ECSOTW#18: Who Will I Have Left to Hate?

Elvis_Costello_And_The_Attractions-All_This_Useless_Beauty-Frontal

KEVIN DAVIS: Songs like “It’s Time” are the greatest reward of this type of weekly (so to speak) writing exercise: Here is a song occupying the penultimate slot on the second Elvis Costello record I ever purchased, and it’s not until fourteen years and an impromptu suggestion from my co-author later that I find myself really hearing it. In my mind I’d always sort of relegated this song to the status of “one of those other songs on the second half of All This Useless Beauty,” but further research reveals “It’s Time” to be not only one of Beauty’s strangest, most sonically engaged tracks, but also its leadoff single and the only one of six to chart (number 58 on the UK charts, but still). I try not to miss the ‘90’s too much, but it’s hard for a music geek not to look back fondly on a time when the business was in such a robust state that a major label could afford to sink advertising coin into releasing promotional singles for literally half the tracks on a DOA album from an artist long past his commercial prime. The clothes were stupid, yes – but what a glorious time to be a record buyer.

Endearingly for me, “It’s Time” is inadvertently something of a monument to this era in the not too distant past – when rock artists’ rudimentary experiments with drum loops felt like the sound of forever, when one-hit wonders like White Town and Primitive Radio Gods were the padding that grunge holdouts were outwardly outraged but secretly ecstatic to sit through in between airings of Smashing Pumpkins videos. In fact, my big complaint about this song is that I wish it lingered a little while longer in the brief space carved out at the beginning of the song, when the totality of the soundscape is the 8-bit keyboard, the somewhat distant accent of EC’s sandy, gritty guitar line, and a stock drum loop not unlike the one used in Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia”– once the song arrives in full fidelity (some sixty seconds in), it loses some character, and the song is lengthy enough to support a subtler build. That guitar of Costello’s is the saving grace of the production; the riff is phlanged out just enough, and mixed just far enough out on the periphery of the spectrum, to retain just the right amount of weirdness. Moreover, I’m not sure any other Costello song prior to his partnership with ?uestlove employs a beat similar to this – as one of the few EC compositions to turn a fleeting glance toward hip-hop rhythms, it seems one of the few tracks from the man’s first three decades to presage Wise Up Ghost.

The All This Useless Beauty bonus disc features a fascinating demo version of this which predates the final studio version by six years, in which EC harmonizes with himself and seems to attempt an approximation of a horn arrangement on a keyboard. And though I can never resist hearing two Elvises singing in unison, it’s an awkward mess of an arrangement that really speaks to the great job Geoff Emerick did giving shape to the hither-and-yon shrapnel that comprises All This Useless Beauty, which to this day I think is one of the best-produced records of Costello’s career. Both versions find him overshooting the dramatic arc of the song a bit — as EC tends to do when he really reaches for the peaks of his range, his voice takes on a pleading, almost desperate quality that feels out of sync with the lightweight snark in the lyrics, which are more of the same water tread by any number of songs in Costello’s rolodex of cynical relationship songs. Nevertheless, like the relationship it describes, “It’s Time” is something of a one-time thing in Elvis’s discography – we never again see another song that employs these elements in quite this way (several songs on When I Was Cruel look this direction, but their overall aesthetic is different), and perhaps never again hear Elvis so in step with a series of subtle production fads that just twenty years ago seemed like the wave of the future and now seem comically like the distant past. Songs like this are the souvenirs of a long career – if a songwriter of Elvis’s caliber doesn’t have a few, he’s not doing his job.

JORGE FARAH: See, unlike Kevin here, I actually loved “It’s Time” on my very first listen. And its placement as the second-to-last track actually heightened my expectations of it. Years of acclimating to the narrative structure of novels, films and television—you know how it is: the great big climax where all the story strands converge and the main conflicts are resolved is typically followed by some sort of quieter epilogue that underlines the overarching themes and wraps the story up with a nice bow– has transferred over to my music appreciation. Of course this doesn’t hold true for every album, or even for most of them, but I will admit to being partial to albums that conform to this structure. It does seem like a thought that is often on the back of the minds of whoever is in charge of sequencing songs; just like you can usually expect the second-to-last episode of every season of The Sopranos to be the big high-stakes shootout that’s followed by a gentler finale, I look to the penultimate album track to be grand and dramatic. “It’s Time”, with its larger-than-life chorus, biting declarations of abject bitterness, and everything-and-the-kitchen-sink studio trickery, is nothing if not grand and dramatic.

I found myself dumbstruck by the fact that, though it was released as the album’s lead single, the song:
1- didn’t have an accompanying music video (it was the 90s! Music videos were how lead singles got heard by the MTV crowd, the only crowd that mattered!),
2- got zero attention from the public (lack of music video notwithstanding, this song is a hit! The catchy melodies! The 90s radio pop sheen! The drum loops! The sardonic and relatable lyrics about the intersection of lust and disdain and the utter futility of love itself! The unrelentingly loud snare sound!), and
3- has since gotten zero attention from Elvis himself (no sign of this song – again, a lead single—on any of his several career-spanning retrospectives, while more obscure tracks from the same album did get featured on Extreme Honey: The Very Best of the Warner Bros. Years. The Elvis Costello Wiki reliably informs me that this song hasn’t even been played live since the year of the album’s release. [sidenote: the Wiki also informs me that Elvis’s son Matt McManus is credited as providing “rhythm research” for this song, which is probably liner-notes legalese for “being 20 years old in 1996 and showing his dad a Massive Attack record once”]).

I share KD’s appreciation for the brittle AM-radio vibes of the opening 45 seconds, and I also wish it inhabited that sonic space a little longer. But I am a huge fan of everything that comes after it, particularly that drum sound. Yes, that unmistakably 90s drum sound: booming bass, tightly-wound snare, one step short of Spin Doctors territory— the rhythm Pete Thomas is playing here actually brings a bunch of 90s stuff to mind, namely “Keep On Movin’” by Soul II Soul, Duran Duran’s “Come Undone”, and that terrible multi-part Enigma song with the Gregorian chants. I love what it’s doing here, and how it pushes the song forward. Also of note in the percussion track is that strange sound that punctuates each line in the chorus—which sounds like it could be castanets, but also sounds like a set of keys falling into a bed of coins lining someone’s side picket. The big booming guitars, the flanged-out bridge, the unrestrained vocal performance, they all contribute to making this song sound so massive and triumphant. And this huge, lumbering, ridiculous thing is six minutes long. My God.

The demo version of “It’s Time” is a good example of EC intentionally obscuring a gorgeous melody by trying to make it clever. He had to tear it down, and with help of The Attractions and Geoff Emerick, rescued a lovely soul song from the debris. Some of my all-time favorite moments in EC’s discography have happened when he’s thrown himself unabashedly into the work, setting aside his artistic self-consciousness to just surrender completely to the song. The charts might offer evidence to the contrary, but to me, “It’s Time” is one of his all-time biggest hits.

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