Song of the Day #912: ‘Deep Dark Truthful Mirror’ – Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello released two great albums in 1986 but then took a break for three years before releasing his next disc, 1989’s Spike.

Spike was the first Costello album I bought as a new release, and as such it holds a special place in my heart.

Looking at it objectively, it’s a bit of a mess, but this batch of songs was like manna from heaven for a young guy who had recently discovered a new favorite artist and was dying for new material.

Spike was Costello’s first album with Warner Brothers and they opened the pocketbook for him, giving him the biggest budget he’d ever have. He took advantage, recording all over the world and using a greater number of musicians than he ever had before.

Costello has said that he had plans for five different albums in his head when he started Spike and wound up making all of them at once. And indeed, the album has something of a personality disorder. But its ambition is admirable and its best songs are among the best Costello has written.

One of those is ‘Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,’ a darkly baroque tune that makes excellent use of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, one of the many session players Costello brought in for the Spike recordings.

This is one of those famously obscure Costello songs, going from a very straight-forward and biting opening verse (I love the “going to tell you things that I still love you to much to say” line) to some of his most abstract imagery yet. He has admitted that the butterfly and monkey verse is essentially meaningless, inspired by a nature show he saw on TV.

But somehow all that meaninglessness amounts to something profound.

One day you’re going to have to face
A deep dark truthful mirror
And it’s going to tell you things that I still love you too much to say
The sky was just a purple bruise, the ground was iron
And you fell all around the town until you looked the same


The same eyes, the same lips, the same lie from your tongue trips
Deep dark, deep dark truthful mirror
Deep dark, deep dark truthful mirror

Now the flagstone streets where the newspaper
shouts ring to the boots of roustabouts
But you’re never in any doubt, there’s something
happening somewhere

You chase down the road till your fingers bleed
On a fiberglass tumbleweed
You can blow around the town, but it all shuts down the same


So you bay for the boy in the tiger-skin trunks
They set him up, set him up on the stool
He falls down, falls down like a drunk
And you drink till you drool
And it’s his story you’ll flatter
You’ll stretch him out like a saint
But the canvas that he splattered will be the
picture that you never paint


A stripping puppet on a liquid stick gets into it pretty thick
A butterfly drinks a turtle’s tears, but how do
you know he really needs it?
‘Cos a butterfly feeds on a dead monkey’s hand,
Jesus wept he felt abandoned
You’re spellbound baby there’s no doubting that
Did you ever see a stare like a Persian cat?


2 thoughts on “Song of the Day #912: ‘Deep Dark Truthful Mirror’ – Elvis Costello

  1. Dana says:

    You’ve always been critical of this album, but, for my money, it ranks as one of his best. There really isn’t a song I dislike on it. Now, admittedly, this may be because it was my entry point into buying a new Costello record as well, and so it enjoyed very heavy rotation back in the day. Still, when I am in the mood to hear EC, I reach for this album right after reaching for Imperial Bedroom and King of America.

    Today’s song is certainly a highlight. Wonderful piano work and great lyrics, even if some of them are a bit nonsensical.

  2. Amy says:

    This is probably the first song that comes to mind when I think about why I love Elvis Costello. The combination of moods – “biting” and “darkly baroque” existing right next to the excitement of the build-up of those horns and the almost whimsical entry into the repetition of the chorus. I, too, hold the line you mention as one of my favorites, and I find the music in this song to be so rich and so enjoyable.

    I feel the same way about the whole album. There isn’t a song I don’t enjoy, and many of them have the same combination of qualities/moods today’s SOTD displays. I remember being particularly obsessed with “Chewing Gum” at the time, but this is the one that I have sought out most often in the years since.

    Great, great song!

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