
If you’re right and life just stops
And I never see your face again
Then from unearthly pleasures, proud and plain
I shall abstain

Until you realise, my loss is your surprise
Unless you know otherwise
Then don’t grieve
You see I had to be the first to leave

Today’s song, ‘Taking My Life in Your Hands,’ is also quite lovely — a tale of unrequited love that is perhaps the closest thing to a traditional single on The Juliet Letters. I’d love to hear this song, and the whole album, really, performed with traditional pop instruments. Not to take anything away from the string treatment, which is wonderful, but just to see how well they’d translate.

Here’s a live version performed on The Tonight Show, of all places. Guess I’ll reluctantly give Jay Leno some credit for this one.

My dear impulsive darling I suspect my letter got to you too late
And it’s really just a silly fragment of paper
But it means so much to those who wait
All the suffering days and nights ’til I dare dream again
There you suddenly stand and I’ll be damned if you
didn’t disappear with the dawn

Hours pass and darkness comes
Soon I will close my eyes
Will you return if you don’t reply
You’ll be taking my life in your hands
You’ll be taking my life in your hands
Taking my life in your hands

I don’t know why my dearest darling
I can’t tell you how I feel when you are near
When I see you have returned my letters unopened
I will tear them up, your voice ringing in my ears
But you’re kidding yourself if you think this correspondence will end
I can always pretend words I don’t have the courage to send
Reach you

3 thoughts on “Song of the Day #261: ‘Taking My Life in Your Hands’ – Elvis Costello

  1. Dana says:

    Okay, I admit it. This album never caught fire with me. Maybe it just tips too much on the pretentious scale, or maybe I’m just not THAT into listening to string quartets. I know the album received great reviews and is a fan favorite for many, but it just doesn’t float my boat.

    Now, having said that, when I do hear a song like this one in isolation or some of the others I have heard in concert such as “I Almost Had a Weakness,” I tend to apprecaite and enjoy them. So, perhaps it’s just the relentlessness of the concept over a full album that gets to me. Maybe if each of these songs had been spread out over various albums, they would have fared better with me.

    Anyway, I did enjoy this clip. Amazing to see Elvis looking about as “normal” and professional as I have ever seen him:)

  2. Amy says:

    Here’s a stupid question – aren’t all the songs on the album connected in some way to Romeo and Juliet? I’ve never listened to the album, but I always thought that was the concept behind it.

  3. Clay says:

    Nope, they’re all letters of one sort or another but not necessarily tied to Romeo and Juliet. There are a couple of songs on the album that reference them.

    The title was inspired by a Verona professor who took it upon himself to answer letters addressed to Juliet Capulet and sent to his fair city.

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