JORGE FARAH: Our very first reader request! There are a couple more in the pipeline which we’ll be tackling in the upcoming weeks. I hope people submit more of them. As fun as it is to wax intellectual about our own favorite Elvis songs, it’s also nice to have our attentions turned towards songs we hadn’t really considered.
Elvis’s catalogue is littered with songs that may not be noteworthy in the grand scheme of his songbook, but are also not without their charms. Songwriting exercises, quick melodic sketches, attempts to write breezy, inconsequential little tunes. These minor songs are either the kind of hidden gem that would be a crown jewel in any other artist’s discography, or they’re just quaint little throwaways. “My Little Blue Window” is one of those two types of songs, but it often depends on the day and the mood I’m in when I listen to it.
When I Was Cruel is one of the several records that have been hailed as a “return to form” throughout Elvis’s career– straight-ahead rock albums that follow a few years of inactivity or experimentation. This one came after collaborations with Burt Bacharach and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter, and was aggressively marketed as Elvis’s first rock album since… well, since his last “return to form” (which was 1994’s Brutal Youth, given that 1996’s All This Useless Beauty was perceived by the general public as an album of mopey ballads– if it was even perceived by anyone at all). I love When I Was Cruel, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a straightforward rock album; the songs are electronically-tinged and oddly-shaped noir pop experiments. There are a few loud, angry, distorted tunes, yes, but they’re hardly the norm here. This is a forward-thinking album. A different kind of experimentation.
“My Little Blue Window” is one of the more traditional songs in the album, so it wouldn’t have been my first choice to explore in this space. It’s a quaint little guitar-based pop tune that stops and starts and features a fittingly sweet keyboard line in its singalong chorus. It’s one of the starkest arrangements in an album of dense soundscapes, and it comes off as both a welcome respite from the layers of electronica as well as… somewhat lacking in the songwriting department. I do love how the vocal melody in the verses sounds like it’s almost too long; it twists and stretches and unspools out of the simple country chords behind it. It’s a kind of melodic approach that pops up a few times throughout the course of When I Was Cruel; “Soul for Hire” and “Tart” also feature words that spill out and contort awkwardly to fit the measure with strained but compelling results. The lyrics themselves are also a bit odd for the song that carries them; it seems to be a hesitant suicide note of sorts, which then kicks into a lovelorn plea in its sunny singalong chorus.
I think this song would’ve fared better on another album, like the Imposters’s first co-starring record The Delivery Man (they did play on WIWC, but weren’t referred to as a cohesive band until they toured behind it). Not only would it seem a bit less out of place, but the instruments wouldn’t be as bludgeoned by the production; WIWC’s heavily compressed, bass-heavy mix sucks all the warmth out of a song that should feel as sincere as its lyrics.
KEVIN DAVIS: This song has always felt somewhat “off” to me as well, and upon revisiting it for this exercise, my first reaction was that maybe it would be more successful in a different key – in several places, the reach in Elvis’s voice feels inappropriate to the aesthetic presentation of the song, particularly since the hot mastering seems to force the producer’s hand in the vocal processing department. But after reading Jorge’s analysis, it seems clear to me that the song’s biggest hurdle is the melody’s lack of harmonic support – the bass-heavy production really does hurt it, with Elvis’s rhythm guitar all but buried beneath the imposing throb of Davey Faragher’s relatively nondescript bassline, and Steve Nieve’s keyboards relegated to flourishes. Elsewhere on When I Was Cruel, this same formula works to great effect, but a melody this snaky needs signposts to keep the listener from getting lost, and I can’t help but wonder if a greater emphasis on the underlying harmony in the guitar chords wouldn’t give the melody a chance to shimmer a bit, revealing whatever sense lies in its architecturally indistinct patterns. The approach here reminds me of “Still Too Soon to Know,” from Brutal Youth – a downtempo ballad built around the vocal melody and bassline, implying the chordal accompaniment more than stating it outright. But that song is a huge success because of the restraint and subtlety in the vocal performance; here it seems like Elvis is singing as though there’s a full rock band raging behind him and they just forgot to punch them in when mixing the album down.
That said, there are a lot of things about this little song that I like, particularly the deep sense of longing in the pre-chorus – “How am I ever going to make you see?/Nothing in this ugly world comes easily”—and the buoyant chorus that counterintuitively follows. Not surprisingly, these are the most instrumentally fleshed-out parts of the song, dynamically reinforcing – as Jorge mentioned – the juxtaposition of the impassioned ache of the pre-chorus and the almost triumphant major-key refrain. And I do appreciate the risks Costello is willing to take with the melody during the verses; no long-term Costello fan hasn’t learned to live with – nay, love! – the occasional ungainly tune, and his ability to navigate these bizarre labyrinths of melody while still finding his way back around to less cerebral “sweet spots” is one of his calling cards, and there are elements of that going on here. But on an album that means so much to me (When I Was Cruel was my first Elvis Costello purchase, opening the door to a body of work as ripe for discovery as any other in my experience as a consumer of popular music), I wish the song resonated more deeply with me on its own terms. As it stands, it’s a quirky little curio that I like more than I often remember, but ultimately find more interesting than exciting.