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This week’s pick: “Love Field,” released on Goodbye Cruel World (1984)
Gary Stewart: Elvis once referred to Goodbye Cruel World as “our worst record,” and even many fans (wrongly) agree. That makes “Love Field” even more in need of rescuing, which is exactly the kind of thing we created the song of the week for.
“This song contains, as they say on HBO, adult situations,” is how Costello introduced “Love Field” on the Goodbye Cruel World tour. He was referring to its lyrics, where the erotic and romantic are often at odds with each other. Then there’s the music, which starts with that pulsing, building synth riff before it takes you to a slow, almost cinematic place (are you sure this wasn’t the centerpiece of some modern romantic noir soundtrack?) that’s sinister, tense, and at times threatening. “Love Field” is far from experimental or avant-garde, but it’s like nothing else he’d ever done.
Even we accept the conventional wisdom that the album’s production doesn’t always serve the material (though what material it is!), but not on “Love Field.” Producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (who nailed the ’80s pop sounds on the previous album, Punch the Clock) throw everything they have at this, and in the process bring out the best on what’s usually the one track representing Goodbye Cruel World on any best-of.
David Gorman: “Love Field” is a song that belongs near the end of a date-night mixtape. It’s a white slow-jam, writhing around with a heat woefully lacking in the work of most “serious” rock songwriters more concerned with dissecting the politics of love and sex than cooking up a background groove for it. Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” comes to mind as another example, but beyond that I’d really have to start sifting through my own old mixtapes to hunt for others.
And it’s not that “Love Field” is “Let’s Get It On”—it’s more about one man’s fantasies than seduction itself—but its blurry erotic snapshots and watercolor soundscape create something pretty sultry. And it’s sultry without resorting to the blues and soul clichés that even the most respectable rock and pop artists fall back on when they want to bring it to the bedroom. This isn’t Elvis Costello doing Isaac Hayes and there’s no wah-wah guitars or sitar or Philly-soul string section plugged in as shorthand for aural sex. This is its own little erotic fever-dream and it’s no surprise it got lost in its era.
There’s another version of “Love Field” that’s even more humid, more ethereal, and more dizzying, with Elvis singing alone alongside jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. With just his guitar and I have no idea which or how many effects pedals, Frisell manages to make each note from his guitar sound like a twisted, surreal distillation of the entire history of music (his cover of Madonna’s “Live to Tell” will make you rethink both Madonna and the guitar itself). Behind Costello, he re-creates the liquid, hallucinatory atmosphere of the album version, but with no other instruments, the sparseness creates a tense intimacy that deepens the whole affair.
While “Love Field” gets our vote for your own mix to set the mood, be aware that many of the songs on our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist may have the opposite effect. But they’re still all pretty damn great.