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This week’s pick: “Inch By Inch” from Goodbye Cruel World (1984)
An effortlessly breezy pop number, but Costello’s signature wit is there if you want to find it.
KEVIN DAVIS: Because Elvis Costello himself famously called Goodbye Cruel World the worst album he ever made, it was naturally one of the records I saved for last when exploring the vast universe that is EC’s discography. As is often the case with records like this (Dylan’s Self Portrait, R.E.M.’s Around the Sun, Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers), whose mythologies as lesser works over the years have been distorted and amplified—as if in a game of journalistic telephone—by isolated instances of high-profile criticism, I was thrilled when I first listened to Goodbye Cruel World to discover how decent an album it was after all. At their best, the songs on GCW retain the shimmering pop-with-horns feel of the previous year’s Punch the Clock, but recover some of the Attractions’ more natural chemistry (not that the Attractions didn’t turn in strong performances on Punch the Clock, they just weren’t always the focal point of the arrangements). Hinging on a bassline strongly reminiscent of the post-chorus release in the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Inch By Inch” is arguably the best song on the record, and definitely my personal favorite. Every bit as much as “Everyday I Write the Book” or “Veronica,” it is an effortlessly breezy three-minute pop number, pivoting back and forth between major and minor keys, employing Costello’s signature brand of wit in a way that doesn’t overpower the tune, but is there if you want to find it.
It sounds like a cross between “I’m Only Sleeping” and Peggy Lee’s cover of “Fever”
JORGE FARAH: The distance between an artist’s assessment of their own work and my own opinion of it is something I’ve long found fascinating. There are those who are keenly aware of the successes and shortcomings of their work, and then there are those who come across as a bit oblivious. I’ve even caught myself thinking “no, you don’t get it” as I read a musician ruthlessly savage an album that means the world to me, convinced that I’ve managed to find something of worth that’s eluded the author himself. Much like Kevin, I avoided Goodbye Cruel World for a long time—not because Elvis’s tongue-in-cheek condemnation turned me off of it, but because I felt like I needed the context of his entire career before I could agree or disagree with such a claim. And much like Kevin, I was pleasantly surprised upon finally listening to it, and found myself immediately drawn to the sultry, slinky stalker-ballad “Inch By Inch.” For an album that sometimes feels like it has a bit too much going on in the surface (see our entry on “Deportee” for an example of how a gorgeous song was pulled from the debris), “Inch By Inch” succeeds largely because of the restraint on display: Bruce Thomas avoids the high-octane bass acrobatics in favor of a subtly foreboding bassline that anchors the song, with Pete Thomas’s drums locked in tight, and Steve Nieve interjecting with strategically-placed keyboard accents. The song does feature a special guest in Gary Barnacle’s undulating tenor saxophone, which strengthens its sense of setting in the neon-lit back-alley of some sordid nightclub.
Indeed, “Inch by Inch” sounds like a cross between the aforementioned “I’m Only Sleeping” and Peggy Lee’s famous cover of Little Willie John’s “Fever”; it has that stark, noir-ish sensuality most folks don’t necessarily think of when you hear the name “Elvis Costello,” but that he consistently manages to pull off with aplomb. (2002’s When I Was Cruel sounds like he may have set out to record an entire album of those kinds of songs.)
The vague sense of foreboding is endearingly undercut by blippy keyboard accents, not unlike the music from the underground levels in Super Mario Bros.
KEVIN DAVIS: That subtle “noir-ish” element, as Jorge nicely puts it, is a big part of the song’s appeal for me as well—specifically, the way it butts up against the bright, playful production style of Goodbye Cruel World. Its vague sense of foreboding endearingly undercut by Steve Nieve’s blippy keyboard accents, not unlike the music from the underground levels in Super Mario Bros. This isn’t to undersell the more sophisticated compositional qualities of the song, but rather to emphasize its artful fusing of dread and kitsch; the song’s more obsessive undercurrents would take on a far more menacing character had Goodbye Cruel World been recorded with the same feral audio vérité as, say, Blood and Chocolate. As it stands, “Inch By Inch” can be taken as a slinky stalker-ballad or simply as a goofy word exercise open to a naughty if relatively PG-rated interpretations.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that, as hard as EC has been on Goodbye Cruel World on various occasions, “Inch by Inch” seems to be exempt from the man’s disdain; according to the EC Wiki, it’s been played live 209 times since 1984, sometimes taking breaks for entire tours (it vanished for 12 years between 1987 and 1999) but not uncommonly functioning as a nightly feature when he resurrects it. When I saw Costello and Nieve on the North tour, they trotted out both this and “Home Truth,” another GCW number, completely reimagined for their guitar/piano setup – and both felt perfectly at home alongside the classics.
JORGE FARAH: Strip the song down to just guitar and piano and the menace and anguish become all the more apparent. But that’s one of the things I love about this studio arrangement; as it is presented, it sounds like a cheekier, more lighthearted predecessor to something like “I Want You,” which is as dark, feverish and intense as a song can get. The angst in the studio version of “Inch By Inch” is dressed up with a bit of playful self-awareness. “The artful fusion of dread and kitsch” is a great way to describe a song that features a reverb-soaked detective-movie tenor sax playing a bluesy lick immediately preceding the lyrics “like a lady in the chamber and another in the click”. It shouldn’t work, but it works so beautifully.
Inch by inch, song by song, our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist continues to grow. Check it out: