“Stella Hurt” could have been a perfectly good folk ballad. Thank the lord Elvis kicked out a jam instead.
This week’s pick: “Stella Hurt,” released on Momofuku(2008)
Gary Stewart: It starts with a a keyboard that sounds like it’s being strangled trying to get out a distress signal, then a “Hey Bulldog”-like riff before launching in to a cacophony of strange sounds and scary words. Before you know it, the racket that is “Stella Hurt” is throwing everything it has at you, trying to let you know that something’s gone terribly wrong. If you listen closely it has.
This might be the noisiest record Elvis has ever made. He’s singing like he has to get it all in before time runs out (which it does, with a sudden-stop ending), fighting for his life with The Imposters, who tear into this with a fury like it’s the last rock record they’ll ever make. There’s so much going on that at any moment —like the best anarchic rock records — the wheels might fall off. Of course they don’t . . . but they come pretty damn close.
These distressing sounds aren’t there by accident. The story behind the song is every bit as intense as the sounds used to tell it. This is a short but dense portrait of 1930s blues/jazz singer Stella Gloria Crowson aka Teddy Grace-and her many trials, tribulations and traumas. Teddy went from a place in privileged society with (well deserved) early fame and notoriety before a series of health issues, traumatic marriages and other calamities led to a career ending a mere 10 years after it began (including loss of her voice). And that’s just the first act.
David Gorman: I love how menacing this record is. I think you nailed it when you said it’s telling you that something’s gone terribly wrong. It’s like everyone with an instrument is doing their best to tell you to run the other way. Just looking at these lyrics on a sheet of paper (or, given the times we live in, a screen), they’d make a perfectly fine and earnest folk song. One of those storytime ballads of yore sung by a turtle-necked troubadour whose life story sits somewhere on the cutting-room floor of Inside Llewyn Davis. And, personally, I tend to hate those kinds of songs. Not every story fits the same tempo, the same vocal style or the same three chords. I guess this could have been a fine country-waltz, too, all moody atmosphere and tastefully minor-key mandolin solos, and nobody would have complained. But, damn, I’m glad Elvis went for the throat here. It gives the story of Teddy Grace some much-needed rage rather than passive pity. Don’t just shake your head in sympathetic disappointment at how the music business, at how her country, at how life itself cut this woman down. Get mad. Break something.
Costello and the Imposters muster every bit of punk’s self-righteous anger to drag Teddy/Stella’s story in to the room, spill it on the floor, and force you to deal with it. There are no attempts to recreate the time, place or sound of the era in which she lived or the records she made, and I can’t praise that decision enough. It would have been quaint. It would have been theater. It would have been pretty. Her story isn’t pretty. And while “Stella Hurt” is many things, pretty it ain’t.
You can read more about Teddy Grace via the Oxford American article that inspired our Song Of The Week here.
And, of course, hear “Stella Hurt” as part of our ongoing Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist down there.