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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. Elvis has spent almost 40 years using every means at his disposal to turn his fans on to the artists, songs, and genres that inspire him. For that reason (and, well, because we can’t think of another artist who has written 500 songs as good as the 500 he’s written), we’re making this our humble attempt to return the favor to an artist who’s inspired us so much for so many years.
The week’s pick: “That Day Is Done” from The Fairfield Four’s I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray (1997)
Gary Stewart: In the mid-’90s, audiences were no longer surprised by or resistant to the idea that Elvis Costello was accomplished at a variety of styles and genres—jazz vocals, chamber classical, country & western among them. Still, the idea of him writing and pulling off a top-flight gospel song might’ve been unexpected by some—until they heard him on this lead-vocal spot in the company of one of America’s longest-running gospel vocal groups.
Costello wrote this with Paul McCartney (at the same sessions that produced “Veronica” and “My Brave Face”). A few listeners heard a version of “That Day Is Done” on McCartney’s also underrated Flowers in the Dirt, but it didn’t prepare most for Elvis’ version with The Fairfield Four, which strongly emphasizes the song’s mournful side. It’s both a lament and meditation on loss, about inevitability and the realization that you can’t get something back, that there isn’t a second chance.
The track by all rights should have become an adult-pop staple of his canon, along the lines of “God Give Me Strength” or “Almost Blue,” and a heavily covered one at that. That it also hasn’t become a standard in the gospel community is exactly the kind of injustice we’re trying to remedy here at Trunkworthy.
David Gorman: It has to be said, other than McCartney’s experimental albums as The Fireman and his co-writes with Linda, this is his most productive collaboration since he stopped writing with Lennon. That’s a pretty major endorsement of Costello’s stature as a songwriter.
Costello said this song is about his grandmother’s funeral, and, of course I believe him, but I always heard it as a deep, dark take on Etta James’ “All I Could Do Was Cry.” In that song, Etta’s a distraught guest at her lost-love’s wedding, but in this case, Elvis isn’t a guest, he’s a corpse, buried at the same church hosting the marriage ceremony. Heavy, I know, but if you read the lyrics from that perspective, they work, and the whole thing becomes a fantastically twisted goth-soul record.
The Fairfield Four and that gospel piano add a haunting weight and a revelations-level sense of tragedy to the proceedings.
At the time this version came out, I put myself in that metaphorical casket too many times to remember, wallowing over that year’s one-that-walked-away, but even as a happier grown-up, I’m still shaken by the song and how Elvis delivers it—singing without a net and holding his own with one of the great gospel quartets* in history.
*For the factually obsessed out there, it should be noted that there were actually five members of the Fairfield Four on this particular recording and, at other points in their storied career, there were merely three. But they’re still called the Fairfield Four and “gospel quartet” is descriptive of a style of singing rather than the number of singers. The Five Blind Boys? Yep, they’re a quartet, too. All five of ’em.