Song of the Day #270: ‘It’s Time’ – Elvis Costello

uselessCostello followed Brutal Youth with Kojak Variety, a forgettable covers collection that felt more like a contractual obligation than a new Elvis Costello album. But a year later he was back with the strong All This Useless Beauty, an elegant collection of songs he’d mostly written for other people.

Some had been recorded by other artists, some had been turned down, some were written new for the album… the whole concept was kind of half-baked from the start. The important thing was that Costello was back with a new batch of original material, keeping up the enviable pace of one release per year that he’d maintained since his debut.

All This Useless Beauty is no doubt a strong piece of work, but I sometimes feel like it’s a bit too cerebral, too much head and not enough heart, not enough gut.

Case in point: The song ‘The Other End of the Telescope’ was written with Aimee Mann and originally recorded by her on the final ‘Til Tuesday album, Everything’s Different Now. Costello rewrote some of the lyrics and recorded it for this album. Here are his final verses…

You’re half-naked ambition and you’re half out of your wits
Or several tiny fractions that this portrait still omits

‘Cause late in the evening as I sit here moping
With a bamboo needle on a shellac of Chopin
And the cast-iron heart that you failed to tear open
At the other end of the telescope

First of all, I’ve always been bothered by that last line… how can one tear open something made of cast-iron? “Crack open” would work much better there, don’t you think? And I don’t really get the second line at all. But it’s a line toward the end that really irks me… “a bamboo needle on a shellac of Chopin?” Come on! How long-winded and pretentious can you be in describing playing a damn record? And it just has to be Chopin on vinyl, doesn’t it?

Now take a look at the final verses of the original version:

You’re half-naked ambition and you’re half out of your wits
And though your wristwatch always works
Your necktie never fits

When you find me here at the end of my rope
When the head and heart of it finally elope
You can see us off in the distance, I hope
At the other end of the telescope

Now that is a much better lyric. I don’t know if Costello or Mann wrote these words (it actually fits both of their styles) but the wristwatch/necktie thing feels so much more immediate and real than playing a shellac of Chopin.

Sorry for the tangent, but that example sums up the slight misgivings I have about this album.

But then there’s ‘It’s Time,’ as powerful and gutty a broken heart song as Costello has ever written. It’s my favorite track on the album because it is brimming with emotion and anger… the narrator of this song isn’t listening to a shellac of Chopin because he smashed the fucking turntable with a baseball bat.

Costello has a long tradition of excellent kiss-off lines, often coming at the very end of a song, and here’s a brilliant example: “But if you do have to leave me, who will I have left to hate?” I love it!

This live version (on David Letterman, of course) is particularly wonderful, though it unfortunately cuts out the brilliant bridge and that last verse for time. Costello really performs the hell out of the song, just him and a guitar and enough venom to put down a rhinoceros. That’s what I’m talking about…

The party’s over
Your time is up
You’ve had your last pointless teardrop
Washed down in that broken coffee cup
This magic moment concludes when that cigarette ends
Did you get what you wanted?
Well I suppose that depends
Well I suppose that depends

If you go, if you go
Where passion is squandered and money is spent
It’s time, it’s time
It’s time, it’s time
It’s time, it’s time, it’s time
You must see it’s time that you went
You must see it’s time that you went

Our brief acquaintance was such a mistake
Now it seems more like a sentence
Or something you always had to fake
This magic moment concludes when they turn out the light
It’s not the days when you leave me
But all I fear are the nights
But all I fear are the nights

Chorus

You told the same joke to me too many times
I wish that someone would hit it
Just before you reach
Just before you reach
Just before you reach the punchline

The party’s over
Time we broke up
It always seemed like a bad dream
One where I finally woke up
This magic moment concluding our mutual fate
But if you do have to leave me
Who will I have left to hate?
Who will I have left to hate?

11 thoughts on “Song of the Day #270: ‘It’s Time’ – Elvis Costello

  1. Amy says:

    Can’t write much now, but on immediate contact with the two lyrics, it strikes me that his second version is ironic. The speaker is angry with his (former?) lover, but reveals more of his own shortcomings than anything. I think he wants you to condemn the Chopin on shellac.

  2. Clay says:

    Mission accomplished! 🙂

  3. Dana says:

    I think you are being a bit too hard on the re-write of the song and on the album as well.

    The Chopin line is not about playing a record. It’s about painting a portrait of Chopin. I’m not sure if that makes it less pretentious in your mind, but I think it’s a pretty cool line and I’ve never had a problem with the verse, though I agree that “break” would have been better than “tear” as to the cast iron heart.

    I’ve heard both versions of the song (Costello’s and Mann’s) and like Costello’s version much better, but that may be as much a function of the dated production of the Mann version. I would probably love a Mann acounstic version quite a lot.

    This Time is, indeed, a very good song, and I like this live version, but I want to give a shout out to Poor Fractured Atlas. Always thought that was a neat song.

  4. Clay says:

    I do prefer Costello’s recorded version of ‘Telescope’ but I prefer the lyrics in the Til Tuesday version. Mostly that’s due to production, as you said.

    Why do you think the Chopin line is about a painting? I’m pretty sure it’s about playing a record. And I don’t know if painting a portrait of Chopin would be any less pretentious than listening to him on vinyl!

  5. Dana says:

    Well, a bamboo needle is used for knitting, not playing records, and shellac is basically a type of color stain, so I’m assuming the reference is to making some piece of art.

    in any event, if there is any theme running through the album, as suggested by the title track and album title, it would seem to be that we glorify and romanticize the past because of the remnants we have of it through art and literature, yet we have not learned from that past and we still act like idiots and savages by and large, such that the beauty we claim to find in the past is useless. At least that’s what I take away from it.

    So, with that in mind, I see that verse as basically a sad commentary by a miserable man who seeks happiness and beauty as he imagines it was in Chopin’s time, but the reality is that the human condition is much the same now as it was then–at the other end of the telescope.

  6. Clay says:

    Two quotes from the “Learn something new every day” file:

    “Until the advent of vinyl around the 1940’s, phonograph records were pressed from shellac compounds. This use was common until the 1950s, and continued into the 1970s in some non-Western countries.”

    “If you really want to put minimal wear on your records, the needle to use for this is the “Bamboo” needle. Yes, I said Bamboo, the wood you find in rain forests. The needle is triangular in shape and has one end that has a sharpened tip, sort of like a large sharp sliver wedge. The Bamboo is hard enough to play the record and doesn’t grind the record like the metal needles do.”

    So I think it’s safe to say he’s talking about playing Chopin on vinyl.

    I don’t know if I see that theme carrying through more than the title song, though I do see a hint of it in the verse we’re discussing. But that still doesn’t excuse that phrase in my book.

  7. Dana says:

    Wow–good reserach! I stand corrected!

    But I still think that the meaning behind the verse is the same, and I would assume that he changed it because it was more relevant or consistent with the theme he was trying to get across on the album and title track. Meanwhile, although it may be a bit pretentious, it’s very cool that the line caused us to learn something about musical history.:

  8. Amy says:

    Okay, I just have to say that if we find something missing or wrong in a Costello lyric, it’s likely our shortcoming in being able to fully understand it. Come on, guys. The guy is a frakkin genius. Do you think he coudn’t come up with the monosyllabic “break” to replace the monosyllabic “tear” if he wanted to go in that direction? This is Elvis Costello we’re talking about. I don’t buy it for a second.

    Therefore, I find myself digging deeper into the lyrics until I can make some sense of why tear is the superior word. The man knows that records were made on shellac and played with bamboo needles. You telling me if he’s creating a pretentious lyric it’s not on purpose?!!?!!

  9. Amy says:

    How about this? He’s playing on the homophone tear/tear, and wants to make the point that she couldn’t crack the cast iron through her sentiment and emotion (tears) or through force (tearing). Maybe?

  10. Dana says:

    I think that may be a bit of a stretch, but I do agree that Elvis should not be dissed on his lyrics as they are rarely off.

  11. Clay says:

    Elvis is certainly a master lyricist, probably the best I’ve ever heard, but he’s not perfect. He’s had his share of clunkers among the 500+ songs of his I own.

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