ECSOTW #12: Heaven Knows What Fills the Heart

ElvisCostelloMighty

KEVIN DAVIS: In any catalog the size of EC’s, there are bound to be songs that register briefly with the listener and then drop off the radar, and my objective this week was to use this forum as an excuse to reacquaint myself with one of those songs. The song I chose was “Georgie and Her Rival,” from 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose.

Mighty Like a Rose was the first real “off the radar” Costello album I heard. It was one of many records which was out of print when I first began collecting EC’s records, so when through sheer dumb luck I stumbled upon a copy of it in a $2 used bin, it carried a vague air of mystery with it that the more easily available albums at the time didn’t. I’d done enough reading on Elvis’s discography to know that it wasn’t widely regarded as a classic, so when it ended up actually being a halfway-decent collection of tunes, I was pretty impressed – it led to me overrating the album pretty significantly for a good few years. It’s arguably Costello’s lushest recording, both in the weight of the arrangements and in the sheer volume of musical and lyrical content, a condition that simultaneously elevates the best EC songs and sinks the lousy ones. “Georgie and Her Rival,” after a solid half-decade-plus out of touch, falls somewhere between these two extremes.

The song is a melodic powerhouse – I absolutely adore how accomplished the tune is, and how tastefully the harmony supports it. But it’s also one of those songs I can’t help but wish I could hear arranged as a solo piano instrumental – something about the shapes of these particular words trying to be stuffed into this particular melody feels overly busy, like the relentless consonants don’t allow the melody to naturally flow, and the listener ends up going on information overload. It does too much too quickly. The lyrics seem to detail the misadventures of a principled female protagonist who finds she has become some creep’s telephone plaything, a scenario which EC has some fun with but the gory details of which he thankfully leaves to the imagination. I won’t say this is something I can closely identify with, but the melody and vocal performance encourage empathy – like many of the other songs on Mighty Like a Rose, “Georgie” has a certain emotional sophistication built into its melody, and into the way the notes of melody correspond to the base chords. Call it an “elegant sadness” of sorts.

“Georgie” won’t likely re-enter my regular listening rotation as a favorite, but I’m glad to have gone back and listened to it. It will always retain that vague sense of mystery to it, as well as the sense of excitement that came along with scouring used record bins for out-of-print EC albums in 2002. But it sure ain’t no “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4.”

JORGE FARAH: It really isn’t, but what song is? “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4” isn’t just one of Elvis’s strongest compositions, but also a wonderfully unique moment in EC’s catalogue, where his gifts for melody and lyricism come together with the junkyard-orchestra, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink arrangements of Mighty Like a Rose to make up what I can only describe as a pop masterpiece (and yes, I am aware that most EC fans would probably hold up the piano-and-vocals arrangement that Elvis sometimes uses to close his shows as superior to the cluttered studio track, but I absolutely adore the studio track). That song isn’t just the high-water mark of the album it’s housed in, but one of several in Elvis’s career. Mighty Like a Rose is an album that, like Kevin, I tend to view more favorably than most people; it’s filled with these lush (yes, the perfect word) melodies and compositions, and is one of Elvis’s earliest approaches to classical composing in a pop format (you can hear it in the unfurling countermelodies of a song like “Harpies Bizarre”). It’s also an album with a higher-than-average rate of total duds (hello “Broken”). Though I wouldn’t call “Georgie and Her Rival” one of those, it’s still a song that failed to register with me in any kind of meaningful way. I don’t know what it says about the track that, when Kevin first brought up the idea to write about it, the only thing I could recall about it was the obnoxious title-drop refrain, though I was almost certain it was surrounded by a different kind of song.

Listening back to it now, it’s really not so bad. Like “How to Be Dumb” from the same album, it’s one of those solo Elvis songs that seems designed to sound just like The Attractions, with chiming keyboard arpeggios (sounds like Steve Nieve, but actually Larry Knetchel and Mitchell Froom), an acrobatic bassline (sounds like Bruce Thomas, but actually Jerry Scheff) and an assertive drum performance (sounds like Pete Thomas, but actually…  actually that is Pete Thomas). The verse melody even seems to be a straight-up rewrite of “Oliver’s Army”, with a similar melodic arc but a different resolution. Listening back to this song now, I actually really enjoy it; it’s a strong base composition, it has a cool arrangement that avoids the bloat present in much of Mighty Like a Rose, and it’s anchored by a really strong vocal performance; Mighty Like a Rose is often derided as an album where Elvis was trying for a consciously ugly, strained vocal performance, often undercutting the beauty of his compositions. This is a critique that certainly holds true for a good many of the tracks. But he does a fantastic job on this one. He is playing it straight without being straightforward. I love his delivery of the line “heaven knows what fills the heart”—this is a singer who knows how to sell the drama in his lyrics.

I don’t know why the song I had in my head before listening back to this again was a lot closer to “Crawling to the USA”.  Maybe because both their song titles are dropped in a similar fashion at the end of their respective choruses? I don’t know. But one of the upsides of this little weekly exercise is that I get to revisit songs that slipped through the cracks for me, and I always find myself in awe of the breadth and quality of this man’s body of work. “Georgie and Her Rival” has been illuminated for me this week, and is rescued from out of the “dud” pile in my internal sorting system, lifted up from under the heavy, bloated carcass of “Broken”.

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