JORGE FARAH: Last week we wrote about “Lovable”, the second track from King of America, an album that feels like it wants to be a collection of cinematic, narrative-driven, emotionally-charged folk/country/Americana ballads, anchored to rockn’roll by a handful of upbeat palate-cleansers like the aforementioned track. On that post I wrote about how my own tastes and biases have shaped my perception of the album, where I get so caught up in my favorite songs from it that I lose sight of the broader scope that is explored in its tracklist.
This week’s song, “Shoes Without Heels”, is another one from the King of America sessions. This one clearly inhabits the mellower, melancholy side of King of America. Interestingly, however, this song wasn’t featured on the final KOA tracklist, but instead tossed off as a B-side to a single from a later album. Elvis didn’t seem to think much of the song then, and that doesn’t appear to have changed much since—it’s been played live a total of five times, and not once in the last 29 years. That lack of regard appears to have stemmed all the way from the song’s conception, as it was apparently written in about 10 minutes and on the back of a bar napkin, as recounted (likely apocryphally) by Elvis himself on the liner notes to the King of America reissue. Yet, to me, this sounds like a much more thoughtful composition than several of the songs that did make it on the album. If I had to hazard a guess on why it was left off, I’d say it might be considered redundant after a song like “Indoor Fireworks”, which features the same rhythm and inhabits a similar emotional space and melodic cadence.
“Shoes Without Heels” is a plaintive country ballad clearly modeled after the “Nashville sound” Elvis is so fond of, recalling the work of countrypolitan stars such as Jay Price, Charlie Rich, Tammy Wynette, Charley Pride, and of course, Elvis’s favorite singer, George Jones. The term “countrypolitan” is used (sometimes disparagingly, depending on who you ask) to describe a type of country music that veers away from the straightforward, boom-chicka-boom grit of traditional country in favor of “prettier” ear-candy arrangements and a more sophisticated sense of melody, though retaining the traditional lyrical themes of domestic turmoil, alcohol abuse and personal failures.
As a bare-bones composition, it would be easy to dismiss “Shoes Without Heels” as not a whole lot more than just a bunch of cobbled-together Nashville tropes, but the lyrics and performances on the track give this song an alluring sensuality that’s undeniable. I particularly enjoy the way some of the lines trip up on each other, particularly during the bridge: “… drag on women like they’re cigarettes/ ‘cause you…”, the phrasing of which not only makes for some very pleasing vocal syncopation, but also reminds me of how a drunk or desperate person might stumble on their arguments, thoughts coming in too quickly to coherently articulate them. And then certain other lines fall more gently and are allowed to hang dramatically (“he’ll watch you walk away without heels”). Elvis’s vocal performance here is a perfected version of the sultry croon he used on the songs from Almost Blue, his country covers album, but he sounds decidedly more confident and controlled. Gone is the reedy, adenoidal delivery that seeped into some of those songs and made Elvis sound like a second-rate impersonator’s take on what an Elvis Costello country album would sound like (I’m looking at you, “Sweet Dreams”); his approach here is fuller-bodied and expressive. The way he narrows his airway to let certain words just barely eke out, sometimes at the expense of the vocal meter or even pitch, contributes greatly to that flickering-neon-light barstool-commiseration feel. I also feel compelled to give a shout-out the great James Burton on the guitar, providing a truly gorgeous accompaniment and sounding every bit as expressive as Elvis himself.
This is actually one of my favorite Elvis Costello songs, regardless of the author’s own indifference towards it. I even included it as one of 22 tracks on my Elvis Costello Starter Playlist, a list of songs I will inevitably force on anybody I meet within a couple months of our acquaintance. It is a tiny bit frustrating that it’s given no attention by the man who authored it, and I’m probably never going to get a chance to hear it live, but it’s also somewhat satisfying to have this gem of a song as something of a secret. You can’t let these artists tell you which of their own songs are good. They don’t have a clue!
KEVIN DAVIS: I would echo the suspicion that “Shoes Without Heels” may have been omitted from King of America’s final track listing due to similarities to “Indoor Fireworks,” particularly the resolution of the chorus melody. Compare the way Elvis sings “when she walks right back through the door” to the way he sings “when the smoke gets in your eyes” in the more famous song; if these were songs from two different eras, you’d assume one an intentional nod to the other. Instead, they’re just an instance of individual ideas being tested in multiple settings, not an uncommon thing to stumble across when a songwriter is indulging en masse in novel formats, and certainly not an uncommon thing for EC, who has never seen a reason to restrict his good ideas to a single use; some of the lyrics from “I Can’t Turn It Off” (one of his earliest compositions, recently unearthed on the Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink soundtrack), appeared in “Watch Your Step” some five years later, and we all know how much mileage he got out of his back catalog on Wise Up Ghost. So while these similarities may have been a sensible reason for withholding “Shoes Without Heels” from King of America, they don’t necessarily speak to the comparative quality of the song itself, which – while probably lacking the finesse and clever charm of “Indoor Fireworks” – has much to recommend it on its own terms.
My favorite thing about this song has always been the guitar solo at the end – courtesy of James Burton, who adds colors and flourishes to King of America (my favorite of his contributions being the subtle chordal accompaniment to “Our Little Angel,” which is echoed here in the chorus sections), but doesn’t get off a single solo on the record as poignant as the one he contributes here. I’m tempted to describe it as “melodically virtuosic,” by which I don’t mean to imply that Burton is overplaying or showing off; indeed the opposite, the solo is tasteful and restrained, but manages to rifle through a lot of melodic ideas in a short time, expounding on the base melody and exploiting the deeper relationship between the tune and the chords, all while retaining the simple, digestible flavor of the core composition. It’s the perfect emotional coda to the song, and I hate that it fades out; my favorite sequence of notes starts up just as soon as the volume starts dropping.
“Shoes Without Heels” originally appeared on Out of Our Idiot, a 1987 odds-and-ends collection, curiously sandwiched between EC and the Attractions’ cover of Smokey Robinson’s “From Head to Toe” and the throwaway original “Baby’s Got a Brand New Hairdo.” It’s been a while since I’ve listened to the material on this collection in its originally issued sequence (weirdly enough, Out of Our Idiot is one of the few Costello albums I own on vinyl), but there is no question that “Shoes Without Heels” sounds much better when grouped with its King of America brethren than with Idiot’s motley crew of misfits and sidetracks. As discussed last week, King of America is not exclusively the reflective, Dylanesque narrative it’s frequently mistaken for, but “Shoes Without Heels” contributes to a convincing case that it could have been, and that maybe this would have even been for the better if not for the broader.