ECSOTW #6: When You’re Tough and Transparent as Armored Glass

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KEVIN DAVIS: Welcome to our second week of request-fulfillment here at the ECSOTW blog! Today our request takes us back to the banner year of 1986 – a nice trip back in time after spending the past four weeks exploring Elvis’s work from 1996 onward.

1986 was something of a milestone year for Elvis – he released not one but two truly wonderful albums that are both widely regarded as among the finest of his career, the second of which signaled his first (and, ultimately, true) farewell to his great backing band The Attractions, who would join our hero for one last round of loose, loud pop-rock before sending him off into the loving care of Mitchell Froom and various professional studio musicians to oversee the creation of Spike and Mighty Like a Rose. Our song this week hails from that album of loose, loud pop-rock – that album of course being the
magnificent Blood and Chocolate, and the song being “Crimes of Paris.”

That this song follows “My Little Blue Window” in our queue of requests is a neat coincidence, as this song does right almost all of the things that make “Blue Window” the semi-problematic recording it is. Fundamentally, the two songs are very similar – both are acoustic guitar-driven rock songs that see Steve Nieve’s keyboards (usually the sonic hallmark of any Attractions/Imposters recording) playing an atypically diminished role, and both songs have melodies which involve a great deal of motion, in this song particularly as it reaches its bridge and all but formless final verse. Yet while “Blue Window” feels sketchy and melodically long-winded, “Crimes of Paris” is perfect, and the secret is in the chord changes. Blood and Chocolate is a relatively lo-fi recording for Costello – the guitar, bass, and drums all kind of occupy the same sonic plane, suggesting the live mix of a home recording. The result of this is the ability of the chords to direct the melody, and this song is full of beautiful suspensions and resolutions (I really love the chord that appears behind the lyric “just after twelve o’clock struck”) that cover a great deal of emotional ground in a very short distance. Lyrically the song strikes me as a more playful variant on the “ex-lover and her new asshole boyfriend” story that appears in more vitriolic form on “I Hope You’re Happy Now” and “Blue Chair” – I wouldn’t doubt that “Crimes of Paris” is drawn from that same well of experience; despite the song’s lighthearted buoyancy, by the last verse Costello reaches a point of agitation that causes him to completely disregard his usually meticulous reverence for form. It’s an intense moment, nicely diffused by the final chorus.

One last thing I’d like to mention before handing the mic to Jorge, and that’s that this is the first song that’s given me the opportunity to talk about one of my favorite Costello studio techniques, and that’s his gift for self-harmonizing – this can be a hit-or-miss practice with artists who have such one-of-a-kind voices, but I don’t think there’s anyone in the business who does it better than D.P.A. MacManus. The main line and the harmony line always quiver in the exact same places, draw out vowels at the exact same timbre – some folks find the practice of self-harmonizing to be inherently phony but I can’t deny how overwhelmingly pleasant I find listening to Elvis sing along with himself. It’s superhuman, almost. Cait O’Riordan’s additional vocals aren’t a bad touch, either – I wish there were more instances of her singing with Elvis during their time together. And now I want to hear her sing “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Everyday” from the second Pogues album, so without further ado: Jorge Farah.

JORGE FARAH: Thanks Kev—you know, I never really got into The Pogues beyond “Fairytale of New York” and a few scattered songs from throughout their discography that have somehow found their way to me. Their association with EC should compel me to explore their work, but I keep forgetting to. Maybe I should remedy that.

I do feel compelled to mention that Trunkworthy did feature this song when they were doing their own Song of the Week series, and while we did vow to stick to songs they’d skipped over, it feels wrong to turn down a request. As much as I enjoy this entire album and this song in particular, I don’t feel like I have a whole lot more to say about “Crimes of Paris” beyond the analysis provided by Kevin and the Trunkworthy people—it’s the kind of compact, bare-bones guitar-pop song that Elvis excels at, and is executed here with aplomb. And even though this song is small—in scale, in range, in instrumentation—it has a remarkable amount of internal movement; small touches in the playing give it a tremendous amount of life. It builds and unfurls and tenses up and releases with just a few tiny moved by this masterful rhythm section; Bruce Thomas is most famously remembered for his showcases of instrumental prowess playing fast and complex basslines in songs like “Shabby Girl” and “Love For Tender”, but a comparatively understated song like this one really puts his gifts, and his understanding of how small harmonic shifts affect the overall shape of a song, on display. On an album with this much bleed-through between the microphones, it really enhances the overall package.

When I think of how this song sounds, the first word that comes to my mind is “clangy”. It’s this dry, cling-clangy, rickety machine that gallops precariously along. I think that mostly has to do with the sound of the instruments themselves, particularly the guitar, which sounds like a beat-up old acoustic with all the life wrung out of it and with barely any sustain left in its strings, sounding almost like a percussion instrument itself. Along with Elvis’s forceful, somewhat hoarse vocals, this entire song is the best kind of ragged. Little details like Cait’s backing vocals and Steve’s keyboard manage to sweeten it just enough to keep it from sounding as abrasive as a Brillo pad.

I also want to point out how wonderful that bridge is—how it builds in intensity and flirts with unhinging completely, with those increasingly loud backing vocals punctuating the melody, until the entire thing collapses and builds back up. It’s a trick that pops up again on “Battered Old Bird” to great effect.

Overall, this is one of my favorite tracks on Blood and Chocolate. As much as I enjoy longwinded rants like “I Want You”, “Tokyo Storm Warning” and the aforementioned “Battered Old Bird” (which I hope to cover on a future blog post, as there’s a lot to unpack in that one), these economical little pop songs are where Elvis really excelled in this time period.

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