Song of the Day #1,414: ‘Just Another Mystery (Home Demo)’ – Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello has written so many songs that I’m sure not even he can keep up with them.

Indeed, in the liner notes for the reissue of Mighty Like a Rose, he admits that he forgot about this existence of today’s SOTD until it came up in a search of material from the recording sessions.

‘Just Another Mystery’ isn’t among Costello’s finest songs, by any means, but can you imagine creating something as fully realized as this and then just forgetting about it? He probably wrote three equally good songs the same day.

The Rhino reissues of Costello’s albums are worth getting not just for the wealth of bonus material (including both the studio version of this song and the demo, presented here) but for the voluminous liner notes. Costello goes into vivid detail about the recording of each album and the inspiration behind many of the songs.

Here’s what he has to say about ‘Just Another Mystery’:

The song sprang from a tiny newspaper article stating that the body of the composer Bela Bartok was to be returned to Hungary from the United States for burial. The odd footnote stated that the coffin would tour through Europe by train and that commemorative concerts would be staged along the way.
I seized on this last detail to write the story of the last journey of an unnamed exiled hero, one who had not exactly been feted and respected in his adopted country and one who was forgotten in his homeland. Clearly, it was not the true story of Bartok but it had more to do with the shifting sense of worth in years beyond 1989.

Starting out from the mortuary platform
While the band played a lachrymose refrain
They hung two green flags on the engine
They swore it was a solid gold train

The people lined up by the side of the tracks
As the carriage rolled away in the dark
Through the long hours of uncertainty
He was the hammer who beat out the spark

Hammer and anvil, tears and pain
Stoke up the coals and rattle the chains
Don’t cry anymore
It’s just another mystery

They packed away his manuscript and metronome
His jackdaw quill pen was lost
His pocket watch was closed
The eviction notice was secretly burned
While they threw dice for the rest of his clothes

The train left the Grand Central Station
Bound for Washington, D.C.
But instead flew straight ‘cross the ocean
For Vienna, Stockholm and Paris

Kings, queens, the pashas and potentates
Assembled to wish him god speed
But when you’ve been resting as long as him
It’s not really something you need

Everywhere he went they had a word for him
On his way back to where he belonged
They stood him up, they gathered around and took photographs
While a ventriloquist sang all of his songs

They said that we’re sending a free man
From his long-lost country of birth
Now that we’ve had the best of him
They can put him in their loving earth

When they heard they were sending the body back
They gathered from near and from far
Another flag, another band, another banner
Saying “Welcome home, whoever you are”

There was a joke, but nobody spoke
The graveyard decidedly odd
Where all the dead people turn into big trees
Like hands pointing fingers at God

Hammer and anvil, tears and pain
Stoke up the coals and rattle the chains
Don’t cry anymore
It’s just another mystery train

All aboard!


3 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,414: ‘Just Another Mystery (Home Demo)’ – Elvis Costello

  1. Dana says:

    I agree this is not one of EC’s finest–a bit tuneless really and I’m not crazy about the instrumentation.

    Given the sheer number of songs he has written, though, it’s remarkable to me he remembers as many as he does!

  2. Amy says:

    And if you’re that prolific, leave some of them on the “cutting room floor.” Not everything that is created has to be shared with the public. When a writer revises a novel or excises a character, that character remains unknown to the author’s audience. Not sure why a song has to be dusted off and stuck on an album just because it has been written. If you’re Costello and you’ve written something better, use that better something instead.

  3. andrea katz says:

    I have not heard the song but I love the thought of Bela Bartok’s body being returned home as the inspiration. As to the music, it sounds like it doesn’t hold up, but as for poetry it certainly sounds right.

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