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This week’s pick: “Baby Plays Around,” originally released on Spike (1989)
Gary Stewart: There’s nothing pop or rock ’n’ roll, nothing clever and nothing angry about “Baby Plays Around,” but it might be the saddest song Elvis ever released up to this point. Maybe ever. The lyrics were written by then-wife Cait O’Riordan, and Elvis treated them to a desolate arrangement worthy of her defeated words as well as his most delicate guitar playing to date.
It sits right between Costello’s love for the torchy side of the Great American Songbook and Americana (which he’d mastered after King of America), and you can’t imagine it being sung anywhere but a quiet, barely populated room with poor lighting. It’s basically an old saloon song—the kind you can hear on one of those mid-period Sinatra albums, the kind that makes you feel like you’re sitting at closing time with a stranger who’s telling you about an unfaithful love without the slightest hint of blame, defense, or recrimination. That first line—worthy of opening any Noel Coward or Cole Porter song—says it all: “It’s not open to discussion any more.” You’re hearing from someone who’s tried and tried again to deny what’s been going on right under his eyes. And he can’t anymore—and neither can you.
David Gorman: Wordplay and metaphors are great when you want to think, but it’s when a lyric is stripped bare, doing nothing but telling a simple story, that it can cut the deepest and actually make you feel the hardest. And, if you’ve been there, or, worse yet, are there—up at night waiting for someone you love who you know is out with someone else—this song makes you feel all kinds of wrecked. It doesn’t offer comfort, and it doesn’t dress the hurt up in pretty words or lush arrangements. It just pours you another drink when you’ve already had too many. Or maybe that was me doing the pouring. Thankfully, it’s hard to remember those nights, but this song is forever tied to them. It’s a good sign that when I listened to “Baby Plays Around” while sitting down to write this, I didn’t get dragged back to that night, that moment, or that girl. I could finally just listen to it as a great song and imagine it sitting beautifully and pitifully between Frank Sinatra’s “In The Wee Small Hours” and Bill Withers’ “Hope She’ll Be Happier With Him” on a mix tape tucked away in a dark place I hope to never visit again. I hope you can listen to this one as objectively as I can now. If not, next round’s on me. And I’m sorry.
Pour a drink and dive in to our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist. Don’t worry. The mood picks up pretty quickly: