Listen now on:
Welcome back to the Elvis Costello Song Of The Week®, our ongoing attempt to drive you ever-deeper into the catalog of the musician who most embodies the Trunkworthy mission.
The week’s pick: “Clowntime Is Over No. 2,” first released as a B-side to “High Fidelity” (1980) and then on Taking Liberties (1980)
Gary Stewart: An organ plays, and you feel like you’re in a church, about to hear a plea or testimony from the pulpit. Then one of the best falsetto-styled R&B vocals this side of Percy Sledge or Usher kicks in: “Teeeeeeeears on your blackmail written to ransom,” and you’re in the middle of a song that captures all the best elements of records that masterfully split the difference between soul music and gospel, the kind that would even tire out Solomon Burke if he were singing it, because surely he would be suffering from the sheer exhaustion of inhabiting the song the way Elvis does here.
When many people first heard this on Get Happy as a more straightforward rock arrangement they took what they (thought they) knew about Costello to inform what they thought the song’s title implied and figured it was another scornful take on the stupidity of some. But this version (which debuted in obscurity as the B-side to “High Fidelity,” then later showed up somewhat buried on the rarities compilation Taking Liberties) gives those listeners another shot at discovery. It’s easy to see how its sinister tone evokes some sort of impending danger, but that obscures the song’s real message, which comes from the last lines of the last verse, “While everybody’s hiding under covers, who’s making lovers’ lane safe again for lovers.” It’s clever, yes, but really an observation, a warning, about taking romance seriously—like something you need to treat with reverence rather than frivolity.
David Gorman: It took me a while to get used to this version for exactly the reason you said: I knew it as more of a stomper on Get Happy!! Hearing it slowed down was a bit jarring—like playing a 45 at 33 (it’s always more fun to do the opposite, unless it’s a Dolly Parton record). But once I sat with it, I realized how much more I liked this version and how much more it represents what everyone said Get Happy!! was supposed to be, which was Costello’s take on ’60s Southern soul. This song gets eerily close to the vaunted Stax sound, but not in the way so many artists ape the punchy horns or begging, pleading, screaming vocals. The organ, the restrained but in-the-pocket bass, and the metronome snap of the drums sound less like an Otis Redding ballad and more like the first ten minutes (yeah, you heard that right) of Isaac Hayes’ epic arrangement of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”
It’s great to hear Elvis launch into falsetto at the beginning and belt it out a little at the end, but what he’s showing off vocally isn’t about range or power—the clichés rock artists always latch onto when they try to sing “soul.” No, here Elvis nails something more subtle and elusive: Time. Time is the secret sauce that separates true soul (and, by extension, gospel, jazz, and blues) singers from pretenders. It’s relaxing into the groove, holding back, staying just behind the beat. Taking. Your. Time. (Jimmy Scott was perhaps the master of this.) Whether you notice it or not, that’s how the best soul singers move you. Every other trick—the screams, the vocal runs, the falsetto shrieks—are just decoration. And that’s what gets me here. About halfway through the song he sings the line, “He don’t. Step. Back …As expecte-e-e-d,” and it kills me. Every time.
And, of course, here are all of the Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week, conveniently packaged in one handy playlist: