JORGE FARAH: “Deportee” occupies an interesting place in Elvis Costello’s oeuvre. It is at once a re-writing and a cannibalization of an earlier track, though distinct enough in mood and sound to feel like a whole separate entity. Its parent song is 1984’s raucous “The Deportees Club,” a boisterous rave-up here reimagined as a gentle acoustic waltz. This particular recording of it is a stark home demo consisting only of a guitar and vocals, recorded around the same time that Elvis was writing the King of America album and had all these fantastic ideas for devastatingly sad songs running through his head. The resulting song, now named “Deportee,” would remain officially unreleased for 20 years until its inclusion as a bonus track on the 2005 King of America reissue. True to form, EC’s reissues are a treasure trove of incredible content; the KOA bonus disc containing what amounted to an EP’s worth of similarly quiet and intimate home demos. These were unadorned, off-the-cuff renditions of songs, some of which would end up on the final album, some of which would be revisited later, and all of which sounded like they might have been recorded in the wee small hours of the morning, while the whole wide world was fast asleep. By virtue of this, these tracks are marked by a slightly hushed delivery as well as that raw emotional honesty that seems to come out in a state of exhaustion; those sudden pangs of sincerity and vulnerability that catch you by surprise, and that might result in half-hearted apologies come morningtime.
“Deportees” captures a terrible emptiness beautifully: that feeling of being stranded in a foreign land, in over your head, and unsure of what’s to come in the morning
My connection to this song is somewhat personal. I can admire its virtues on a formal level, but its emotional resonance is very much anchored in my mind and memory to my own experiences. And though it may not align exactly with the narrative in the lyrics, I remember listening to “Deportee” for the first time and feeling like I knew exactly what it was exploring. I moved away from my family at age 18, and my entire first year in my new home of Buenos Aires was spent living in hostels. This was a sometimes harrowing experience, but at least I was never bored. Even when I was overwhelmed and annoyed—and trust me, living with a revolving-door cast of colorful tourists and miscreants, there was plenty to be annoyed and overwhelmed by—there was something going on; new people to talk to, drinks to share, laughs to be had. When you’re a teenager living in a brand new city, savoring your first taste of independence, you tend to take advantage of every one of those opportunities. But sometimes in the quiet of my dorm room, once everybody had fallen asleep, and sometimes right in the midst of the revelry, I’d be hit with these paralyzingly intense pangs of melancholy. It wasn’t just homesickness, though that definitely was a part of it.It was more like this enormous, insurmountable sense of aimlessness and despondency. I missed my family and my friends, yes, but I also felt profoundly lost amid the endless cavalcade of new faces and foreign languages and hasty introductions, and all those streets with names I just couldn’t learn.
One of my favorite things about music is how songs can resonate beyond their historical origins as the personal logged experiences of the author; that beyond passively marveling at the artfulness of their conception and content and construction, we as listeners can resignify and recontextualize them within the canon of our own individual narratives. The lyrics to “Deportee” paint a vivid picture of a sullen, lovelorn, inebriated protagonist, stumbling in and out of fancy bars and lofty conversations, losing his wits as well as his money, confessing his troubles to anyone who’ll listen, struggling for some sort of connection and ultimately lamenting either a love lost or a missed opportunity. There’s probably a different narrative than the one I’m projecting onto it, but to me, this song—with its gently descending melody line, its dreamy folk vibes and its references to backless dresses and exotic kinds of liquor—captures that terrible emptiness beautifully, that in-between feeling of being stranded in a foreign land, way in over your head, drinking yourself into gregariousness, unsure of what’s to come in the morning.
It’s a song about rationalization—about us minimizing the significance of things that we want but can’t have
KEVIN DAVIS: King of America is perhaps the definitive moment for one of EC’s trademark voices: the judgmental onlooker. In these songs, our hero plays the role of a snide introvert who sits in the corner with a pen and pad while rooms full of sleazy buffoons and loose women trip aimlessly around in service of their vices, lampooning them with wordplay and sarcastic nicknames and just about any other rhetorical device he can get his hands on. I love Elvis in this mode—these songs all have such strong senses of time and place to them, and are so easy to put yourself into (even if only as another snarky spectator, heaping derision upon the fools of the world with your thesaurus and your superiority).
“Deportee” is very much in the spirit of these King of America tracks, though EC’s a little harder on himself here than in, say, “Our Little Angel,” counting himself among the stumbling, drunken riffraff rather than a man apart from it. And yet, this self-implication is suggested more than it is stated outright, unclear as it is from the second person language to whom exactly some of the descriptions (such as my favorite line, “All your troubles you confess/To another faceless backless dress”) refer. Costello does employ the first person elsewhere in the song, suggesting that, as would make sense, “I” refers to the narrator and “you” refers to someone else, and an air of knowing in his voice suggests that perhaps this is a more generalized “you,” one which ultimately serves as a circular device through which Costello can impart his own experience without reducing himself to the level of the sorry characters he’s profiling. As a result, he ends up playing something of an omniscient wallflower, watching from afar as a pattern of absurd mating rituals unfold, knowing that they are doomed to end the same as we can assume they always did for him.
Again, the song has a tremendous sense of setting, established immediately in the opening couplet: “In the Arrividerci Roma Nightclub Bar and Grill/Standing in the fiberglass ruins, watching time stand still.” Because of several details throughout the song—the name of the nightclub is in Italian, the women seem to be dressed in pretty schnazzy attire, the alcoholic beverages sound fancy and expensive—I automatically assume this is a class joint, though perhaps the fiberglass ought to knock it down a notch to “faux-classy.” I think there are two ways to read this song, the first being that the narrator is lovesick over a woman who is not present, and who weighs heavier on the heart of the singer as he watches all the flirtatious behavior taking place in his general vicinity. The second is that he is physically watching the object of his affections engage in these behaviors with someone else. I’m not sure much of significance hinges on which of these interpretations is “correct,” assuming one is; what ultimately comes across is how this heartache informs the narrator’s cynicism in regards to romantic courtship—shallow, predictable, lovelessly strategic (“all this pillow talk is nothing more than talking shop“), but still something he envies and desires for himself. It finally feels like a song about rationalization, about our predisposition to minimize the significance of things that we want but can’t have—which, in this particular wallflower’s case, is summed up as “the secret life of Frank Sinatra.” Regrets . . . he’s had a few.
BONUS CUT: Fellow Costellophile and master of counterintuitive truths, Malcolm Gladwell, dedicated an episode of his podcast, Revisionist History, to “Deportee.” He uses the song as a launching pad to a discussion of how Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” accidentally became a pop-culure touchstone and an exploration of the conflicting creative processes of Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso. Intrigued? You should be, even if he gives Goodbye, Cruel World a lot less credit than we think it deserves. Check it out here.
Since those glorious bonus cuts never made the leap from physical to digital, our ever-expanding playlist of Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week maintains its weight this week. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth revisiting: