Three years after his Burt Bacharach collaboration, Elvis Costello released 2001’s For the Stars, an album recorded with Swedish soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter. And there was a great disturbance in the Force, as hordes of Elvis Costello fans sighed and rolled their eyes.
Branching out into new musical directions is one thing, but when a one-time punk star puts out his second album of easy listening material that would fit nicely in your grandmother’s CD collection, there’s a problem.
When would Costello rock again?
A year later, it turned out, with 2002’s When I Was Cruel. Perhaps it was the long dry spell since Brutal Youth, but When I Was Cruel felt as fresh and exciting as anything he’d recorded since Blood and Chocolate and Spike.
Costello had chased modern sounds on his albums before, usually with less than stellar results. Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World suffer a bit for their reliance on trendy 80s production techniques. But When I Was Cruel made excellent use of hip-hop and trip-hop sounds. It was a tantalizing look at what Costello could sound like in a new decade.
Among the songs that benefit from this sonic makeover is ‘Spooky Girlfriend,’ a typical Costello twisted relationship song that sounds nothing like its predecessors.
To do no wrong she must confess
And then perhaps hitch up her dress
‘Cos when the flashbulbs explode
She’s such a sensitive soul
I want a girl who is helpless and frail
Who won’t pull on my ponytail
I want a girl who has no past
She’s made up now
But that won’t last
‘Cos when she sits on my knee
And then she whispers to me
Can’t you see
I could be
I could be
Your spooky girlfriend
The broken toys are all scattered in the attic
Newspapers play with the words of the fanatic
While the greeting cards are your most poetic lyric
And the flat champagne is sweet sugar syrup
I want to paint you with glitter and with dirt
Picture you with innocence and hurt
The shutter closes
Exposes the shot
She says, Are you looking up my skirt?
When you say No
She says Why not?
I want a girl to turn my screw
To wind my watch, to buckle my shoe
And if she won’t her mother will do
But when she does as she’s told
We’ll all turn platinum and gold
But when she sits on my knee
I hear her whispers to me
Can’t you see?
I could be your spooky girlfriend
Do you own For The Stars? I’m not sure I had ever even heard of that release.
Anyway, this is a great song from one of EC’s better albums in recent years.
I have owned it, though I don’t think I still do. Most of the tracks are covers and Elvis appears (vocally) on only a few of them. It’s mostly this von Otter woman doing her thing.
This is the song I love most from the more recent recordings of Costello. His performance of this song in concert was amazing and remains one of my favorite concert memories.
As for the fact that he disappointed fans with his odd forays into other genres… eh, what are you going to do? I’d rather consider it one fewer album I have to buy/listen to, and look forward to what those experiments will add to his next album I do want to own.
We certainly are critical when a favorite musician releases an album that sounds too much like the previous one. Perhaps to evolve as a singer and songwriter, one needs to make those side trips.
Now how a recording Anne-Sofie von Otter led him to “Spooky Girlfriend” I have no idea, but I’m willing to bet that there is some seed of inspiration there.