ECSOTW#23: All That Bravado and That Fright

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JORGE FARAH: 2004’s The Delivery Man was supposed to be some kind of narrative-driven rock opera revolving around the lives of three women in a small southern town, and their entanglement with a mysterious delivery man who, “in a  certain light, looked like Elvis, and in a certain way, seemed like Jesus”. Then somewhere along its conception Elvis felt the pull away from the narrative—scrapped a few songs, rearranged a few others – and ended up abandoning the storytelling concept almost completely. A few strands of the initial story are still present throughout the final album—a few themes pop up here and there, particularly in the dead-on-arrival yawner of a title track – but not to a large degree. To be completely honest, I’m just about glad. With the arguable exception of Quadrophenia, rock operas are usually a drag; not quite a satisfying collection of songs, and not quite a narratively coherent story. Right in the middle of both, often littered with vignettes that serve no purpose other than bridge narrative gaps, as well as otherwise worthwhile songs awkwardly shoehorned into the story.

What The Delivery Man ended up being is a strong collection of songs that felt both loose & organic as well as tight and focused. The title track notwithstanding, this album is full of fresh and exciting songs, without the added strain of a plot to drag it down. The Imposters, making their first official credited outing under that moniker, deliver superb performances on songs that, for the most part, felt a hell of a lot more fun than anything EC had released in years, the overall sound being a swampy concoction of blues, soul, country, R&B and barnyard Americana. One of my favorite things about the album is the production, which is rich and warm, deep and resonant, but also crisp and clear, with Elvis’s voice pushed way up in the mix to great effect (I remember listening to this album with my Dad sitting next to me, and him turning to me during “Either Side of the Same Town” to remark “wow, he’s really going for it, isn’t he?”).

“There’s a Story in Your Voice” is one of the liveliest tracks on the album; a ragged, sharp-edged country duet with Lucinda Williams. A kind of sister-song to “Jailhouse Tears” from Lucinda’s excellent 2008 Lost Highway release Little Honey, also a duet with EC. One of the biggest points of contention is this song’s guest vocalist; Lucinda’s disheveled caterwauling is often brought up as a flaw, but I’ve always felt it worked wonderfully here as a scolding, snarling rebuke to Elvis’s soulful pleas (this also applies to “Jailhouse Tears”; both songs follow the classic country June-and-Johnny duet format). Even if you absolutely abhorred her singing, I honestly don’t think it does much to either add to or detract from what is, at its core, one of Elvis’s minor triumphs. It’s a jaunty number, with a whimsical bounce that is somewhat uncharacteristic for an Elvis Costello tune; very simple from a compositional and melodic point of view, but comfortably accomplishing what it aims for as a major-chord stomper.

Speaking of stomping: the rhythm section absolutely shines here, especially Pete Thomas during the stopstutter breakdown near the end. Resident lead player Steve Nieve is barely audible, buried way deep down in the mix, only really poking through to provide a little harmonic color during the second verse and the choruses. He also plays an almost steel-drummy tremolo part during the excellent bridge, but he otherwise stays out of the way—you have to listen very carefully to even hear the closing chords of his signature Vox Continental during the song’s close. It can feel like a bit of a bummer to hear such an exciting and creative player relayed to background tapestry, both in mixing and in performance, but the song doesn’t really require the ostentatious, swirly keyboard lines he’s known for; it’s that more mature, focused approach to servicing the song that, in my mind, separates the wizened Imposters from the manic, kinetic, showy playing of the younger Attractions. (Steve plays a much more showy part on live performances, especially the one inexplicably hidden away as a bonus track on the superb Club Night live DVD)

I love this song because it sounds like country music set on fire; it has a punky, jaggedy swagger to it, while retaining a sense of pathos and genuine heartbreak at its core. The melody has a sort of nursery rhyme quality to it, and the fact that it’s being sung by two people with remarkably odd (one might even call them cartoonish) voices really highlights the fact that this is a fucked-up love song, sung by two extremely fucked-up people who’ve had the misfortune of falling into (and then out of) each other’s arms. It’s a misshapen mess of a love song, and that suits me just right.

KEVIN DAVIS: It’s to Costello’s credit that The Delivery Man works as well as it does despite the varied origins of its pieces – several songs written anew for him and the Imposters, a couple tunes originally composed for other artists, and a handful of leftover tracks from a long-forgotten concept album, some dating back as far as 1986. Sonically, the album flows as well as any he’s made – the Imposters turn in raw, impassioned performances on the rockers, and bring a soulful edge to the ballads that looks forward to EC’s recordings with Allen Toussaint on The River in Reverse. And yet, The Delivery Man feels disjointed to me for other reasons, many circumstantial but nevertheless impossible for me to ignore. My first time hearing a handful of these songs (“Country Darkness,” “Either Side of the Same Town,” “The Delivery Man,” “Monkey to Man,” and “Nothing Clings Like Ivy”) came when I saw Elvis and Steve Nieve perform them as guitar/piano duets on the North tour, the spring before the album’s release; my first time hearing “The Scarlet Tide” was watching Alison Krauss perform it at the Oscars (my second time hearing it was Elvis’s solo rendition of it at the show described above, where he prefaced the song by mentioning its Academy Award nomination and then shutting down the pursuant applause by saying, “It didn’t fucking win,” and making some snarky comments about Lord of the Rings*). The Delivery Man is hardly the first rock album or even the first Elvis Costello album to be assembled in this manner – in fact, All This Useless Beauty is a far better example of a record culled from disparate source material. But when songs have lives of their own prior to settling down on a record, sometimes it’s difficult to shake the baggage; to that end, The Delivery Man has always felt a little to me like two or three mini-collections of songs, put into a blender and jumbled up, cohering only so far as they make up a sort of time capsule of “songs Elvis Costello was writing and performing in 2003-2004.” (Since All This Useless Beauty was the second EC album I bought, its reputation as a career-spanning collection of odds and ends didn’t register with me until years after the fact.)

As is often the case when you first hear a song in an intimate setting and then hear it later in a more polished, augmented format, my first impression of many of the The Delivery Man songs was that they’d been unduly “beefed.” Furthermore, of all of Costello’s many guises, that of the Southern-rock troubadour seemed perhaps his most inauthentic to date; for as many fine songs as he wrote for this record, there was something about this style that he just didn’t seem destined to put his finger on (though perhaps because I’m a native of the Midwest and only a few states away from the birthplace of this music, I’m needlessly hypersensitive to its finer points). “There’s a Story In Your Voice” – a song which, to my knowledge, was one of the songs specifically drafted for this record – is probably the “deepest South” Costello gets on the album, with plenty of assistance from the unmistakable guest vocals by Lucinda Williams. I have to admit, my biases get me a bit here, and I ultimately dislike this song for a very uncomplicated reason: Williams’s voice drives me up the wall. Her exaggerated, slurred-out drawl is a dealbreaker for me here. I simply cannot stand listening to her sing.

Attempting to look past this for purposes of this exercise, however, I’m still struck by the feeling that this just isn’t one of EC’s stronger compositions – the weakest on the album, in my opinion, and possibly my least of favorite of his post-2000 offerings. The vocal melody runs all over the place, never settling in a place that feels entirely satisfying, messy and nonfunctionally sophisticated in a way that all of Costello’s weakest writing tends to be, though perhaps here this is exacerbated by the fact that there are arguably no two singers on the planet less suited to harmonizing with each other than these two. Each singer is so distinct, so idiosyncratic, that it feels utterly impossible for them to fuse in any remotely musical way; instead, the voices jockey for foreground space, in a move that I’m sure is supposed to sound authentic and gritty but to my ears just sounds bad. There is a sort of appealing, cavernous openness to the performance, I suppose – Costello’s guitar, as it does, rings big and primitive, with echoes of Blood and Chocolate and Brutal Youth, and Pete Thomas in particular gives the song a sort of effortless, almost swing-like rhythm that makes it sound as close as rock-and-roll can to hoedown music. But I can’t get past the aesthetics: This is one of the few Elvis Costello songs that has always just been agony to my ears, and this time around was no different.

*His actual comment regarding Lord of the Rings was this: “I have one thing to say about the Oscars: ‘Fuckin’ ‘obbits.’”

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