JORGE FARAH: Last month saw the 40th anniversary of My Aim is True, the album that started it all. The Internet has thus lit up with thinkpieces about the tremendous influence and importance of this album, some lumping it in with the UK pub-rock movement, some grouping it with other seminal late-70s punk records, and some hailing it as the very first of what would eventually come to be known as “New Wave.” The truth is that this scrappy little album—an album that was originally meant to be a collection of demos and, against all odds, resonated strongly with the public and kickstarted an enormously prolific, diverse and influential career—is something in-between. The songs have the same sardonic bite that would further metastasize in later albums like This Year’s Model and Trust, but the instrumental arrangements have much more of a country-rock, California-cool flair. This is in large part due to the work of backing band Clover, whose groovy playing style and pedal-string flourishes are much more in line with The Byrds than The Clash.
But even though the instrumental arrangements are a bit different than the sound he would come to be known for, My Aim is True is unmistakably an Elvis Costello album; all the things that we now consider idiosyncratically Elvis Costello—wide-ranging influences, hyper-literate lyrics riddled with clever wordplay, and irresistible pop hooks—are all present in the album to varying degrees. Fans fell in love with this new, unusual-looking rock hero, tearing down the walls of pop music and rebuilding it in his own lanky, bespectacled image.
To celebrate My Aim Is True’s 40th, we’re picking a song that was left off that album
This week, true to our nature as purveyors of the deepest of deep-cuts, we’re highlighting one of the songs from the My Aim is True sessions that did not make the final tracklist: “Stranger in the House,” one of the very first indications of Elvis’s wide-ranging eclecticism. An unassuming country ballad that’s deeply indebted to the 1950s Nashville sound Elvis loved, it’s one of the most accomplished songs from the My Aim is True sessions, and probably one of its most enjoyable songs altogether. The song was written with George Jones in mind; Jones, whom Elvis would often refer to as his all-time favorite singer, would go on to record his own version a few years later (a duet with Elvis, which must’ve been a dream come true for the young songwriter).
However, to understand why the song ended up in the cutting room floor, it’s important to remember the image that Stiff Records was trying to cultivate for Elvis in the late seventies: a futurist, here to tear down the institutions of old, making music that was fresh and new and exciting. There were even reports of Elvis’s entourage scrambling to hide his country album collection before he was supposed to have journalists visit his tour bus. This quaint country ballad, brilliant as it was, must’ve been a headscratcher in the era of Johnny Rotten. It was deemed to have no place in My Aim is True, and was only released a year later in the UK as a gift-with-purchase 45 to promote Costello’s next album, and didn’t hit the US until the 1980 b-sides collection, Taking Liberties.
KEVIN DAVIS: There’s a vague trend that seems to recur in the bodies of work of careerist songwriters like Elvis Costello: First the artist fumbles around briefly in search of an identity, begins to filter out little things that don’t work, and in relatively short order happens upon a sort of idealized version of himself, carving out his niche in the culture and laying the groundwork for a longer, more multi-purpose career. Next, once this position is well-established, the artist begins branching out, severely pushing the boundaries of his own parameters, or, in some cases, trying to work within someone else’s entirely. This last characteristic may be truer of EC than most, but it’s also applicable in varying capacities to Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and dozens of others. One assumes that, to those artists, these records are half an intellectual exercise, and half a tribute to music etched deeply into their brains from way back when (I presume they feel the credibility that comes with having an established identity gives them license to go back and explore without being mistaken for ripoffs).
If My Aim is True is Elvis standing in front of a mirror trying on clothes, “Stranger in the House” is his Halloween costume
This pattern is part of why I find “Stranger in the House” such an interesting entry in the EC canon. One of his earliest professional studio recordings, it pre-dates the moment at which his musical identity really came into its own, yet it’s clearly an homage to a style of songwriting that he knew wasn’t his: One doesn’t listen to “Stranger in the House” and get the impression that Costello was hoping it would be his springboard to stardom as a Nashville crooner. It’s not unusual for a songwriter to experiment with other voices while still in pursuit of his own, but it’s rare at that point for the experiment to betray no evidence of the search. With that in mind, My Aim is True is kind of like a man standing in front of a mirror trying on clothes . . . and “Stranger in the House” is that man’s Halloween costume.
JORGE FARAH: As a piece of songwriting, even as a genre exercise, “Stranger in the House” holds up incredibly well. From its expert use of country-music lyrical tropes to its confessional lyrics of whiskey-drenched heartbreak, it knows exactly what it’s supposed to be and hits every beat with razor-sharp precision. It’s also a great recording, featuring both my favorite Clover performance from these sessions and some of Elvis’s best early singing. Confident and relaxed, he sells the song’s resigned heartbreak with ease. This is where Elvis’s extensive knowledge of music comes into play. He knows the rulebook, and he knows how to employ its tools to maximum effect.
KEVIN DAVIS: It’s a tale of domestic country heartache, a snapshot of that moment where both parties in the relationship know things have gone south but neither wants to be the first to acknowledge it, and told in a language that would become common to EC when he’s trying to put his stamp on a novel genre: “And I look down for a number on my keychain/’Cause it feels more like a hotel everyday.” I’d forgotten what a lovely vocal performance the original studio version is, not to mention how warm the recording. John McFee’s mournful pedal steel arguably makes better use of itself than it does anywhere on My Aim is True, and the deep, unironic reverence for the Nashville sound pointed the way forward to Almost Blue a few albums down the line. As on that record, the harmonically simple melody here really gives EC a chance to show off the contours of his voice in a way that his own trickier melodies rarely do, favoring heart at the expense of wit.
“Stranger in the House” always sticks in my mind as one of those songs that was always bubbling just below the surface during those early years. For a song that never made it on to a proper Costello album, that there have been five officially released versions of it (the original, the Live at Hollywood High version, a weird ambient rock take recorded for the BBC in late 1978, the duet with George Jones, and another live version appearing on the Almost Blue bonus disc) is impressive, and if the EC Wiki site is to be trusted, it has been performed sporadically live throughout his career, though never as regularly as during those first few years. It’s hard not to see this song as “one that got away,” though, in this situation, it seems EC and the song have made good on their pact to remain friends.
JORGE FARAH: As his debut album, My Aim is True is a profoundly important landmark in Elvis’s career. It’s also a bit of an odd duck—a rough sketch of what might come further down the line. There is no other Elvis Costello album that sounds quite like My Aim is True, but as a record of an artist in search of, and slowly discovering, his own musical identity, it’s a fascinating and deeply enjoyable listen. Cast-offs like “Stranger in the House” and “Radio Sweetheart” serve as a curious what-if, allowing us to imagine just some of many paths this album could’ve taken before landing on the sound and tracklist we’ve known for 40 years. They are also the very earliest indications that Elvis’s outtakes weren’t going to be half-hearted throwaways, but solid songs in their own right. This is a constant that has held true throughout the last 40 years. It’s easy to forget how fortunate we are as fans. This is a good reminder.
Don’t be a stranger to our ever-expanding Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist, which contains nearly every song we’ve begged you to hear so far: