This wouldn’t be out of place on a late-era Tom Waits album
KEVIN DAVIS: Given its place at the center of an album hyped as Elvis Costello’s “return to form/return to rock” and his first reunion with the Attractions in nearly a decade, “Still Too Soon to Know” stands as something of a strange compromise between two extremes. On one end, this is a song that fits in the lineage that runs through “Almost Blue” and “All Grown Up” and would later come home to roost on Painted From Memory: It’s classic Bacharach/David balladry, shot through with a touch of schmaltz but anchored by a simple yet perfect architectural structure. But on another, it’s given this sort of mimimalist arrangement which implies the harmony more than declares it. In the first verse especially, the sparse reverberation of the drums coupled with the distant chiming of Steve Nieve’s keys give the song an ambience that wouldn’t be out of place on a late-era Tom Waits album.
In general, the Attractions of the 1990s were a much looser, much mellower group of musicians than the tightly-wound balls of energy that recorded This Years Model and Get Happy!!, but even by these more relaxed standards, “Still Too Soon To Know” is notable for the Attractions’ casual, almost indifferent backing (likely due, in part, to Nick Lowe replacing bassist Bruce Thomas for this song). The band’s purpose here isn’t to converse with Elvis but to prop him up, to give his melody a gentle rhythmic wave to ride; it reminds me of the Sonny Rollins piano-less trios of the late 1950’s, where the immediate pleasure of the harmonic relationship between the melody and the chords is sacrificed for a freer, purer dose of timbre and emotion. Eliminating this mitigating factor seems in theory like it could be risky for Costello, whose voice is definitely capable of resonating at some unexpected pitches, but as is so often the case when Elvis puts the emphasis squarely on his voice, his senses of range and control really come to the fore. Historically, EC has ended his solo shows with off-mic renditions of songs like “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4” and Gram Parsons’s “Dark End of the Street,” and these performances so often had a way of sending people out the door thinking that this guy really is a better singer than anyone ever gives him credit for. To my ears, “Still Too Soon to Know” works the same way – for those attuned to the guy’s color and frequency, it’s a powerhouse performance, short and sweet though it is.
JORGE FARAH: That is one of the things I love the most about this song: its brevity. I’m glad you bring up Tom Waits; even though you are talking specifically about the song’s instrumental arrangement, I am reminded by its short running length and directness of language of another Tom Waits stunner: “Johnsburg Illinois” from Swordfishtrombones. This is generally regarded as the album where Waits finally became he artist he always wanted to be, as he doffed the trappings of the worn-out nighthawk shtick in favor of a broader sonic palette and more esoteric leanings. As a result, the album is . . . well, it’s a really strange ride. Thrilling, to be sure, but decidedly strange. And amid all the songs about mutant underground armies and the demented polkas, there’s this sweet little piano-based love song taking up less than 2 minutes of the album’s running time. Waits wanted to keep it short, likening it to a bar patron who very briefly flashes his drinking buddy a picture of their sweetheart before putting it back in his wallet and stuffing it away. A brief moment of unguarded emotion. I see “Still Too Soon to Know” as the crestfallen flipside to that. While Brutal Youth, a deliberate “return to form” for Costello, isn’t as strange an album as Swordfishtrombones, there is a good amount of oddball humor in it. Amid the songs about S&M, science fiction twins and clown strikes, there’s this quiet little song of heartbreak. Aside from closing track “Favourite Hour,” it’s the album’s most sober moment.
“Still Too Soon to Know” is a pocket-sized precursor to Painted From Memory
I’ve also always seen “Still Too Soon to Know” as a pocket-sized precursor to Painted From Memory, both thematically and in its approach to melody. Yes, this is territory that Elvis had mined before, but never quite so plainly or directly. The veneer of deliberately obfuscating language in his earlier spurned-lover songs is stripped away completely, revealing the raw emotion behind the virtuoso displays of rhetorical acrobatics. The Painted From Memory version of this song would probably be a little longer and more densely orchestrated, with a harpsichord carrying the song forward and a clarinet doubling the vocal melody over the second verse. And it would be exquisite, because everything about Painted From Memory is exquisite. But I’m happy we have this quiet little rinky-dink version. It takes that devastating moment of reckoning—the moment you realize that all you had envisioned about a relationship is false—and presents it as the desperately lonely feeling that it is, with minimal decoration.
This a surprisingly straightforward song for Costello
KEVIN DAVIS: Lyrically, this is material that’s as familiar to Costello as it is to the era of songs that inspired it: Man catches whiff of woman smitten with another man, wonders what it all means. The song takes place almost entirely as a part of the narrator’s thought process. It’s not a cheating song, per se, as everything that the singer’s love interest is guilty of is all a subjective if seemingly credible inference drawn from context. Nor is it a breakup song, since it betrays no evidence of existing in that weird gray space between denial and acceptance, where you know enough to know something’s wrong but perhaps not enough to give it a name. For as tense of an emotional place as this is, Costello’s vocal performance doesn’t call up a lot of drama; no question he puts his all into the technical delivery, but the his tone isn’t devastation or tension but rather simple observational fact. Perhaps the lyric, “When I think back/A couple of days/If I wasn’t happy then/I never will be” is what tells us most about the destiny of this relationship: This line, coupled with Costello’s vocal delivery and the band’s leisurely accompaniment, suggests that maybe the inevitable fading away of this affair isn’t such a sad thing after all; perhaps the person least surprised by its apparent dissolution is the singer himself. It’s a surprisingly straightforward and direct song for Costello, particularly in his pre-North days and especially compared to much of the rest of Brutal Youth. He’d go on to record purer “standards” of the sort, but this one remains one of a kind: unadorned, raw, and immediate, yet no less lovely.
Bonus Cut: Darlene Love (and producer “Little Steven” Van Zandt) took “Still Too Soon To Know” in a totally different direction when she sang it as an epic duet with Righteous Brother Bill Medley.
And, of course, you can listen to (almost) every Elvis Costello Song Of The Week on this handy playlist: