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This week’s pick: “Country Darkness,” released on The Delivery Man (2004)
Gary Stewart: This is probably my favorite Elvis Costello song of the 21st-century. If you think that’s a diminishing qualifier you haven’t been paying attention to this feature, which draws heavily from the last fifteen years. “Country Darkness” was one of the songs that originally inspired our Song Of The Week idea, but it wasn’t overtly catchy, intense, atypical or splashy enough to grab the attention as our inaugural entry so we waited. For too long, I think.
The track comes from The Delivery Man, the first album to bear the “Elvis Costello and the Imposters” name. Many at the time labeled it as a roots record but that’s too narrow and polite — it’s nosier, and messier, and more of a roadhouse record. The album’s spine is a half-dozen songs that form a conceptual Southern Gothic opera of sorts and tells a story about the impact of a man with a hidden past on the lives of three women isolated by decades of small town living. “Country Darkness” is the first song in that cycle, establishing a sense of time, place and atmosphere in a larger tale of pain, jealousy, past secrets and possible tragedy.
There are three songs from his catalog where Elvis feels like he’s channeling (musically at least) the spirit of one of his biggest early (and continuing) influences, The Band, who were also considered the first to bear the Americana label when it meant something. I’m thinking of three tracks in particular: “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” from Spike, “Just Another Mystery ” a Mighty Like A Rose-era demo, and this one — arguably the best at capturing what Robbie Robertson and company might have been doing if they kept going. All three songs make me wish that when The Band reformed sans their main songwriter, they would have turned to songs like these. I can only imagine what it might be like to hear Rick Danko take on the pleading, soulful sound of “Country Darkness.” Not that EC and The Imposters don’t nail it on their own — all of it — from the song’s ominous build, to the pedal steel that sounds like a ghost, and that almost feral cry of the lead vocal at the end.
Much of today’s roots music has lost its bite, favoring extreme tastefulness, fussy production, and excessive ornamentation over authenticity, sound and feel. But that wasn’t the case with The Delivery Man. This is what Americana sounds like when it’s nowhere near the counter at Starbucks or the reach of NPR, but back in a place where it can still sound sad, scary and maybe a little dangerous.
David Gorman: I have no shame in saying I totally missed The Delivery Man as a concept album when I heard it — I tend to need that kind of stuff spelled out for me. Still, I’d urge anyone else who cringes at the idea of “song cycles” to give The Delivery Man a shot, because it works perfectly well if you just approach it as an impassioned mash-up of rock, soul, country and whatever it is that gets banged out on upright pianos in bar scenes from old Western movies.
So even if “Country Darkness” is one piece of some larger puzzle, I still love the song enough out of that context to jump up and down about it (longtime readers will likely note that I never let a lack of understanding get in the way of my enthusiasm). As is usually the case, I first got sucked in by the music and the melody, which open like a perfect country-soul waltz built for a slow drag in a humid, jukebox-lit bar you’d never plan to visit. But it’s deceptive. This ain’t a love song. It gets dark quick. You don’t want to be slow-dancing to this one. Over a few verses there’s a picture painted. Or maybe it’s the opening argument in a murder trial. All I can tell you is that there’s a desperado waiting for a train, a woman eager to taste a little danger in her otherwise buttoned-down life, and a knife. It’s all very Southern in its mythology and atmosphere, and these little impressions of country darkness are spiked with musical flourishes that amp up the drama like string stabs in a Hitchcock film, yet they never break the roadhouse feel of the song.
It’s a brilliant little trick Elvis and the Impostors pull off here: They hide all kinds of musical and lyrical complexity in a simple, natural setting, without resorting to production tricks, bombastic mood-shifts or genre clichés. It all just shifts and builds and explodes and settles with such ease that you’re never aware of just how much is going on until you start a website, commit to evangelizing for your favorite songs, and listen to “Country Darkness” a dozen times in a row to reverse-engineer exactly why you’ve been obsessively drawn to it since the first listen. But hopefully we’ve just saved you all that effort and convinced you to put the song on and take it in. Just don’t ask a partner to dance to it. It won’t go well.
Murder! Romance! Dancing and No Dancing! It’s all here in our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist: