KEVIN DAVIS: There’s a vague trend that seems to recur in the bodies of work of careerist songwriters like Elvis Costello: First the artist fumbles around briefly in search of an identity; soon, he begins to filter out little things that don’t work, and in relatively short order happens upon a sort of idealized version of himself, carving out his niche in the culture and laying the groundwork for a longer, more multi-purpose career; eventually, once this position is well-established, the artist begins branching out, severely pushing the boundaries of his own parameters, or – in some cases – trying to work within someone else’s entirely. This last characteristic may be truer of EC than most, but it’s also applicable in varying capacities to Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and dozens of others – one assumes that, to the artists, these records are half an intellectual exercise, and half a tribute to music etched deeply into their brains from way back when, which presumably they feel the credibility that comes with having an established identity gives them license to go back and explore without being mistaken for ripoffs.
This pattern is part of why I find “Stranger in the House” such an interesting entry in the EC canon. One of his earliest professional studio recordings, it pre-dates the moment at which his musical identity really came into its own, yet it’s clearly an homage to a style of songwriting that he knew wasn’t his –one doesn’t listen to “Stranger in the House” and get the impression that Costello was hoping it would be his springboard to stardom as a Nashville crooner. It’s not unusual for a songwriter to experiment with other voices while still in pursuit of his own, but it’s rare at that point for the experiment to betray no evidence of the search. With that in mind, My Aim is True is kind of like a man standing in front of a mirror trying on clothes – and “Stranger in the House” is that man’s Halloween costume.
Musically, it’s a pretty standard-issue tale of domestic country heartache, a snapshot of that moment where both parties in the relationship know things have gone south but neither wants to be the first to acknowledge it, and told in a language that would become common to EC when he’s trying to put his stamp on a novel genre: “And I look down for a number on my keychain/’Cause it feels more like a hotel everyday.” I’d forgotten what a lovely vocal performance the original studio version (which appears on the My Aim is True Rhino bonus disc, and was apparently also released a bonus 45’ record with original pressings of This Year’s Model) is, not to mention how warm the recording, with John McFee’s mournful pedal steel arguably making better use of itself than it does anywhere on My Aim is True, as well as pointing the way forward to Almost Blue a few albums down the line. As on that record, the harmonically simple, country-by-numbers melody here really gives EC a chance to show off the contours of his voice in a way that his own trickier melodies rarely do, favoring heart at the expense of wit.
I wouldn’t really file “Stranger in the House” among EC’s greater compositions, but it always sticks in my mind as one of those songs that was always bubbling just below the surface during those early years – for a song that was never technically on one of his albums, that there have been five officially released versions of it (the original outtake version, the Hollywood High version, a weird ambient rock take recorded for the BBC in late 1978, a duet recorded with George Jones, and another live version appearing on the Almost Blue bonus disc) is impressive, and if the EC Wiki site is to be trusted, it has been performed sporadically live throughout his career, though never as regularly as during those first few years. In his indispensable Rhino liner notes, he explains that the song was omitted from My Aim is True because “including a country ballad was not thought to be a smart move in 1977,” and later suggests that the George Jones duet was mostly his A&R guy’s doing (though he admits it was a dream come true). That in mind, it’s hard not to see this song as a “one that got away” of sorts – though, anomalously in this type of situation, it seems EC and the song have made good on their pact to remain friends.
JORGE FARAH: This is one of those songs that must’ve been a real headscratcher back in 1977, but makes a whole lot more sense when viewed through the prism of his later career. This is actually the first indication that Elvis was more than just a hipster with a funny name—that his interests ranged beyond the musical effigy-burning, “here and now is all that matters”, “never trust anyone over 30” mentality of the ‘77 generation. This was, in a way, the first genre excursion for a musician who would essentially make a career out of genre excursions. In hindsight, it’s pretty funny how self-conscious he was of his interest in countrypolitan ballads; I remember reading about an incident where he scrambled to hide his George Jones records before he was supposed to have journalists visit his tour bus. Come on. That’s adorable.
The song itself is a quaint little number, with Elvis putting aside his early-career wordplay and hyper-literate sophistication in favor of the down-home country stylings of his favorite Nashville stars of yesteryear. It’s not without its charms, but it’s also trying very hard to fit a specific song mold, which sometimes does make it sound somewhat staid and unremarkable. But Elvis pulls it off, and what should be a minor throwaway has actually endured as a somewhat pivotal song in his discography.
As to the five officially released versions, I must comply with my nature as a compulsive ranker and list them from best to worst:
1- Live at Hollywood High. This 1978 performance all but transforms the mild-mannered country ballad into a seething blast of punk anger, which, sure, flattens out the song somewhat, but also elevates it from bog-standard “woe is me, I’ve made a mess of my life, aren’t I so tragically and fundamentally broken” to something louder, stronger, more assertive, more resilient, indignant, foolishly clinging on to the tattered vestiges of a broken relationship, screaming bloody murder, refusing to give up, pigheadedly climbing back on the ring for another round of life’s vicious pummeling. Speaking of pummeling, what other word could possibly describe what Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve are doing here? If the original studio version is a placid horseback jaunt through the countryside, the Hollywood High version is the kind of high-turbulence stormy sky that compels agnostics to hastily utter their last-ditch Heavenly Fathers. Yeah, I’ve been there. Don’t judge.
2- Original studio version. A breezy, laid-back, California-cool approximation of the Nashville sound. This version shines in its simplicity, with a confident and relaxed vocal performance by Elvis. The boys in Clover do a really good job on this one, probably their best performance out of the entire My Aim is True sessions.
3- Almost Blue live version. Similar to the BBC version, but with at least a little bit of kick to it. Plus! John McFee is back, and playing with The Attractions this time. His contributions make this not-particularly-great arrangement worth listening to.
4- BBC version. I’m not exactly sure what they were going for here. It sounds like they tried to transform the song into a strange, droney New Wave thing, but the tempo is too slow and clutters up the melody, making this a bit of a chore to listen to.
5- George Jones duet version. Look, I love hearing George Jones sing. Who doesn’t? The man could recite the entirety of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and somehow make it compelling, so thoroughly listenable is his voice. And yet here he is, singing a song written by my all-time favorite songwriter, and it feels as rote and joyless as anything I’ve ever heard. Conceived as a kind of tribute to the archetypal George Jones song, it has the unfortunate effect of sounding relentlessly average when in the hands of actual Nashville musicians. Also this duet exhibits one of my musical pet peeves: pronoun switching. “He gets the feeling that he doesn’t belong here”? Come on. I’m sure this collaboration was a thrill for Elvis, though you can’t really tell from his own listless, hoarse, probably gin-soaked performance. Why is it that when Elvis does guest spots on other people’s records he tends to amp up his vocal affectations? Is there a built-in pressure to sound particularly Elvis-y? I’m thinking of “Carpetbagger” with Jenny Lewis and “Monster Went and Ate My Red 2” with Elmo particularly. And does it even count as duet when one of the singers is made out of felt?
Starting this week: we have a new schedule, and we’re going to try our best to stick to it. Look for new posts every Friday at 10 AM Eastern time!