JORGE FARAH: I’ve spent a substantial portion of my life proselytizing for my favorite musicians, making the case for their best songs, trying my darnedest to get my friends (and also, often, complete strangers) to join me in the splendor of this clearly thrilling piece of art that needs to be celebrated by more than just myself. I’ve had blogs dedicated to that purpose. Podcasts. Even this column. It’s a drive I don’t completely understand, but one that, I think, most ardent admirers of the arts can relate to. Elvis Costello, being both my favorite musician and someone whose quality of musical output doesn’t exactly line up with the amount of public acclaim he receives, is therefore a frequent subject for this practice, and one of the most effective ways I know how to get people aboard the Costello train is through the time-honored tradition of playlist-crafting. People generally tend to be a lot more receptive to a quick 12-song sampler than a thousand-word essay. And with such a breadth of material to pick from, spanning a dazzling amount of tones and genres, it’s crucial to pick an opening track that doesn’t just immediately capture the listener’s attention, but is also somewhat representative, in broad terms, of the artist’s overall sound.
“New Lace Sleeves” is a pocket-sized case for Costello’s skill as a songwriter and arranger
“New Lace Sleeves,” off of 1981’s Trust, is the song I usually pick for this task. It’s an interesting song in his catalogue in that it doesn’t quite sound like anything else he’s done before or since, but serves as a pocket-sized case for Elvis’ skill as a songwriter and arranger. The song hooks you immediately with its instrumental arrangement—each member of the Attractions coming in one-by-one, almost tentatively, as if there was some delicate balance to be cautious of, and any grand fill or sudden rise in volume or tempo would upset the structural integrity of the arrangement. Pete Thomas’s stuttering drum work in the opening, followed closely by Elvis’s palm-muted, almost dub-like guitar line sneaking in from a distance, Bruce Thomas’s focused bass runs that wisely leaves all-too-important gaps in the rhythm line, and Steve Nieve’s keyboards serving as the binding agent that also provides a bit of harmonic relief. This is one of the songs that comes immediately to mind when I think of my favorite Attractions performances, even though it lacks the ferocity of “Lipstick Vogue,” the effortless swing of “Love for Tender,” or the dexterous trickery of “Pidgin English.” It’s not an ostentatious, showy performance, and yet it’s one of the most effective in Costello’s entire body of work because of its tasteful restraint and calculated simplicity, taking its time before finally coming together in the chorus and then disassembling again for the next verse.
This song is a joy on a songwriting level, but elevated even further by the performance
This may also be one of Elvis’s greatest vocal takes, sounding confident and full-bodied while also conveying the appropriate level of world-weary apathy perfectly befitting the lyrics, which explore the tension between passion and societal expectations as framed by the awkwardness of the morning-after: “bad lovers face to face in the morning / shy apologies and polite regrets.” The disappointing comedown from the conquest is a topic that Elvis explored often, particularly in his earlier albums; in this song, though, it serves as an introduction to a broader thematic exploration as we move through a series of vignettes depicting the three-way tug-of-war between what we are, what we think we should be, and what society tells us to be. It’s one of his best lyrics, and apparently one of his earliest; he’s stated on several occasions that many of the lines in the song predate his first album by several years. If the words really date back to 1974, that would make him a teenager by the time of writing. And while this is a testament to his immense talent, I’m glad he waited a bit before putting it all down on wax. This song is a joy on a songwriting level, but one that’s elevated even further by the performance that was caught on tape. I’d still call it a triumph if it was presented in another format—indeed, there’s an earlier take on the song included as a bonus track on the Trust reissue that features Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers bassist Paul Riley joining his old bandmate Pete Thomas in the rhythm section and sounds like a mellow take on 2-Tone ska. It’s a charming version, but Elvis made the right call by shelving it and revisiting it later. This song needed more than “charming.”
This song is one of his ten best…maybe one of the two…and maybe even better than that
KEVIN DAVIS: It’s easy to throw around superlatives on the internet, so I hope we’ve been sparing enough with them in this column for it to hold some water when I say that “New Lace Sleeves” is, quite simply, all in all one of the finest songs Elvis Costello ever put to tape. I mean this in the most hyperbole-free context possible: Out of all the hundreds of songs that bear Elvis Costello’s name, this song is literally one of the ten best, maybe even one of the five, maybe even one of the two, and maybe even better than that. No question it is among his most dynamic, tasteful compositions, both melodically and structurally, with subtly off-center chord juxtapositions (especially between the pre-chorus and the chorus) that undercut the song’s slow, steady groove with just the right amount of rue; no question it’s among his greatest lyrics, and if teenagers in the UK are writing things “the salty lips of the socialite sisters/with their continental fingers/that have never seen working blisters” then it’s no wonder our test scores over here are so low by comparison; and no question it finds the Attractions in absolute peak form, and Elvis himself thinks so too (in the liner notes to the Trust reissue, he calls it “among the Attractions’ finest ensemble performances”). In fact, it is interesting how Costello seems to continually favor his former backing band in moments of temperance; when writing about All This Useless Beauty, he heaps similar praise upon “Poor Fractured Atlas,” a gentle piano ballad that compared to some more bombastic material barely features the Attractions. But perhaps he’s onto something.
“New Lace Sleeves” is a song that’s all about pulse
Of course, the Attractions are most identifiable by the high-octane comping and rhythmic fills that characterize records like This Year’s Model and Get Happy—they were the kick in the seat that gave Elvis’s early records that sense of effortless agility, the perfect complement to the emotional fire in many of the lyrics at the time. “New Lace Sleeves,” conversely, is a song that’s all about pulse. Pete Thomas’s drum line functions as a sort of “lead riff” to the song (snare-kick tss-tss-tss, tss-t-tsssss-tssssss), repeating sans variation throughout the duration of the verse, with the harmony defined only by root-note changes to Bruce Thomas’s fractured bass line; this jittery, repetitive rhythm is the perfect musical echo to the scene Elvis sets in the song’s first stanza, that moment of waking up the morning after, questioning your decision-making while waiting there in silence, your perfecty syncopated heartbeat acting as a sort of Chinese water-torture device. Steve Nieve is more discreet still, contributing ambient, dreamy organ chords off on the periphery of the left channel that you don’t notice if you’re not looking for them, as well as a four-to-five second free-jazz-like piano run immediately following the first chorus which is the closest anyone in the song comes to taking a solo. The pre-chorus and chorus are less minimalist, with a stronger emphasis on the chordal harmony and an altogther poppier melody, but the juxtaposition between the sections is masterful: pleasure vs. discomfort, the thrill of the physical action vs. the lingering senses of regret and doubt that follow.
Reportedly, Elvis Costello made Trust during a period of personal turmoil and indiscriminate ingestion of mind-altering substances, and the album runs a unique gamut of emotions as a result – not many of the songs from this record have logical parallels elsewhere in Costello’s catalog. “New Lace Sleeves” is perhaps the best example of this; in some weird miracle of genre-mashing that owes subtly to forms from reggae to disco to lounge jazz, it ends up being one of the smartest, most sophisticated, and downright awesome songs in the Costello discography, despite being uttery unprecented either before or after. Even if you hate the man’s music—if you’ve never heard this song—it’s a good place to begin reassessing.
Jorge puts “New Lace Sleeves” at the top of his Turn-You-On-To-Costello playlists and, this week, it’s on the top of ours, too: