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This week’s pick: “Motel Matches,” released on Get Happy!! (1980)
Gary Stewart: After a few plays of this you won’t have a hard time imagining the seedy front office, the broken vending machine, the drawn shades (the only kind you’d ever want in a place like this) that thankfully keep the literal and figurative daylight out. Just listening to “Motel Matches” can make you feel a little dirty and more than a bit culpable. It quietly screams, “Nothing good can come from this!”
And then there’s the line, “This is my conviction, that I am an innocent man,” which so perfectly describes someone torn between righteousness and guilt, where denial and self-deception around a seedy assignation/one-night stand resonate with the worst kind of aftereffects.
Couplets like that are all over “Motel Matches.” With just a scant few lines Costello is conveying what’s best described as a “cheating noir”—one where you can fill in all the details but you probably won’t want to for your own sake. His already considerable talent for working in double entendres and turns of phrase was hitting a new peak around 1979, when he mastered mixing them with country & western iconography. The end result imagines what might have happened if Cole Porter and Tom Waits had written a cheating song for George Jones.
The song actually splits the difference between country and soul, starting with a piano line that comes right out of the best C&W waltz. But then the organ kicks in, the tempo slows, and the strained, almost pleading lines of the chorus take over, and you’ve got the perfect cross between “Dark End of The Street” and “Your Cheating Heart.”
If you want to hear what this song sounds like with a bit more of an upbeat honky-tonk feel, check out the version run ragged with pedal steel from his 1979 performance at L.A.’s legendary lost Palomino Club (the night that many people consider the dry run for Almost Blue two years later).
Either way, you’ll be hoping this isn’t based on a true story—or at least one you’ve personally experienced.
David Gorman: This might be the darkest couple of minutes (especially from an album demanding that we “Get Happy!!”) you’ll hear this week and for that we apologize. On the upside, it’s one hell of a song.
From line one, this sounds like the murder confession of an obsessed man—a man who needs no more evidence of infidelity than the pack of motel matches spotted in his lover’s purse. A man so convinced his actions were justified that he still considers himself innocent. And maybe he’s having one last cigarette before he goes outside to face the cops, guns drawn, safety catches released, sirens on and lights flashing. Or maybe he’s not going to face them at all. Given the defeated mood of the song, he might just turn the gun on himself. If you believe that each one of those hard cracks of the drum is supposed to be a gunshot, it’s pretty clear this all came crashing down in a hail of bullets.
There’s some dense virtuosity in the way every line is a pun—like Smokey Robinson using his powers for evil instead of good—and how the story is told in flickers and hints while still making perfect sense. The double-entendres always work in both directions, starting with the opening line of the song: a reference to Sam Cooke’s murder that sets the scene in a cheap motel, but also the title of a strangely upbeat George Jones song (produced as a cash-in clone of his hit “White Lightning”) about a woman who shot her man and then told the judge she didn’t deserve any jail time for the deed. So it makes total sense that if Silly Milly didn’t do time for shooting her Sammy, our perp is righteous in his conviction that he’s “an innocent man.” But don’t worry—since “Motel Matches” came out a year before Billy Joel’s “An Innocent Man,” we don’t have to draw a connection to that song too.
Our official Elvis Costello Song Of The Week Playlist is two-and-a-half minutes longer and one masterpiece better. Check out the many moods—and talents—of Elvis Costello below: