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This week’s pick: “That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving,” from National Ransom (2010) Lyrics here
“Between dismal and discouraged.”
That’s exactly how Costello himself describes the setting of this song in the liner notes for National Ransom, and who are we to argue? If misery loves company, it should take solace in this waltz that becomes a lament, then a plea, and finally an intervention (though likely an unsuccessful one). You’ve been there: the friend who wants to be more to the object of her affections, even though you tell her the guy she loves, while charming and alluring (hence the title), is rotten, and anybody he’s with is headed for deep disappointment and pain. Think a country “Let Him Run Wild” minus Brian Wilson’s strength, patience, and optimism. It’s not hard to imagine “That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving” coming out of the mouths of George Jones, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, or any other top-tier performer who’s ever graced the stage of the Ryman Auditorium.
National Ransom came out in 2010, hot on the heels of the bluegrass inspired/T Bone Burnett produced Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, an unqualified success that was E.C.’s best-selling album in nearly a decade. That same success eluded what many thought to be its superior follow-up.
And this track shows how Costello had mastered a form he was just starting to flirt with 30 years earlier on Almost Blue. If he could get in a time machine, this is the kind of song he’d try to cover on that first trip to those Nashville studios. Maybe if we’re lucky, somebody in the indie rock, R&B, or hip-hop world will take this on to make country safe and cool for a new generation just waiting to become converts.
David Gorman: It’s funny (no . . . funny is not the right word at all) how you can put on an album, go about your business, and then have a song—even a phrase—reach out 45 minutes in and gut-punch you into paying attention. This song did that to me, right about the time Elvis cried out, “I thought about back then when I wished that she had been mine.” That one line, and the way it was belted out, shook me hard. And the song kept going deeper. By the next verse I realized, goddamn, I’d been there too many times before, playing the twisted, conflicted part of the friend who wants to be so much more, simultaneously consoling and cajoling the girl of my dreams at her most vulnerable. It’s an awful blend of desperate hope and guilt-ridden betrayal, and I’d never heard that pathetic conflict expressed so perfectly. “I’m sorry for what I might do more than what I have done.”
If this song had come to me 30 years ago, I’d have drunk myself blind to it. Or added it to every one of the mix tapes I assembled as covert love letters I was too afraid to write myself, dropping it effortlessly between the old soul songs I relied on to speak for me.
And Gary, don’t let the fiddles fool you; this is absolutely a soul song. Swap the violins for off-key horns and this is the kind of song Percy Sledge wept his way through for a living. I’m hearing “Sudden Stop” and “It Tears Me Up” in the way “That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving” builds and explodes and picks itself back up off the floor. But I’m glad Elvis and T Bone didn’t put this in an old tick-the-boxes re-creation of a Muscle Shoals production. The violins, the harmonies, and that odd bit of floor-stomping forced me to take it in fresh and not toss it in my overflowing retro-soul bucket.
And if I had to pick an artist to cover this song, I wouldn’t go for Percy (though he’d kill it), or the country legends you mention. My pick would be Jason Isbell, who is able to live and breathe the blurred line between country and soul that makes Southern music so potent. He tears apart Candi Staton’s “Heart on a String” and I think he’d deal with “That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving.” I’m just not sure I’m ready to hear it.
The Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist grows again. Listen, enjoy, and we hope our drooling-fanatic ramblings make the experience that much more interesting.