My recent reviews of Elvis Costello reminded me that I’m way, way behind in my plan to review more June Tabor albums and give her a coveted spot on my navigation menu.
Okay, I’ll admit that no one covets a spot on my navigation menu, but the phrase had a nice ring to it.
Costello wrote two songs for June Tabor in the early 90’s: “All This Useless Beauty” on 1992’s Angel Tiger; “I Want to Vanish” on Against the Streams in 1994. Those two albums form part of a period in her career (beginning with Aqaba in 1988) when she expanded her repertoire beyond traditional British and Irish folk music, choosing songs in multiple genres based on the quality of the songwriting. In addition to covering songs by Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson, she brought her remarkable interpretation skills to the works of a wide range of songwriters, including familiar names such as Cole Porter, Charles Mingus, Natalie Merchant and the Gershwin Brothers, and less-familiar but highly talented craftspersons like Bill Caddick, Les Barker and Maggie Holland.
Not caring much for the available but mundane English term to describe those who interpret songs (“song interpreter”), I made up a word that feels more descriptive and accurate: interpretiste, integrating “interpreter” with the French word for artist: artiste. June Tabor is a true interpretiste, not only in her remarkable ability to capture text and subtext of a given song, but in her talent for choosing works that challenge both the singer and the listener. Some of her best interpretations involve songs that present the unpleasant aspects of human life that the typical listener would rather avoid. Because most people consume music designed to make them happy and facilitate their escape from a dreary reality, June Tabor’s work is unlikely to appear on the Top 40 or anywhere in the rotation of a commercial music channel. She is one of those stubborn artists of rare courage who prefers depth to superficiality. And while she has consistently chosen songs that explore the extent of man’s inhumanity to man, she also has a wicked sense of humor and a marked sensitivity to the complex emotions surrounding human love.
Against the Streams is therefore a perfect title for an album by an artist who consistently paddles against the stream.
“Shameless Love” is an exceptionally engaging opening track, one of my favorite songs by anybody, anywhere, anytime. The song was the title track on a 1981 album by Texas singer-songwriter Eric Taylor, and while his excellent lyrics remain in place, the music underwent a complete overhaul. The unremarkable rhythm of the acoustic original was replaced with a superb arrangement by long-time collaborator and pianist Huw Warren that features a palpable syncopated rhythm driven by piano and accordion, punctuated with sharp violin thrusts at the song’s dynamic peak. Taylor’s original also lacked an identifiable melody, rather like early Dylan songs that needed more melodically-oriented artists to flesh out the tune. Here June and Huw fill in the missing pieces of the melodic puzzle to create a tune with delightful movement up and down the scale.
The lyrics spoke volumes to me as a teenager struggling with my nonconventional desires for both boys and girls, and the song still speaks to me today after years of being shamed for my kinky predilections and living (in sin!) with another adult woman. I don’t think there was a specific moment when I turned the corner, but somewhere along the path there came a point where the judgments of others stopped bothering me: I knew in my heart and soul that the love I felt was a pure as pure could get, and I wasn’t going to let anyone interfere with the free expression of such a precious feeling:
Here’s my heart and all that’s in it
Some say roses, and some say thorns
Some say I’m a fool to give it
Crazy as the moon in a midnight storm
I learned that it was crazier not to give all I am and all I had to give.
Taylor’s lyrics suggest that shameless love is achieved after the emotional release of a good cry, and I do remember a lot of good cries during the period when the light was finally dawning—cries of sadness and joy. It takes a lot of energy to repress both emotion and identity, so it follows that the dam will have to break sooner or later. June’s delivery captures the complexity of this transformation, varying from playful to passionate with a tinge of melancholy at the end, all expressed through exceptional command of build dynamics and thoughtful, deliberate phrasing.
We can be thankful that June brought her immense vocal talent to Elvis Costello’s “I Want to Vanish,” for Costello’s version (on All This Useless Beauty, released two years after June’s recording) reveals his limitations as a vocalist in a quite unflattering manner. The melodic line features a great deal of variation, especially noticeable on the near-octave leaps that appear frequently in the song. You can hear Elvis struggling to hit those notes—an effort that also throws off his breathing—but for June it’s a walk in the park. Costello told Lydia Hutchinson of Performing Songwriter that the song was not about Princess Diana as many have assumed, but “a whole story about a backwoods musician who was being pursued by these documentary filmmakers, and all these images that were being put on satellite television were in the lyric of that song.” June’s interpretation, marked by a certain elegance in delivery, does call up images of a trophy wife trapped at a banquet table laden with silver candelabras and surrounded by bores who consider her little more than an addition to the decoration:
Whether in wonder or indecent haste
You arrange the mirrors and the spools
To snare the rare and precious jewels
That were only made of paste
Listeners often choose to interpret songs in their own way, but however you interpret June Tabor’s version of “I Want to Vanish,” the excellence of the vocal performance cannot be denied.
June returns to her folk roots with “False, False” (Roud 8276), though I doubt the original featured a background as refined as Huw Warren’s supporting piano, Mark Emerson’s subtly evocative strings and Mark Lockheart’s subtle but stirring clarinet. What I love here is that while June plays the role of woman rejected for another, her vocal maintains its strength even in the saddest moments, a choice that beautifully complements the song’s narrative flow. The marvelous Peta Webb, who recorded the song on her album The Magpie’s Nest, described the song as one that “moves from tragedy to optimism in three short verses of striking poetic imagery,” and June beautifully captures that whirl of emotions in her delivery. After admitting that fulfillment was a long shot at best (“against the stream I was rowing”), the woman rises from the emotional devastation to express her firm belief that true love is still possible:
But I mean to climb up some higher, higher tree
And harry a white snowflake’s nest,
And down shall I fall, ay, without any fear
To the arms that love me the best.
In one sense, the song bears a striking similarity to “Shameless Love,” in that it is indeed possible to feel two completely opposite emotions at the same time. Ah, the wonder of being human!
We now move on to Richard Thompson’s contribution to crime fiction in the person of that “cold steel woman” known as “Pavanne,” the “beauty as elegant as ice.” This character sketch of a hit woman specializing in political assassinations is remarkably complete, and as is often the case, the seeds of her psychosis were planted in childhood trauma.
And they say she grew up well provided for,
Her mother used to keep her boys for sure.
And father’s close attentions led to talk,
She learned to stab her food with a silver fork.
June maintains the suspense as the story plays out, rendering the tale’s conclusion by opening the final verse in sotto voce to replicate the whispering gossip of the masses who have been following the case in the papers. She then rises to full power as she delivers the shocking truth about this female psychopath:
And they say she didn’t do it for the money,
And they say she didn’t do it for a man.
They say that she did it for the pleasure,
The pleasure of the moment.
Kudos again to Huw Warren for exceptionally sensitive piano support that faithfully tracks June’s emotional narrative.
You will often find at least one song on a June Tabor album that leaves you emotionally devastated, and on Against the Streams that song is “He Fades Away.” Written by the late Alistair Hewitt, Scottish immigrant to the lands down under and confirmed Trotskyite Socialist, the song consists of the reflections of an Australian woman who tends to her husband as he wastes away from lung disease caused by years of toil in the asbestos mines. Hewitt’s original is a decent piece of work, and while his empathy is admirable, the song needed a woman’s voice and sensibility to realize its potential.
The song begins with June’s voice, a voice expressing exhaustion, resignation and infinite sadness. She is soon joined by Andy Cutting on the diatonic accordion, a sound that serves to intensify the unimaginable heartbreak:
There’s a man in my bed I used to love him
His kisses used to take my breath away
There’s a man in my bed I hardly know him
I wipe his face and hold his hand
And watch him as he slowly fades away
He fades away
Not like leaves that fall in autumn
Turning gold against the grey
He fades away
Like the bloodstains on the pillow case
That I wash every day
He fades away
The second verse deals with the complications surrounding compensation, highlighting the cold, impersonal bureaucratic response of the state (“The lawyer says we might get compensation/In the course of due procedure/But he couldn’t say for certain at this stage”). June maintains that tone of resignation throughout the verse, indifferent to the possibility of compensation for reasons to be poignantly clarified in the final verse. The song then moves to the bridge, where we learn her husband is not the only victim of Austrailia’s Wittenoom mines. While Hewitt’s delivery in the original feels polemical and political, no one can express righteous outrage as effectively and genuinely as June Tabor. Her tone and phrasing change noticeably when she mentions the mines, seething with deep-seeded anger and human outrage at the sheer senselessness of the sacrifice:
And he’s not the only one
Who made that trip so many years ago
To work the Wittenoom mines
So many young men old before their time
And dying slow
They fade away
Wheezing bags of bones
Their lungs half clogged and full of clay
He fades away
She returns to that achingly moving tone of resignation in the final verse as she remarks on the absurdity of the compensation that may or may never come, subtly condemning the values of a system founded on the belief that money is an effective palliative for grief:
There’s a man in my bed they never told him
The cost of bringing home his weekly pay
And when the courts decide how much they owe him
How will he spend his money
When he lies in bed and coughs his life away?
The bitter irony of the story is that the Wittenoom Mines did in fact close at the end of 1966, but the closure had nothing to do with the individuals and families whose lives were ruined. No, the firm in question “closed its asbestos mining operations at Wittenoom claiming lack of profitability and falling of asbestos prices.” You can read the timeline of the disaster online, but that cold list of facts won’t come close to matching the impact of June Tabor’s moving performance.
“The Irish Girl” is a mysterious tale of abandoned love from singer-songwriter Peter Bond. Though the “plot” is somewhat surreal, the moral of the story is that a man “Seeking his fortune while the brightest jewel/Was within his reach all the while” is the ultimate fool. It’s a lovely song, marvelously supported by a string arrangement that weaves itself beautifully around the melody. Next comes a brief traditional intermission combining two different fragments, the song title drawing its name from the first (“Apples and Potatoes”) while the second is based on the tune from “God Killed the Devil.” The highlight of the piece is when June shifts to nonsense syllables in a burst of “traditional scat” delighting in the sounds of the did-a-lee-doos rolling off her tongue.
“Beauty and the Beast” is actually a poem by Jane Yolen set to music by the multi-talented Huw Warren, where June abandons singing for straight poetic narrative. We find the curiously matched couple in their golden years, the loping rhythm established by Huw Warren’s piano hinting that they’re taking a stroll about the grounds. The music of the primary theme combines C major during the verses and G minor emphasizing the fifth in the gaps, indicating that all may not be sunshine and roses in Beast Land beneath the superficial trappings. Beauty’s naïve belief in her ability to uncover the prince trapped beneath a beastly façade turns out a crapper, as she describes Beast as “graying around the muzzle.” The ultimate sacrificial lamb then claims she has “No regrets—-None.” At that point, the main musical theme vanishes, the key shifts to a pattern emphasizing half-step dissonance, and in a haltering voice, Beauty (speaking through June) reveals that she does in fact have regrets—that she and Beast were unable to have children.
The woman is a complete fucking idiot.
Dr. Jennifer James famously called bullshit on this fairytale, describing it as one that perpetuates the myth that “you can marry one of those guys and clean him up.” Jane Yolen wrote (among other things) books for children, so given her family-friendly bias, her mild revision of the story is hardly surprising. What I resent about both the original and this update is that both present the woman as weak and submissive, a wimp who accepts the limited choices offered her by society and who can only preserve her status as a good girl by sacrificing her life for the family. I have no problem with women who want children—I have a problem with women who buy into the narrative that they will never achieve full womanhood unless and until they get the production line going. Love the arrangement, love June’s portrayal of the character, loathe both the tale and the moral of the story.
I return to a much happier place when I hear the accordion strains that open “The Turn of the Road,” a touching and beautiful love song adapted from an old Irish tune by prolific writer, poet, satirist and comic Les Barker. The theme centers on the essential truth governing any intimate relationship: anyone can love someone “for better” but the true test lies in the “for worse.”
Will you walk with me
Beyond the road’s turning,
Where Day takes the valley
That leads into Night?
Love will you walk with me
All through my journey
Or only til’ the light?
June’s delivery on this piece is a combination of deliberate and careful enunciation (as if she’s making sure the partner fully understands) and bursts of intense passion around the vital importance of unconditional love. The power of the combination is best demonstrated in her exceptional phrasing, particularly on the couplet “The turn of the road, my love/That’s where I need you” where she extends the melodic line on the first verse to emphasize the intimate phrase, “my love,” then frames THAT’S around microscopic pauses to make the meaning clear. After a long and lovely accordion and string duet, we arrive at the climactic moment where the last two verses are repeated over more assertive supporting music and June sings the lines in a tone revealing complete confidence in the power of unconditional love:
Love, will you hold me
Through all my life’s evenings?
Love, will you take the road
Right to the end?
I never had someone
I could believe in
Forever my lover, my friend.
Oysterband mate Ian Telfer penned “Windy City,” a bitter ode to cities in the northern climes that began dying with predictable frequency following the decline in manufacturing and the loss of empire status. Mark Locklear trades his clarinet for tenor sax, giving this largely piano-driven song a touch of urban grit. The narrator is a youth desperate to escape the dead-end life of a rust belt denizen and relocate to sunnier climes (both literally and economically). The song reaches its emotional peak in the center, where June delivers the bridge, spitting out the words with unrestrained bitterness and bile:
We went to church on Sunday
We wore our Sunday best
We went to work on Monday
The damned just like the blessed
Just like the blessed
Locklear then follows with an equally expressive sax solo that qualifies as a pure knockout moment. It’s followed by a passage of quiet reflection and relief as the narrator arrives at the train station to make his escape. June emphasizes the “never” in the phrase “And I’m never coming back” in various ways—once through hard emphasis, once as settled fact and once by echoing the word gently in the fade, reflecting the relief of escape.
Bill Caddick, a regular contributor to June’s repertoire, earns the album’s closing spot with the gentle and lovely lullaby “Waiting for the Lark.” The spare backing music of gently plucked single string notes reflects the quiet moments of early morning before the sun has risen in pastoral lands where time is not measured by the clock but by the sounds and sights of the natural world. The sound of the lark is the true wake-up call in such a clime, a signal to the farmer that it’s time to till the fields or tend to the trees. It just so happens that I’m reading Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders at present, and there are several scenes in that book that could have been set to Caddick’s wonderful music and June’s gentle voice:
Sleep on child while the birds rest on
And the cow she sleeps in her stall.
Oh the meadow stands grey
In this dew-down moment before the day.
And waits for the lark to call.
And waits for the lark to call.
Though I will always be a city girl, hearing this song and reading Hardy make me yearn for a world that isn’t driven by artificial and arbitrary notions of time but by rhythms more compatible with the human spirit.
Twenty-five years after its release, Against the Streams confirms its status as a timeless work of pure artistry and exceptional courage. Such a description applies in varying degrees to all June Tabor’s work, but the diversity and depth of Against the Streams certainly qualifies it as one of her best. While superficial can be fun, it’s also exhausting in that you have to keep going back for more to scratch whatever itch you have. Listening to deeper, richer music that explores the core of human existence may feel challenging at first, but when it’s delivered by an artist as talented and sensitive as June Tabor, such music leaves you feeling fully engaged, fully alive and more closely connected to your fellow travelers on life’s journey.
What a difference a band makes.
The Clovers were the hired hands supporting Elvis Costello on My Aim Is True, hitting the notes and beats but not adding much in the way of excitement. Elvis Costello carried that record pretty much all by his little old lonesome, and that’s a pretty heavy burden for any performer. What he needed for his next record was a real band with high quality, multi-dimensional musicians who could deliver the rock ‘n’ roll goods and had the ability to respond to Costello’s lyrical displays with playfulness of their own.
Enter The Attractions.
There are two things that stand out for me when I listen to This Year’s Model. First, Elvis Costello sounds more confident and relaxed in his vocal delivery because he doesn’t have to compensate for the comparative lack of energy and innovation from the band. He can relax and ride the wave, knowing that the band has his back and then some.
The second thing is . . . I can’t take my ears off that drummer.
Can you say that? Is that a legitimate colloquialism in the English language? Well, fuck if I care, it’s the truth—I cannot take my ears off Pete Thomas. Because he may not have the cachet of Starr, Moon, Bonham or Bevan, you might think my passion for his stick-and-foot work might just be one of this crazy broad’s personal quirks. Au contraire! I am not alone in my lofty opinion! Tom Waits called Pete Thomas “one of the best rock drummers alive.”
Damn straight, Tom, damn straight.
The other two Attractions were pretty darned good, too. Bruce Thomas (no relation) proved to be a solid bassist with melodic flair, and though he and Elvis would eventually do battle with one another in an on-again off-again feud, at this early stage there was none of that silliness in play. Steve Nieve is an exceptionally talented keyboardist and composer, and one of the few organists I can listen to with unbridled pleasure.
Things kick off with a character suffering from that dire combination of bruised ego, denial and desire for petty revenge. Well, shit, no wonder he gets “No Action!” He spends the first verse lying to himself and to the woman whose life he garnishes with near-prank phone calls:
I don’t wanna kiss you
I don’t wanna touch
I don’t wanna see you
‘Cause I don’t miss you that much
I’m not a telephone junkie
I told you that we were just good friends
But when I hold you like I hold
That Bakelite in my hands
There’s no action (3)
Ooh–I hope he’s not whipping his skippy with his other hand. Ah, apparently not—he’s too busy displaying his moxie:
And the things in my head
Start hurtin’ my mind
And I think about the way things used to be
Knowing you with him is driving me crazy
Sometimes I phone you when I know you’re not lonely
But I always disconnect it in time
Elvis plays the role of gutless wonder to perfection, and the addition of harmony and call-and-response from Elvis and the boys in the band adds an exciting dimension to the overall sound.
I realized just how ab-fab Pete Thomas is the first time I heard “This Year’s Girl.” He opens the song establishing the base pattern, and what you notice most of all is how precise he is in terms of the force applied to each part of the kit—toms, bass, snare, high hat. His rock-solid performance during the intro allows gives each of the other members a chance to shine in turn, with Elvis getting his licks in first, Bruce filling in the bottom and Steve delivering the dominant figure on the keyboards. I love the way this tiny overture all comes together at the end, with Bruce cueing the close with a pair of declining runs, Steve holding the chord on the organ, Pete cooling off with soft high-hat beats then POW-POW-pa-PA-POW! Take it away, Elvis!
See her picture in a thousand places ’cause she’s this year’s girl
You think you all own little pieces of this year’s girl
Forget your fancy manners
Forget your English grammar
‘Cause you don’t really give a damn about this year’s girl
No, you really don’t. This year’s girl, next year’s girl—just another objectified piece of ass you can own by plunking down the dough for the magazine. The brilliance of the song comes through in the second verse and bridge, where Costello exposes the strange fantasy-driven “relationship” between viewer and object. The viewer wants this year’s girl to have some class in order to raise his status (see “trophy wife”) but when the lights go out he wants to break that bitch and shove his member down her throat. Although the scenario is completely unreal, the feelings feel real to the viewer; meanwhile, the girl in question wishes she’d been born ugly so she might have a shot at a real life, knowing that beauty fades as surely as a camellia in hot sun:
Still you’re hoping that she’s well-spoken ’cause she’s this year’s girl
You want her broken with her mouth wide open ’cause she’s this year’s girl
Never knowing it’s a real attraction
All these promises of satisfaction
While she’s being bored to distraction being this year’s girl
Time’s running out, she’s not happy with the cost
There’d be no doubt, only she’s forgotten much more than she’s lost
Costello opines that these strange connections between man and fantasy likely have their origins in male insecurity resulting from superficial “manliness” and the curse of erectile dysfunction (“Those body-building prizes/Those bedroom alibis”). The truth is that absurd expectations for both genders have poisoned the well since . . . well, since forever. The line quoted above appears in the closing verse, and I have to confess that I get so focused on what Pete is doing—particularly the sudden break from the pattern, a brief caesura and then varied lengths of pow-pow-pow on the toms—that it takes a superhuman effort to not tune out Elvis Costello’s lead vocal. And it’s one of his best! A perfect expression of justifiably righteous disdain!
Fortunately, “The Beat” is dominated by Costello’s vocal and Nieve’s organ, so I can concentrate on musical design and lyrics. The alternation between major and minor keys in verse and chorus is interesting, but isn’t accompanied by an obvious lyrical shift from “happy” to “sad.” As for the storyline, I’ve read various theories ranging from Oedipus complex to Onanism to garden-variety sexual inadequacy on the part of an awkward, un-cute boy (allegedly Costello himself). I’d be careful interpreting Costello’s lyrics as autobiographical, but the awkward boy theme is one of his sweet spots and likely has its origins in personal experience. I read the song as a stew of teenage/early-twenties insecurities in relation to sexual matters—a kitchen-sink exposé of young male neuroses. Musically, the song isn’t all that interesting, and “The Beat” is certainly not one of my faves.
“Pump It Up” certainly is, a perennial entry on my fuck playlists because when you’re horny you couldn’t care less about Costello’s anti-hedonistic lyrics as long as that thumping combination of drums and bass shakes every nerve “down in the pleasure center, hell-bent or heaven-sent.”
Now, Costello must have known that the music to this song is as sexy as fuck, so “anti-hedonistic” is a somewhat misleading label. He wrote the song on a fire escape in Newcastle while touring, feeling that his bandmates were more focused on the coke and the groupies than the music and the meaning. It seems to me that he was railing against artificial or dishonest means of pumping up the hormonal levels—drugs, image, presentation, projected identity. The chorus reads “Pump it up when you don’t really need it,” calling out the epidemic of human fragility that tricks us into believing we need drugs, a sexy dress, an attitude or being in with the in-crowd to give us confidence in our relations with others.
This Year’s Model continues the pattern of My Aim Is True in its faithfulness to the style of rock produced between 1958 and 1963. However, despite bearing a superficial resemblance to the songs of the early 60’s girl groups (I’m thinking Rosie and the Originals here), “Little Triggers” features chordal and rhythmic changes that violate the formula, and that kind of a thing was a no-go during that heavily conformist period. The triggers in question have to do with the ambiguous mating signals transmitted by a woman who hasn’t figured out that “I want/I don’t want to fuck” is the only sensible way to go. This broad triggers a rise in testosterone through a combination of sarcastic laughter, tongue teasing and temporary access to her body, only to force poor Elvis into an icy shower. It’s obvious that both parties need to grow up and get real. I adore Steve Nieve’s piano on this piece, executing the arpeggio usually assigned to guitar with professional eloquence.
If you’re the kind of person who would look forward to hearing The Stones’ “The Last Time: The Sequel,” you’ll love “You Belong to Me,” especially the opening riff and the verses where you can easily sing “I told you once and I told you twice” in place of Costello’s lyrics. Stones fans will also pick up on the use of the phrase “under his thumb” later in the song, and the loonier of the lot may be tempted to conjure up a conspiracy theory that Mick Jagger secretly left the Stones in a desperate attempt to save his marriage to Bianca, had major plastic surgery and turned himself into the younger, more self-effacing Elvis Costello.
Fuhgeddabout it. Elvis Costello has always been honest about borrowing bits, pieces and maybe a bit more from rock songs through the ages. The thing about “You Belong To Me” and most Costello compositions is that the lyrics tend to be much more interesting than the original, just as Shakespeare is a lot more fun to read than Plutarch. Here he expresses frustration with young ladies who take pride in being “owned” by this or that cute boy, imbuing the relationship with importance enhanced by secrecy, even if it means a trip to the doctor to take care of a little problem growing in the womb. Musically the song feels a bit choppy, and the organ a bit overwhelming, but I do find myself singing along to either Costello or Mick.
“Hand in Hand” breaks from early rock patterns with a vocal intro more than a little reminiscent of mid-period Beatles, especially the backward vocal on “Rain.” That intro leads to a song about man and woman locked in a power struggle arguing about who’s the toughest of them all. Sorry, but this one doesn’t really click for me.
“(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” is also more about the music than the lyrics. Pete Thomas wanted to make his mark with an opening intro comparable to “Watching the Detectives,” and boy, did he ever, with a dazzling syncopated performance that paves the way for the herky-jerky rhythmic feel of the song. Much of that rhythmic feel is driven by the contrasting rhythms from Bruce Thomas on bass, which according to Costello, saved the song from becoming a “just a poor relation to ‘All of the Day (and All of the Night)’, ‘I Can’t Explain’ or even ‘Clash City Rockers.'” The result bears only a faint resemblance to those classics, and though the lyrics are little more than a brief vignette of the phony flash that marked the Chelsea of that era, I will always cherish the line, “They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie.”
“Lip Service” is an absolutely delightful rocker marked by jangly guitar strums, heartfelt harmonies and a terribly exciting melodic bass line from Bruce Thomas that gives me the shivers, especially when he goes high on the fretboard during the chorus. I would love to hear a bass-only recording of this piece, as the combination of his rhythmic drive in the verses and the fabulous counterpoint melodies serve as a master class in how to own that instrument. “Lip Service” is an unusually uplifting piece from Costello from a musical perspective, but fear not, his disdain of interpersonal bullshit is fully expressed in the brief set of lyrics. It’s followed by “Living by Paradise,” a tune that mixes a touch of the Caribbean with classic rock in an arrangement that feels a little too busy and disjointed.
Pete gets another shot at a memorable intro in the frantic world of “Lipstick Vogue,” rolling those toms and whacking that snare like there’s no tomorrow. The intro establishes the starting point for the double-time rhythm that follows, which turns out to be a passageway to one of the more ambitious arrangements on the album. The musicianship on this piece is breathtaking; in addition to Pete’s stunning energy, Bruce continues to zip around the fretboard and Steve does yeoman’s work on multiple keyboards. The piece has a true cinematic feel, with moods shifting from tension-filled to flat-out eerie, dynamics flipping from loud bash to carefully attenuated anticipation, like the classic set-ups in horror films. The structure of the extended instrumental middle, moving from full band madness to a passage featuring full intensity drums and organ sustain on comparatively low volume is absolutely killer, and the tension created is so palpable that when Elvis re-enters with his vocal, you don’t know whether to feel relief or hold on to your suspicions a little while longer. Though the band has already shown signs that they’re more than your average rockers, “Lipstick Vogue” tells you that these guys have the capacity to cover a wide range of musical ground.
“Night Rally” was omitted from some of the U. S. releases for a variety of reasons, one being that the subject matter was uniquely British. Morgan Troper of Pop Matters accepted that decision, but I think Troper might want to revisit some of the comments entered into the record, given recent developments in human history:
The lyrics’ significance are sort of confined to their time, as Costello allegedly wrote the song in response to a sudden abundance of neo-Nazi rallies around London in the late 1970s. The refrain (“You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny / Wait until they’ve got you running to the night rally”) is a warning to the susceptible masses not to underestimate the viral ideology.
Well, I never thought Charlottesville could happen just like I never thought the American people were dumb enough to put such a painfully obvious racist and con man in the White House. I agree with Troper that the music isn’t much, a choppy version of girl group and who-knows-what-else, but the lyrics have tragically proven their value over time.
“Radio Radio” was tacked onto the album following its success as a single, delivering a final burst of rock ‘n’ roll energy before we say good night. What I love right off the bat is how it sounds like a classic radio hit with that bright carnival organ, kind of like Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park” with a hundred times the power, thanks to the rollicking rhythms from Pete and Bruce. On cue, the band tones it down to give Elvis plenty of space to lay down the love part of his love-hate affair with the medium:
I was tuning in the shine on the late night dial
Doing anything my radio advised
With every one of those late night stations
Playing songs bringing tears to my eyes
These first four lines are from the song’s source, an early Costello composition called “Radio Soul.” A few years ago he told an audience, “Before I got into show business, I thought radio was great. So I wrote a song about celebrating it—the thrill of listening to it late at night. This was my imaginary song about radio before I found out how foul and twisted it was.” The ironic twist is that the audience in question consisted of the stock analysts and industry bigwigs attending the launch of Apple Radio. Don’t interpret the irony as evidence that Elvis Costello is a hypocrite—he’s just another artist in long line of artists who perceive a fundamental conflict between artistic and commercial considerations and can’t find a way to square the circle. This is a conflict of long historical standing; the only difference is that the patrons aren’t the landed gentry of the Renaissance, but large corporations focused on P&L.
It is said that the updated version of the song you hear on the album was triggered by the BBC’s banning of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” so the first two lines of the chorus form a double entendre: “Radio is a sound salvation/Radio is cleaning up the nation.” Costello can sing those lines with sincerity, having experienced the salvation of great music of pirate radio, but he is also fully aware that the BBC and other censors believe they’re doing just that by “curating content.” Elvis finds himself in quite a quandary, forced to supply the bastards with hits if he wants to be heard and hating himself for giving the man what he wants. He tries to buck himself up with a revenge fantasy he knows will never come to fruition:
I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
I wanna bite that hand so badly
I want to make them wish they’d never seen me
What makes the song special for me is the third verse, where Costello displays remarkable prescience concerning the impact of controlled media on the populace, particularly its power to induce conformance, apathy and a feeling that all is well in normal-land even when it’s not:
Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed
You either shut up or get cut up; they don’t wanna hear about it
It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Tryin’ to anesthetize the way that you feel
Part of the reason I broke contact with all things American had to do with the outrage I felt at the anesthezation-normalization of Trump by most of the major news organizations, constantly asking Trump Troopers to appear on shows or in print without challenging the obvious falsehoods and outrageous claims spewing from their mouths. The same is true of pop music today—it’s feel-good formulaic crap designed to help you whistle your way through another pleasant day of existential boredom and forget about a world falling to pieces all around you.
The enthusiastic performance you hear from all band members in the repetition of “radio, radio” in the fade probably reflects the fact that they were born during a time when staying up late and listening to great music from great DJ’s made for the most exciting and cherished moments of the day. I grew up too late to experience that particular form of excitement; by the time I was scanning the digital dial for new music, great DJ’s were pretty much a thing of the past and corporations had remodeled ratio after the chain store. The enthusiasm of Elvis Costello and the Attractions expressed in this particular song serves as a reminder of the vital role music plays in our lives and the joy we derive from listening to it.
But if you don’t have access to a time machine and can’t go back in the past to hear Alan Freed, Wolfman Jack or Tom Donahue spinning the discs, listening to This Year’s Model will produce the same kind of joy.