JORGE FARAH: Hopefully through the course of this weekly column we’ve been able to make the case for Elvis Costello not just as a songwriter, but also as a performer; many of his most enduring tracks have been cover versions of songs written by other people, such as Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding,” Rodgers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” and (down here in South America particularly) Charles Aznavour’s syrupy “She.” Elvis has never been particularly fussy about his song choices, either; one gets the sense that he approaches each one with zealous excitement, almost as if it were a fun puzzle to decipher. This enthusiastic yet somewhat workmanlike approach to cover versions harkens back to his father’s career as a vocalist with the Joe Loss Orchestra, having to quickly learn the day’s chart-toppers so they could be performed on the next day’s broadcast. Elvis’s talent as an interpreter of popular song lies in his ability to find the heart and soul of a tune and bring it to the forefront, performing it with unrestrained aplomb. This is one of the reasons why his musical talk show Spectacle was such a perfect fit for him; after the interview portions, Elvis would get together with the episode’s musical guest and they would perform each other’s songs together. The end result was a fun, collaborative sparring session among greats, sharing in the joy of making music.
Spectacle lasted from 2008 until 2010. But before there was Spectacle, there was a television special produced by VH1 Classic called Decades Rock Live that followed a similar concept. Taped in 2006 in current American president Donald Trump’s Taj Majal casino in Atlantic City, the show sought to honor elder statesman Elvis by having three younger acts—Death Cab for Cutie, Fiona Apple, and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong—perform some of his songs and some of their own. Much like in the later Spectacle, Elvis would join the performances, either solo or with the aid of the trusty Imposters. And though the freewheeling collaborative spirit wasn’t quite the same, the special did produce several memorable moments (if you ever wanted to know what Elvis would sound like singing “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” you’re in luck). The seemingly undisputed highlight of the evening was Fiona Apple’s feverish rendition of Elvis’ “I Want You,” and with good reason; it is a suffocatingly powerful performance of an incredible song, with Ms. Apple going to some startlingly dark places during it. It is the only part of the entire evening that was ever officially released in audio form.
Elvis looked in to the heart of Fiona Apple’s “I Know” and found a soul song
But the performance that really caught my attention, and that has since remained a staple in my own listening habits, was Elvis and the Imposters’ version of Fiona’s 1999 ballad “I Know.” The original is already stunning enough:A gorgeous, smoky, jazz-brushed ballad that stays largely on the left side of the piano and features a tasteful and stately string section that, remarkably, doesn’t heighten the song’s wounded melodrama so much soothe it down and rein it in. It’s a torch song, but a quiet and sadly patient one; it says “take all the time you need, I’ll be right here,” and Fiona’s originally recorded version conveys that gorgeously. Elvis, however, looked into the heart of the tune and he found a soul song. He slowed the tempo considerably, and allowed Steve Nieve to apply some subtly ethereal keyboard touches decorating the very fractured-sounding chord progression. The result evokes a hazy, after-hours R&B feel. Elvis also slightly modified the melody to accommodate his much more forceful vocal performance, working in a few soulful “belt” lines in key lyrical phrases. The different approach completely recontextualizes the song; while Fiona communicates a quiet patience and calm resilience, Elvis sounds like a man at the end of his rope. He’s been waiting. And he’s here, asking you to make up your mind. Most dramatically, Elvis opts to sing the final line of the song, the “I’ll know” title drop that Fiona chokes back at the end of her version.
It’s a beautiful performance that has sadly gone unreleased in any kind of official capacity. The only surviving record of it is a fan video taken from the original broadcast and uploaded to Youtube nearly a decade ago, in glorious 240p definition.
KEVIN DAVIS: This is one of those performances that really highlights why Elvis Costello is as great an interpreter of song as he is a composer of it: His ability to get inside lines he wouldn’t normally himself write. At least musically, “I Know” is not terribly far outside Costello and the Imposters’ wheelhouse; the arrangement they cook up for it is certainly stronger on the backbeat than Fiona’s shuffly, feathery original, yet when they render it in their way you can nevertheless hear shades of The Delivery Man and Momofuku in the chord progression and accompaniment. But lyrically, “I Know” does not feel like a song that would have come from Elvis Costello’s pen; the physical extensions of simple phrases, the relatively plain, conversational language—these are things that seem more like they came from the R&B and soul music that inspired Get Happy!!! than from anything in EC’s own brain. And yet, what he does with these lines is transformative, really exploring every nuance of them in a way that he seldom does his own more loquacious lyrics, which often demand rhythmic dexterity over the kind of one-word-at-a-time TLC he’s able to give these. Costello has a marveously elastic voice, and instances such as this where he’s really afforded an opportunity to stretch it out—to really belt those vowel sounds, to really lean into that famous vibrato, to really get into the heart and mind of a character that isn’t his own creation and therefore doesn’t come across as a natural extension of himself—so often serve as welcome counterpoint to spitfire lyrical onslaughts of his “Pump it Up”s and “Sulphur to Sugarcane”s.
And, of course, the Imposters’ performance is not to be underestimated. One thing I love about Pete Thomas’s drumming is how it’s evolved over the years from the sort of tight-knit, springloaded lead drumming heard on This Year’s Model to the sensitive, almost earthy backbeat he provides here. It’s loose, but not such that it feels like it will fall apart at any second; just as the composition gives Elvis room to stretch out as a singer, Thomas’s drumming here gives the band a lot of space to breathe, space which is then occupied by Steve Nieve’s soulful keyboard fills and Elvis’s big cavernous guitar chords. The net result is a textbook study in a band taking a song from an artist who for all intents and purposes follows a separate artistic muse and claiming it entirely as their own; I’m a fan of Fiona Apple’s original (When the Pawn… is probably my favorite album of hers), but after hearing Elvis and the Imposters’ take on it, I now hear a lack of strain in the original that I can’t help but miss.
Bless the fan that uploaded this song, but let’s hope it’s not up to his glorious 240p YouTube clip that this song might find its place in the canon
Lastly, this song is Exhibit A in the case on behalf of what could conceivably be one of many lost Elvis Costello albums: a compilation of his Spectacle performances in the form of a fancy CD box set. This era of EC’s career was not unlike Dylan’s “Never-Ending Tour” – a mid-to-late era exploration of the artist’s relationship to popular songwriting in all forms, both to its roots and to its future, and when all is said and done I think it will be difficult to look back on it and still see it as the sort of sidestep that it currently occupies in his biography. These songs, these performances, are as much at the heart of who Elvis Costello the artist is as his own records are – Kojak Variety, chiseled into shape for the people and taken to its logical extreme. Bless that fan, but let’s hope it’s not up to his glorious 240p YouTube video that this song might find its place in the canon.
Until it gets an official release, “I Know” has to live without a spot on our official Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week playlist, but we promise there are plenty of other things you’ll enjoy hearing: