KEVIN DAVIS: While it hasn’t been total radio silence coming from Costello’s camp these past few years (the odd tribute album contribution, a collaboration with Rhiannon Giddens and the guy from Mumford & Sons), it’s hard not to look back to 2013’s Wise Up Ghost or possibly to 2010’s National Ransom as the last time we really got the kind of new music we crave from Elvis Costello. This extended hiatus makes “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way,” from the forthcoming film Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, feel all the more special. An immaculately but tastefully orchestrated ballad that commands obvious comparisons to his work with Burt Bacharach, it makes for a lovely, understated comeback that finds EC jumping right back in at the top of his game. Jorge, I know we share a fondness for this side of Elvis’s catalog—was your initial reaction to the song as immediately positive as mine was?
It sounds more like Burt Bacharach than the songs Elvis wrote with Burt Bacharach
JORGE FARAH: My initial reaction to this song was wow, this sounds expensive! It’s nice when Elvis is afforded the chance to work with a full orchestra. With the budget of a major-studio feature film original soundtrack at his disposal, EC really has the chance to make use of the tricks he picked up around the turn of the century, when he composed, arranged, and conducted for both North and Il Sogno. It also helps that the song itself is truly a stunner. The comparison to his work with Bacharach is a bit obvious, yes, but it’s also completely appropriate; everything from the lilting piano motif that reoccurs throughout, to the specific choice of orchestration (the flugelhorn lead, the pizzicato flourishes), and the repeating lyrical refrain all harken back to Bacharach’s signature style. In fact, I think it sounds more like Burt Bacharach than the songs Elvis wrote with Bacharach himself. For the last couple of years we’ve heard rumors that the pair was writing a new batch of songs for an on-stage musical, and I wonder if Bacharach’s already monumental influence on Elvis’s songwriting is even more pronounced now due to this collaboration. This tune also made me realize how much I’d missed having a new Elvis Costello song to dissect. I can’t help but think that he’s probably sitting on a treasure trove of new original songs like this one.
KEVIN DAVIS: I’m glad you mentioned that piano motif—the little six-note passage in particular provides such gentle relief to the ominous, descending four-note orchestral passage that occasionally precedes it, and for some reason makes me think of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” in the way that it manages to sound simultaneously sorrowful and pleasingly familiar. I also don’t know if we’ve seen personnel credits for the song, but if it’s Elvis on piano as the music video would suggest, I think it’s eye-opening how evidently Steve Nieve’s technique has influenced EC’s own playing; unlike the at-times spectral chording of North, the confidence in technique here much more calls to mind the high-end fills in something like “Shot With His Own Gun,” an aesthetic that works beautifully in contrast with the orchestration. For as big of a budget as the song indeed sounds like it had, to me it doesn’t feel the least bit overdone, the piano portions and the orchestral sections weaving perfectly around each other without ever colliding.
The heart-on-sleeve sentimentality gradually reveals the nuance of a more complex song
JORGE FARAH: Something we haven’t really discussed is this song’s relationship with the film itself; unlike many songs that are shoehorned into films they have nothing to do with, yet are described in marketing materials as being “inspired by” the film they’re promoting, this song was written specifically for the film by Elvis, at the behest of director Paul McGuigan. Reportedly, Elvis got to work immediately after watching a rough cut of McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, an adaptation of Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name, describing his relationship with actress Gloria Grahame. Grahame was long past the prime of her career and, due to health complications, approaching the end of her life. The lyrics to this song do a wonderful job of conveying the uncertainty and guarded insecurity that come along with any instance of falling in love, magnified by the fact that the end of the road is fading rapidly into view. To accompany McGuigan’s telling of the story, Elvis chooses to color around the margins of the narrative by employing clear, direct language, with a heart-on-sleeve sentimentality that gradually reveals the nuance of the more complex emotional space the song inhabits. In a way, this is where the Bacharach influence is most keenly felt—or, more to the point, the Bacharach/David influence, as lyricist Hal David is a master at that kind of lyrical sleight-of-hand.
The first new Elvis Costello single of the last several years makes us wish we had an entire album’s worth of songs just like it; and while Elvis himself may not appear to be particularly interested in making albums anymore, “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way” proves his songwriting is as rich and vibrant as ever.
So, for the first time, a brand-new song lands in our ongoing, ever-growing Elvis Costello Song Of The Week: