This week’s pick: “Unwanted Number,” released on the Grace Of My Heart soundtrack (1996)
Gary Stewart: What would it sound like if Elvis Costello wrote a song about the consequences of a troubled and unintended pregnancy for The Supremes? Thanks to the 1996 movie Grace of My Heart—a fictional (and very Trunkworthy) biopic loosely based on the life and music of Carole King—we’re the lucky recipients of the answer in the form of “Unwanted Number.”
Grace of My Heart is at its best when capturing the golden era of the girl group sound and the enigmatic culture of the Brill Building song factory that fed those records. For the film’s original soundtrack, director Allison Anders and music producer Larry Klein took that authenticity one step further by pairing composers who had hits in the ’60s with songwriters from the next generation. This resulted in material that sounded classic but still felt current (including Costello’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach, “God Give Me Strength,” which later inspired Painted From Memory). Anders and Klein then went one step further with their choice of performers. On this track, for example, they enlisted the unlikely but perfectly cast award-winning ’90s R&B quartet For Real.
“Unwanted Number,” which Costello wrote on his own, perfectly captures the feel of Motown girl groups and tougher sides by The Shirelles or Ronettes and lyrically channels The Supremes of “Love Child.” The song is about an expectant teenage mother who, herself, was a child without a father. She’s about to give birth to a child born under similar circumstances and is now worried about the same fate befalling her daughter. I love the way the song’s playful verses contrast with the more dramatic, almost operatic feel of the chorus.
This was an anomaly for Costello—an assignment song of sorts. He had to perfectly serve a key story point in the film. And he did it without ever sounding forced or like he was taking lines from the script and pounding them like square holes into round pegs. Instead, the song conveys an internal sense of shame, born of rumors, stigmatization and external judgments, but ultimately a sense of pride, perseverance and even defiance. It also makes you believe a song with this intense subject matter could’ve been a hit in the early ’60s.
When Elvis did the song on the All This Useless Beauty tour, it was more of a Richard Thompson-like dirge, which was equally effective. That he could transfer such grim subject matter into a poppy, danceable and ultimately sobering side is another reminder of why we’re doing this feature in the first place.
David Gorman: My favorite hour of television isn’t an episode of Breaking Bad or The Wire or Mad Men. It’s the episode of Costello’s short-lived talk show Spectacle where he hosts Smokey Robinson. The only thing that compares to listening to Smokey singing one of his songs is listening to Smokey tell one of his stories.
I’ve been a fawning, drooling fan of Smokey for as long as I can remember, and the older I get the more impressed I am. Go past his hits to his album cuts. Go past his own records to the songs he wrote for others. Go past his own songs to the way he wraps his voice around someone else’s words. He’s just glorious, a goddamned national treasure, and, despite the unimaginable number of times we hear his music and the legendary status he enjoys, Smokey Robinson still remains underrated. There is so much more to his genius than the songs we all know (“The Tracks of My Tears,” “The Tears of a Clown,” “My Girl,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Cruisin,” and on and on…). His gift for lyrics goes beyond the clever puns, the sticky melodies or heart-on-the-sleeve romance he’s praised for. He crafts metaphors and then bends them, stretches them, subverts them and revisits them. His poetry can do little dances, rhyming words in a circular, rapid-fire style that MCs like Eminem build battles around. He tells stories that dig deep and cut deeper. And in that one episode of Spectacle, you see full well the impact Smokey had on Elvis.
It’s not just in Elvis’ obvious wide-eyed admiration, but in the songs of Smokey’s that Elvis performs on the show, specifically, “No More Tearstained Makeup”—a song buried so deep on a Martha & The Vandellas album that I doubt Smokey remembered writing it at all. Elvis had covered Smokey’s songs before, but there was something in this one that made his influence clear.
Listening to “Unwanted Number,” I hear Elvis putting the lessons learned from Smokey to use. It doesn’t sound like a Motown record, and lord knows Motown wouldn’t deal so explicitly with sex until Marvin Gaye forced them into the bedroom with “Let’s Get It On,” but the lyrics have Smokey’s undeniable stamp. It’s in the way they tell the story, the way things are implied instead of stated, the way the meaning of the title changes subtly from chorus to chorus, and, of course, the way the rhymes are put together: “There’s a local game where they whisper my shame, they say he gave her his child, he wouldn’t give her his name.” Three rhymes where two would do. It’s a small thing, I know, but when I hear those kinds of lyrical gymnastics I feel like it’s a sign of something more beautiful than a story. It’s a sign of an artist’s craft. And after seeing Elvis with Smokey on Spectacle, I saw it as a wink from an A student to his professor.
We’re sure it’s a matter of the convoluted music rights issues, but the Grace Of My Heart soundtrack and, by association, “Unwanted Number” are sadly absent from Spotify. Thus, our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist is another song shy of perfection but still pretty damn good: