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Welcome back to the Elvis Costello Song Of The Week®, our ongoing attempt to drive you ever-deeper into the catalog of the musician who most embodies the Trunkworthy mission.
The week’s pick: “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” from Spike (1989)
Gary Stewart: It’s a shame The Band didn’t try this song out when they re-formed in the early ’90s because it seems inspired by the best of their legacy and builds on it too. And when those horns kick in and grab you (courtesy of New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band, doing some of their strongest session work), it’s like being in the middle of the best song you’ve never heard from His Band and Street Choir-era Van Morrison.
But this is unmistakably an Elvis Costello song. While the opening lines very directly call a loved one out on lying to him/herself, the lyrics go on to explore the theme in unexpected ways (including a verse inspired by a nature program). But even with imagery of a butterfly feeding on a turtle’s tears, you’re never far from a character knee-deep in the pain of telling the truth—the stuff of all great soul songs.
Upon its release, it was considered the other go-to track from Spike after “Veronica” (it should have been the next single), but despite its inclusion on an out-of-print greatest hits, regular appearances in live sets, and even a cover by Hootie & The Blowfish, it still got lost in a 25+ album catalog.
David Gorman: This is a song I always heard as the opposite of an intervention — a song coming from someone who has finally reached his breaking point and is finally walking away to save himself. And that’s what I find so heartbreaking about it. It’s hard to tell someone you care about that he/she needs help. And while there are loads of songs, movies, and TV episodes that end with that brave friend, lover, or family member saving the addict, this song feels like it’s about being the savior one too many times to try again. “Jesus wept, he felt abandoned.” The lyrics seem to bounce between the pitifully real—a drooling-drunk falling off the barstool—to the completely surreal. The music does the same thing, with a piano part (played by the master, Allen Toussaint) that moves from the church to the barrelhouse, and a horn arrangement that goes from tight to sloppy, uplifting to funerary.
I totally agree that the Dirty Dozen Brass Band are at their best here. Check out what they’re doing when Elvis sings the lines about being set up on the stool and falling down like a drunk. The horns rise and fall with him. When the lyrics get into weirder imagery, the Dirty Dozen seem drunk themselves, sounding like the crooked stumble home the morning after Mardi Gras . It’s the polar opposite of Elvis’ first collaboration with them, the stomping anti-adultery PSA,“That’s How You Got Killed Before.”
When you break it down, this whole song is like having the shakes in the drunk tank, waiting for someone to show up to claim you, and realizing the only one who would have bothered has just given up on you. It’s just a whole lot more enjoyable to listen to.
Every Elvis Costello Song Of The Week in one handy playlist? Enjoy: