ECSOTW #8: It’s a Status Thing

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KEVIN DAVIS: When I was first discovering Elvis Costello’s music, most of his catalog – minus a few heavy-hitters and his two or three most recent releases – was out of print, with each of his vaulted long-players patiently waiting its turn to be reissued in immaculate enhanced format by Rhino Records over the course of the next two to three years. In retrospect, my timing in this couldn’t have been better; the window for obtaining these definitive editions of Costello’s albums was small (maybe only a few years, prior to Hip-O Records acquiring the catalog and re-re-releasing everything again in inferior single-disc versions), so a couple years on either end and I easily could have missed out on all the glorious B-sides and rarities packaged with these editions at virtually no extra cost, not to mention EC’s fantastic self-penned liner notes. But at the time I was incapable of seeing this. I was consuming Elvis’s music at a quicker pace than Rhino was reissuing it, and soon enough I found myself in the awkward position of having to choose between learning the finer points of a virtue called “patience” (a concept I wasn’t overly familiar with but which sounded terrible) or turning to less than honorable methods of procurement involving the Kazaa file-sharing service and my parents’ dial-up modem. Without much consideration, I elected to go with the latter, and soon began a relatively directionless deep dive through the bowels of Elvis Costello’s middle career (reader’s note: I have since purchased all of Elvis’s albums, some twice – please do not sue me), with virtually no regard for any kind of sensible “trajectory.” Albums often took weeks to assemble, and the quality from track to track was very inconsistent; some folks were thankfully sticklers for things like bit rate, but apparently less scrupulous pirates could throw up 96kbps and somehow lose no sleep over the issue. These were hard times. They were beautiful times, but they were hard times.

Suffice it to say, Punch the Clock was not an especially enjoyable album to piece together one forty-five minute download at a time – even when the server’s resident EC junkie seemed to be online for indefinite lengths of time, three quarters of an hour is a long time to wait to hear “Mouth Almighty” or “Charm School,” especially when the local mom-and-pop internet company providing our service would inexplicably experience connectivity errors every twenty minutes and force the downloads to start over. This burdened less-than-stellar songs with an unnecessary sense of added disappointment (to this day I dislike “Love Field” probably far more than it deserves), but the upside was that the good ones felt like winning lottery tickets.  That in mind, I was instantly blown away by “The Greatest Thing”; it seemed like the fully shaped version of all the splattered lyrical and musical clutter that accounted for some of the same album’s lesser tracks. I will confess, I am a sucker for overly wordy songs, but Elvis no doubt sometimes gets carried away, and in its lesser moments Punch the Clock simply has too much going on for all of its compartmentalized busyness to work cohesively. But “The Greatest Thing” is almost Ellingtonian in its spatial reasoning – it’s the musical equivalent of giving someone an entire truckload of groceries and then watching as they effortlessly find the one way it can all fit into the cabinet. Between basslines, horn charts, backing harmonies, and spitfire vocals that border on rapping, there is nary a second of down time to be found in this song; it is all but literally a non-stop, action-packed thrill ride.

However, the thing that finally resonates with me isn’t the song’s irresistible, flamboyant musicality; it’s its parade of quotable one-liners in defense of the institution of matrimony. Popular music is full of generic tributes to romantic love and God knows plenty of odes to sleeping around, but married dudes could use a few more anthems like this justifying their lot in life. Granted, I have never been particularly astute at reading Elvis’s snark-o-meter, so there’s a chance that this song is actually about the exact opposite of what I’ve always believed it to be about, but in an isolated sense, there’s no mistaking a couplet like, “But I won’t be told that life with the one you love is sordid/Just because some authority says you can’t afford it,” or even, “Since nights were long and days were olden/Woman to man has been beholden.” This is not an altogether inappropriate song to write about in the week following our discussion of North; this song plays like young Elvis’s version of that same sentiment, only instead of reflecting reverie and longing from within the context of the relationship itself, here he snipes back at those on the outside who dare suggest that love might not conquer all. This is the authentic Costello voice of 1983 – not even his greatest declarations of love are exempt from backhanded swipes at the buffoons the world forces him to suffer daily.

Not enough can be said about Bruce Thomas’s bass work in this song – his locked-in showboating is in perfect conversation with the composition throughout, working meticulously in the spaces left between lyrics and horn arrangements. I especially love the riff he plays following the line “I punch the clock” in the third verse – one can imagine a young Flea or Les Claypool hearing that three-second doodle, thinking, “You know, I am going to make a career out of that.” The song is pure elation – don’t miss it.

JORGE FARAH: I wish there was something of substance that I could add here but, geez, if I’m entirely honest—“The Greatest Thing” never really registered with me. In fact, when Kevin first suggested doing this as a Song of the Week, I spent several days under the mistaken impression that he meant the throwaway Nick Lowe cover “The Ugly Things” that EC recorded as a B-side in the late 80s. Punch the Clock is one of two or three Elvis Costello albums I just never listen to. And I’m not sure why. History has relegated this album to “fluke hit” status, and somewhat unfairly lumped it together with its considerably less interesting follow-up Goodbye Cruel World; both albums representing a stylistic shift towards shimmery, radio-ready pop numbers with brass sections and backing vocalists, but only one of them being in any way successful at it.

Unlike Kevin, I adore “Love Field”—his 1995 Meltdown festival performance with Bill Frisell having illuminated the song for me—but am not quite as enthusiastic about “The Greatest Thing”. I share his admiration for Bruce Thomas’s impossibly fluid bassline—he really shouldn’t sound that effortless moving up and down the neck of the bass like that—and Elvis’s rapid-fire vocal delivery—he really shouldn’t be able to cram so many words into such a short amount of time—but ultimately this strikes me as the kind of song that a pop master like EC could write in his sleep. That said, as unabashed, ultra-earnest love song, there’s a lot to enjoy in this number, even if the obtrusive horn arrangement puts this uncomfortably close to Katrina and the Waves territory.

More than any appreciation I can make about the song itself, though, what this track represents to me right now is a reminder that there’s an entire world of Elvis Costello songs I am only vaguely acquainted with. Even after all these years, there’s so much left to discover and even more to reassess. Isn’t this the greatest thing?

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