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KEVIN DAVIS: I remember the first time I really got sucked in by a “story song”—I was probably five or six, and the song was “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” And while it may have ultimately been the song’s inherent silliness that drew me back to it, even at that young age I recall being highly susceptible to the captivating powers of storytelling as a musical device. It wasn’t only that the song followed a linear sequence of events, though that certainly had its advantages over abstract lyricism to a kindergartener; it was that the song created its own self-contained universe, inhabitable to any who wished to absorb the contents of the song for him- or herself. As I grew up and absorbed more and more music, I was always drawn back to this type of song, first in the form of some obvious ones (“American Pie,” “Hotel California”), later by way of some slightly more ephemeral teenage dalliances (Phish’s “Esther,” The Doors’ “The End”), finally arriving at the doorstep of the greats: first Dylan, then Springsteen, then Waits, then the universe of others. These were guys whose most detailed works were the apotheosis of the “story song” genre—rich in setting and sturdy of form, yet deeply authentic even when presenting as pieces of grand theater.
“Battered Old Bird” is a sort of mini-opera—a one-act play for the small stage
By the time I discovered Costello, I was pretty steeped in this stuff, but his linguistic style and bookman’s demeanor threw my perception of it for a loop. Costello was as articulate as Dylan but less abstract; as absurd as Waits, but less carnivalesque; as humanly “real” as Springsteen, but speaking to a more cynical audience. In this lineage of songs, “Battered Old Bird”—a slow-burning ballad from the Attractions’ 1986 first-act swan song Blood and Chocolate—is one of Costello’s very best, and one of the first that really drew me into this element of his songwriting. Indeed, it contains elements of all three of the aforementioned legends – it is a song with a sense of setting every bit as self-sustaining as Waits’s “Murder in the Red Barn,” a cast of characters as ludicrous as Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” and a heart that beats with all the bittersweet nostalgia of Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street.” While aesthetically it resembles no one of those songs, it nevertheless plays similarly as a sort of mini-opera, a one-act play for the small stage, with no real discernible “plot” but with a cast and set that nevertheless tell a perfectly satisfying story. As Costello wrote in his liner notes to Rhino’s 2002 Blood and Chocolate reissue, the lyrics to the song recount an apartment building that Costello lived in with his family as a small boy, beginning with one of the great scene-setters in the Costello catalog: “The landlady’s husband came up to town today/Since he left them both ten years ago to serve the ministry.” Immediately, the song is prefaced with an air of tension: Uh-oh – how is this going to turn out? What are we going to learn about this? Even when the answer ultimately turns out to be “not much,” we’ve already surrendered our investment—the landlady’s husband returning becomes not a means by which to commence a sequence of events, but a means by which the listener is brought into the world that the song wants him or her to see.
The song is one of the great essays on the absurdity of everyday people
Musically, the song is vintage Costello through and through, featuring the sort of tasteful, restrained Attractions performance that calls back to “Almost Blue” and looks ahead to some of their second-act performances like “All This Useless Beauty” and “Poor Fractured Atlas”—a gently subtle, no-frills “live in the room” vibe that this band pulled off so effortlessly, if not often enough. Costello’s guitar and Steve Nieve’s keyboard have a tangible, hot-off-the-soundboard crispness, reminiscent of early ‘70’s Fillmore recordings by the likes of Neil Young and the Grateful Dead—very raw and “unproduced,” not unlike the remainder of Blood and Chocolate but perhaps with a clearer presence in the instruments simply due to it being a quieter song. Costello, for his part, turns in a powerhouse of a vocal performance, beginning with a breathy, empathetic purr, jumping an octave and building intensity as the characters he’s describing become increasingly weird. And as is often the case with songs like this, who all the characters are and who they represent is not the point, though prior to Costello demystifying the back story, one could easily have spent as much time analyzing the possible biographical significances of the “two old maids” and “the Macintosh Man” as Dylanologists have spent trying to parse “Visions of Johanna” (EC does throw us one ID badge in those liner notes—the “tenant’s boy” in the song is Costello himself, who was taught to swear in Welsh, not French, changed for the good of the cause because the former didn’t rhyme as well). Yet somehow, the fact that the company of yahoos in the song just ended up being Costello’s wacky old neighbors ultimately lends the song a greater, not lesser, sense of profundity; lending credence to that old mantra about truth being stranger than fiction, the song becomes one of Costello’s great essays on the absurdity of everyday people.
JORGE FARAH: Like Kevin, I grew up with a very different kind of story-song. In my case, though, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of a story-song isn’t “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” or anything by The Doors, but murder songs. (The extent to which “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” may qualify as a “murder song” hinges on one’s interpretation of the reindeer’s motive, but that’s a debate for another time.) Specifically, I’m referring to the kind of cheeky, pulpy noir-film approximations that Costello himself would try his hand at with a song like “Watching the Detectives.” Like a crime novel with all the self-seriousness sucked out; humorous (or humor-adjacent) songs depicting horrible crimes, ramping up the narrative drama while using the magic of artifice as a blast shield against any headiness that may stem from the grisly acts described therein. I’m thinking specifically of Willie Colón and Sergio Blades’s “Pedro Navaja”, a late-70s Nuyorican salsa reimagining of “Mack the Knife” that tells the story of the titular character’s dramatic murder in the Lower East Side. As far as story songs go, it does everything right: it immediately establishes the setting in vivid detail, slowly builds tension towards the main event, and colors around the edges of the narrative just enough to bring the whole story to life. Like Kevin mentioned, “Battered Old Bird” throws you a few red herrings to lead you to believe you’re listening to a murder song, the rising tension leading ominously to some horrible act; then, the frame widens like a camera zooming out to reveal the other characters in this story. What you come to learn shortly afterwards is that this is not a narration hinging on a single event, but instead is a remarkably vivid group portrait. It almost doesn’t even register that there is a murder in the song, an especially brutal one: the third verse reveals that one of the neighbors apparently chopped a child’s head off. This shocking revelation is mentioned in passing; just another in a long list of eccentricities.
The music twists and stretches to fit the story, a vaguely unsettling effect as our pop-conditioned brains search for patterns to latch on to
This rising-and-receding in the lyrics also translates to the song’s music; not only are there variances in playing intensity and volume, but the musical shapes of the verses seem to twist and stretch to fit the story contained within them. This is traditionally a folk music device, used here to vaguely unsettling effect as our pop-conditioned brains search for patterns to latch on to. The variations are small and far between—things like staying on that D chord a couple bars too long, or stretching the last line of a verse longer than the previous one—but they all contribute to the wonderful uneasiness that pervades the song. Kevin mentioned the production here, and I have to echo his comments. This is one of my favorite-sounding Attractions performances, if only for the sense of space and live-in-the-room feel captured expertly by producer Nick Lowe. The Blood and Chocolate sessions were famously fraught with personal tensions as well as a deliberately haphazard approach to channel separation; this makes the louder songs a glorious, chaotic wash, but also works surprisingly well for quieter songs such as this one and “I Want You.” And while The Attractions deliver a suitably understated performance, the undisputed star of the show is Elvis himself; his voice is loud and up front, and his impassioned performance imbues the song with a lot of its power and poignancy. Whatever was going on during the recording of the album, he’s clearly enjoying himself in this song, playing with syncopation and alliteration, almost-rapping through a few of the wordier verses.
This is a fractured, solemn, sympathetic paean to mundanity
There is an alternate version of this song released as a bonus track with the 2002 Rhino reissue. It’s a drastically different arrangement, sounding a lot closer to the manic sprint of Get Happy than anything else in the album. Though it is referred to as the “Alternate Version” of “Battered Old Bird'” it is dated as having been recorded several months before the version that ended up on the album. Whether it’s the form that the song was originally written in is hard to tell. Fun as it is to hear a more traditionally rock ’n’ roll interpretation of the same set of lyrics, it is no substitute for the intensity and grit of the album track. A kind of fractured, solemn, sympathetic paean to mundanity. Like that other guy said—people are strange.
Our ongoing, ever-expanding Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist just got a little bit longer (and a little bit darker):