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This week’s pick: “Tart,” released on When I Was Cruel (2002)
Gary Stewart: When Costello’s first album of the 21st century, When I Was Cruel, was released after a four-year break, the label pushed it as a “return to the rocking angry young man.” This has been an unnecessary—and for Costello, recurring—apology of sorts for his making albums with string quartets, Burt Bacharach, and opera singers (what they call “being an artist” in other disciplines, where it’s OK to stretch). But this time the record company’s “Please come back. He’s rocking again” approach actually worked: When I Was Cruel—which also announced the formation of his newly christened backing band, The Imposters—turned out to be his best-selling album since the early ’90s.
It’s an increasingly angry, noisy, caustic, and scary look at the downside of human nature.
At its core, though, the album is anything but a nostalgia trip; instead it’s a mix of noisy, catchy, melodic and cacophonous sounds, which can all be heard on “Tart.” Drum machines and electronica-inspired sampling were as informed by recent hip-hop productions, dub-style rhythms, and jazz as they were by familiar sounds and touchstones on previous “loud” albums with The Attractions.
The lyrics on this track resist literal interpretation. They’re a bit impressionistic, with each verse starting off with imagery of something promising that then turns sour—Costello’s way of conveying that something rotten, cruel, and cold is lurking. It’s an increasingly angry, noisy, caustic, and scary look at the downside of human nature.
“Tart” is arguably the album’s poppiest song. Its one-word/one-note hook prompted sing-alongs on the Cruel tour. But don’t let that description fool you; it’s far from snappy (or happy). It builds slowly, with a simple, almost playful, keyboard riff, before more strange and disturbing things slowly intrude, take over, and explode into an almost apoplectic combination of sounds and emotions.
It’s so damn catchy you can’t get it out of your head, but on further examination, maybe you should try harder.
David Gorman: I don’t really know who this was written about, but I hope I never cause anyone to seethe with the contempt and anger that is dripping off the microphone on this track—perhaps literally, given how close to the mic Costello sounds as he spits out the first verse.
Sure, the band sounds all pretty with the fancy piano part and the so-tight-it-sounds-sampled drum groove. There’s even an acoustic guitar being strummed off in the distance, but even if the lyrics were cribbed from a Hallmark card, the disgust is palpable the moment Elvis opens his mouth. And it’s recorded in a way that makes you feel like he’s leaning in to you the whole time, sharpening a blade while he’s dressing you down. It’s a downright uncomfortable stretch before the whole thing finally explodes and then settles back down and explodes again.
“Tart” would have fit nicely on Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear
This isn’t easy listening. It’s uncomfortable—the kind of discomfort you feel when you’re in the room for a particularly nasty fight between married friends who are just a few signatures away from divorcing. Change up the arrangement just slightly, and this would have fit nicely (or, more to the point, bitterly) on Marvin Gaye’s divorce settlement turned concept album, Here, My Dear. Most of the lyrics paint a picture of a miserable, melodramatic person in metaphors riffing off the “tart” theme, but then there are the moments when it all breaks down to words we’ve all heard or used before: “Would it kill you to show a little sweetness?” It has the same balance of high art and base anger, dream-state melodies and nightmarish cries that make Gaye’s masterpiece so unnerving and absorbing. And like Here, My Dear, “Tart” is hard listening when you’re not expecting it, but deeply cathartic when you need it. I just hope you never do.
Tart, sweet, bitter, salty, savory . . . our Song Of The Week playlist gathers every flavor of Elvis Costello