Welcome to the Elvis Costello Song of the Week! Again!
Some time ago, the editors of a site called Trunkworthy had a nifty idea for a weekly column: For an entire year, they’d explore a different song in Elvis Costello’s intimidatingly expansive catalog. The purpose of this exercise wasn’t so much to provide any sort of in-depth academic analysis of the music, but to share some oft-overlooked tunes with the world. And, I suspect, just to geek out over their favorite musician on a weekly basis.
We have nothing but respect for Trunkworthy’s efforts. But a year’s worth of weekly picks amounts to a mere fifty-something tunes which, for a discography as enormous as Costello’s, is barely scratching the surface. There are many gems still to be unearthed. So we (Jorge and Kevin; you can read about us in the About page, we are very interesting) decided to take it upon ourselves to pick up where Trunkworthy left off. We’ll avoid the songs they already covered, letting whim dictate where we go each week in our unabashed Costello proselytizing.
And so we begin our journey (again) with…
LIPSTICK VOGUE. This Year’s Model, 1978.
JORGE FARAH: “Lipstick Vogue” is a stunner of a song. It is caustic, it is witty, it is clever and melodic and aggressive. From a songwriting point of view, it is an undisputed triumph. But we can’t really talk about the track itself without also exploring what it (and its corresponding album) represented for Costello’s fledgling career: a showcase for his new band.
The fact that Elvis and his record label managed to assemble this particular group of musicians to play this particular set of songs is a minor miracle in of itself. This Year’s Model was the perfect debut for The Attractions, and The Attractions were the perfect band for This Year’s Model. The album disposed of the laid-back, California-cool arrangements that decorated My Aim is True, and which rendered some forward-thinking compositions into a kind of New Wave approximation of American radio rock. In contrast, the songs on This Year’s Model popped with furious resolve. They were sharper, tighter, and altogether cleverer than anything on MAIT. They incorporated elements of pop, krautrock, dub reggae, funk and classical, resulting in a musical melting pot that marginally resembled what music journalists in the late 70s stubbornly referred to as “punk”. And as a band of world-class instrumentalists, The Attractions played better than anybody in punk– though just as loud, and just as fast.
Out of the songs on This Year’s Model, “No Action” and “Lipstick Vogue” probably come closest to fitting the “punk” label, though the latter is driven by a drumbeat that is much closer to Buddy-Rich-by-way-of-Brazilian-Samba than anything Tommy Ramone ever did. It is indeed one of the loudest songs in the album, but that’s mostly the volume of the amps and the abandon in their playing; there’s actually barely any distortion on the studio track, as Costello’s guitar takes a backseat to Steve Nieve’s insistent organ and Bruce Thomas’s galloping bass, rising and receding in the choruses like a migraine. Elvis has talked about how this song was his attempt at approximating the music coming out of New York at the time—Television, Talking Heads, the aforementioned Ramones—but this feels like an entirely different thing. Wilder. Looser. More chaotic.
And wordier! The lyrics to this thing are both deeply affecting and laugh-out-loud hilarious, a tonal mishmash that Costello would mine for much of his career as an effective way to communicate his neuroses. The words alternate between sternly-worded-letter and cathartic monologue. They are peppered with fragmented put-downs to a would-be romantic partner towards the end of a relationship that has become toxic. A word that was sometimes used to describe Costello in his early days was “misogynistic”, and that can be a valid reading of some of his more questionable lyrics (“Living in Paradise” jumps out as a particularly egregious example from this album). I always got the sense, however, that all of Costello’s seething anger is coming from a place of profound self-loathing and inadequacy, as he ends up calling his own bluff in the chorus.
Before I cede the floor to Kevin, I’d like to just say that I’m glad this song exists as something I can link people to when I get that bemused smirk after I say I’m a fan. You see in Argentina, where I live, Costello is not exactly a household name. Most people identify him as the bespectacled balladeer who sang that one song for that one Julia Roberts movie. “Lipstick Vogue” is usually the song that I present to rid them of that image. Preferably that one live version from 1978, the really loud and angry one, where he’s wearing a pink suit in the rain. You know the one. That’s the stuff.
KEVIN DAVIS: Thanks, Jorge – and what an appropriate first song you’ve chosen here. Hard-pressed though you’d be to single out any one “definitive” track in a body of work as deep and as varied as Costello’s, there’s definitely a case to be made for “Lipstick Vogue” being the definitive showcase for the Attractions as an ensemble, effectively distilling the essence of their broad-ranging powers (over their next seven albums, they would support Costello on everything from an album of country-and-western covers to a pair of horn dense crusades for chart domination produced by the same guys that produced Madness’s “Our House”) into three and a half minutes of bottled fury. The musical theme here is “freedom within constraints” – were you to isolate Bruce Thomas’s and Pete Thomas’s bass and drum tracks, respectively, you could be forgiven for assuming that you were listening to two soloists lost in crotch-grabbing displays of virtuosity. That these individually frantic and musically flamboyant instrumental pieces interlock with such cooperative perfection is probably the single greatest gift the Attractions gave to Costello’s songs; there really is no underestimating just how much raw, uncut musicianship this quartet was capable of cultivating within the confines of a small space. Buddy Rich feels like an appropriate analog to Pete Thomas’s drumming here – adrenalized, dexterous, but still very deliberate and controlled. Bruce Thomas’s bass “fills” emerge as the drumming pulls back, transitions that sometimes occur within fractions of a second but feel too precise to be accidental. Throughout, Steve Nieve’s descending keyboard passages blanket the song’s urgent gallop with an offsetting dose of mood – he is very much the harmonic heart of the song here.
Costello’s reputation in the late ‘70’s as “angry young man” no doubt emerged from songs like this, wherein he dishes out tidbits of sunshine like “sometimes I think of love as just a tumor,” and “sometimes I almost feel just like a human being” – raw, supercharged emotional sentiments that over the course of EC’s next few albums would be sublimated into varying forms of intellectual linguistic dizziness but still exist here in the form of pure vitriol. I’ve always liked the moment in this song immediately following the delivery of the title line – “not just another mouth in the lipstick vogue” – where the composition lands on its rogue root chord, and Costello and Nieve join in on a brief, harmonically tense two-chord sequence that to my ears always hinted at the sadness that anyone who’s ever been hurt in love knows is the driving force behind every song like this, before returning to the frantic sprint of the song’s breathless verses.
Folks like me and Jorge who grew up in the dgital age might do well to consider for a second the role that this song played on the original UK issue of This Year’s Model – the original 1978 US vinyl issue, as well as all subsequent CD versions, closed the album with the contemporaneous uptempo single “Radio, Radio” as opposed to the downbeat “Night Rally” (which was outright omitted from the original US version). But in its original incarnation, “Lipstick Vogue” was a penultimate catharsis of sorts, a final dash to the finish before the wind-down, one last outlet for any lingering musical wrath that couldn’t be purged by the likes of “No Action” and “Pump It Up.” In 1978, Elvis Costello had a never-ending supply