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JORGE FARAH: Is it fair to call a song “overlooked” when it’s one of only twelve tracks (thirteen if you count “Radio Radio”) featured on a seminal, career-defining album that captured the imaginations of audiences and critics alike and spawned an entire subgenre of music? Probably not. But it’s hard not to think of “Hand in Hand” in those terms, given the fact that it rarely comes up in conversations about the brilliance of 1978’s This Year’s Model. Elvis’s sophomore effort was the point where he truly consolidated his sound, further refining the mordant wit and sharp pop hooks of his debut, enlisting the help of the mighty Attractions. The end result is an album that’s so chock-full of excellence that it could pass for a Greatest Hits compilation were it not for its sonic cohesiveness. And given the fact that “Hand in Hand,” the mid-tempo number that opens side B, is surrounded by such classics as “Pump it Up” and “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” as well as obvious highlights like “Lipstick Vogue” and “Little Triggers,” it’s no wonder it gets a bit lost in a veritable sea of riches.
“Hand In Hand” is a jerky, seductively caustic song with a mean streak
Once I got past the spooky tape-reversed intro that sounds like some kind of demonic invocation in a vaguely Russian accent, “Hand in Hand” became one of my favorite This Year’s Model songs. It’s a jerky, seductively caustic song with a mean streak, featuring the kind of angry kiss-off lyrics that Elvis developed a reputation for and that presumably earned a spot as a tangential scribble on the back-pages of many chemistry notebooks in the late 70s: “No, don’t ask me to apologize / I won’t ask you to forgive me / if I’m gonna go down you’re gonna come with me”. Elvis would go on to reach higher levels of lyrical sophistication, but it’s hard to argue against the fact that This Year’s Model features the greatest collection of opening lines in his entire catalogue.
And while the lyrics are clearly clever, their meaning remains fairly oblique; it’s clear that Elvis is telling someone to bugger off, but who is it? My first impression was that it was one of several late-seventies Elvis Costello songs that dealt with a couple’s growing resentment towards each other, laced with a good amount of innuendo. But a little research reveals the song to be a sort of warning to himself, a pessimistic look at the kind of nastiness he could end up succumbing to and the person he could end up becoming if the business (and his own neuroses) got the better of him.
On first listen, “Hand In Hand” is perplexing in the best way
One of my favorite aspects of the song is that, because of its peculiar construction, you’re not really sure what part you’re listening to until the song is already well into its playtime: it starts off with a stripped-down chorus that sounds like a first verse, then quickly jumps into a verse that sounds like a pre-chorus, then transitions into a section that has all the bite and urgency of a chorus only to reveal itself as the pre-chorus as it circles right back to a fuller version of the major-chord opening, complete with a Kinks-inspired “hand in hand!” chanted hook to really underline it. It all makes perfect sense once you’ve played the song in full, but on first listen, it’s perplexing in the best possible way . . . unless you’re now about to listen to it for the first time after having read this, in which case you are metacognizant of the whole thing and the effect is lost. The Internet ruins everything.
KEVIN DAVIS: Bizarrely, perhaps, “Hand In Hand” was my first favorite song on This Year’s Model, which back in college was the third Costello album I ever bought. My first two were When I Was Cruel and All This Useless Beauty, which at the time were the newest non-collaborative Elvis Costello albums on the market, and jumping so far back in time proved to be a bit jarring; while Cruel certainly had me primed to experience the man’s louder, less delicate side, This Year’s Model’s nervous energy and frenetic, airtight arrangements were a marked change of pace from the looser-limbed support provided by the Imposters on Cruel and the late-era Attractions on Beauty. Along with “Little Triggers,” “Hand in Hand” felt like as much of a bridge between the two ends of EC’s career as one could expect to find without actually listening to what came between (as a side note, this would have been the summer of 2002, which was right at the onset of EC’s Rhino reissue campaign, so many of the in-between albums were out of print, waiting to be rereleased). As with last week’s “Inch By Inch,” the song works on a juxtaposition of the major and the minor—a triumphant, deceptively sunny chorus, punctuated by the irresistible self-harmonized “hand in hand!” refrain, and an ominous minor-key verse, pitched to the minimal pounding of Pete Thomas’s phlanged out toms and snare. Minus some tasteful accents from Bruce Thomas during the verse, this is one of the few songs on This Year’s Model in which the Attractions favor a comparably ambient accompaniment, chugging along and filling out the space behind the chords in lieu of the kind of Who-esque “soloing while supporting” that can be heard throughout songs like “No Action” and “Lipstick Vogue.”
Musically, it’s a spoonful of sugar to take down with an otherwise extremely bitter pill
Like Jorge says, lyrically this isn’t an easy song to parse—not on its own anyway, not in the sense that as a standalone piece it necessarily has something to say apart from the recurring themes of This Year’s Model which affords it uniqueness. Romantic frustration, one-sided blame-gaming, even the threat of a good old-fashioned pounding (“Don’t you know I got the bully boys out/Changing someone’s facial design”)—This Year’s Model is a relentless album not only because of the pummeling music but because the subject matter doesn’t let up, steamrolling forward from one song to the next without ever giving the listener the opportunity to step aside and possibly consider the situation from another angle. The songs on This Years Model can be and have been called cynical, angry, etc., but really what they are are a young person’s songs of passion, comprised of hot-headed kneejerk reactions and veiled self-analysis turned outward, and “Hand in Hand” is one of the few songs on the record that musically counteracts this—a spoonful of sugar to take down with an otherwise extremely bitter pill.
Let us walk you, hand in hand, through our ongoing and ever-growing Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week playlist: