JORGE FARAH: I go through ups-and-downs with Painted From Memory. Sometimes it sounds like a bit of a stretch for Elvis, but other times—when the mood is right—it feels like the single most emotionally poignant thing he ever made, the perfect album to listen to when you’ve experienced the most devastating heartbreak man can bear. It tends to depend on how I’m feeling about my own romantic situation at that particular moment. But “In the Darkest Place” is one of the songs in the album is always an emotional gut-punch, no matter where I am in my own life, or what feelings I’m able to project onto it. It stands on its own as an incredibly poignant depiction of a special kind of hurt.
The pain is exquisite, and so is this song.
The movement in this song is part of what makes it special; Costello is a master at this, in a way that may be hard to notice at first but becomes clear once you witness a few examples of his use of subtle dynamics to amplify a song’s sense of drama. These aren’t prog-rock approximations of symphonic movements, but subtle touches within the confines of pop arrangements that rein the tension in a song or let it loose, sometimes with something as simple as a shift in the drum pattern or a trumpet that lingers a a bit longer past the verse. That ear for ornamental touches was most likely developed from a lifetime of studying pop music as an avid listener; it makes perfect sense that collaborating with one of his biggest influences would result in one of the most meticulously arranged albums in his entire career. And this song is filled to the brim of classic Bacharach moments: the melodic motif that opens the song, the sprinkles of harpsichord over a bed of stately piano, the female backup singers. He pulls generously from his bag of tricks throughout the entire album, but it’s never more effective than on this track.
“In the Darkest Place” manages to be a breakup song that is raw and honest and emotionally bare without sounding like an unbearably whiny, self-loathing pity party. It also avoids the simmering vitriol of EC’s neurotic, vaguely-menacing late-70s spurned-geek anthems; however, there’s a real anger built into it. It’s a more adult kind of anger. It’s an elegant, tempered, bittersweet, after-hours, spilling-your-guts-to-strangers kind of anger—the kind that can only be triggered by the most devastating betrayals, and processed into something beautiful with the wisdom of age. The pain is exquisite, and so is this song.
KEVIN DAVIS: Painted From Memory was the last readily available Elvis Costello album I purchased during my inaugural wave of discovery, early in 2004. In fact, one of the first times I really had a chance to listen closely to it was on the car ride from Peoria to Chicago, en route to seeing Elvis live with Steve Nieve at the Oriental Theater on the North tour, which probably accounts for some of the intense fondness I have for this record: Not only did I first experience it during what was probably the single most intensely concentrated three-hour period of Elvis Costello-related excitement in my entire life, but the specific focus of this excitement was an impending evening of Elvis and his right-hand man serenading me with romantic piano ballads.
Even now, I can’t help but hear Painted From Memory and North as two sides of the same coin—two records that canonically belong together but are obviously very different aesthetically and less obviously different philosophically. The main difference for me between the two works is narrative distance: Both albums are obviously genre-hops for Elvis, but despite this, North stands as one of the most nakedly sincere records he ever recorded, unflinchingly sentimental and (almost refreshingly) transparently driven by his personal life, where Painted From Memory feels like Elvis deliberately writing from the viewpoint of someone who isn’t him but whom he hopes may be you. I don’t know anything about Costello’s personal life around the time of Painted From Memory, but the songwriting on this record feels very much in the spirit of professionalism: exercises in manipulation, in putting feelings and words together such that they channel a universality which transcends the limitations of any one person’s experience. One can choose to see an artificiality in this, but I think that’s short-sighted. There are things an artist can draw from this approach that won’t naturally arise elsewhere, and one of EC’s great virtues as a songwriter has always been his ability to straddle the line between the employment of stylistic tropes and retention of his own voice.
The song is a scenic journey—you begin to anticipate the hills & valleys of the melody
“In the Darkest Place” is something of a master class in this approach to songwriting. It’s a song that takes a couple listens to sink in because, like many songs on Painted From Memory, the structure of the composition is subtle. The logic behind the melody doesn’t immediately make itself clear, and sometimes it’s not until the fifth, tenth, fifteenth listen that you realize something happening in the second verse is actually an echo of something that already happened in the first. But as it becomes increasingly comfortable, the DNA of the song becomes something of a scenic journey—you begin to anticipate the hills and valleys of the melody, the aesthetic embellishments that come over each peak and around each curve. These colorations really do, as Jorge says, direct the emotional flow of the song: The gentle harpsichord sequence, for instance, that follows the words “I know” and comes to rest of that suspended minor chord, momentarily leaves the song with a sense of irresolution, before the descending, Christmas-bell-like piano passage immediately following the words “I shut out the light” give that same passage its sense of closure, leading into the more dramatic “chorus” section, defined by the immaculately placed female backing vocals. It goes out on a sort of mournful, ambient drone that almost feels too abstract for an album arranged as classically as Painted From Memory, but it works, ultimately leaving the song drifting as aimless as the character it portrays . . . and eventually finding its way to the beautiful flatlands of “Toledo.”
Let our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist take you places dark, bright, and everywhere in between: