Listen now on:
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.
This week’s pick: “Sulky Girl,” from Brutal Youth (1994)
Gary Stewart: It all starts with a riff, then a groove, and then a lyric that wouldn’t be out of place on a Steely Dan album (the sharp side of Steely Dan everybody forgets when they narrowcast them as “jazz rockers”). Then there’s the chorus and that melody, which is instantly catchy and so inspired it makes even the most jaded music snob think of the dreaded cliche, “How does he come up with this?”
Backed by a reunited Attractions (together for the first time in eight years), this was the lead single from what was advertised as the “back to basics” album Brutal Youth. But this track, like most of that album, is anything but basic. Costello couldn’t simply summon the old energy, anger, and persona (thankfully) without incorporating all the skills, chops, and complexities he’d mastered during the raging eclecticism of Spike and Mighty Like a Rose. Also, most of Brutal Youth was informed by the even more expanded musical vocabulary he’d developed from the recently recorded The Juliet Letters, his full-on collaboration with acclaimed classical musicians The Brodsky Quartet.
“Sulky Girl” couldn’t be on any of those early albums, not with its complex structure and that detailed arrangement, not with Steve Nieve’s mix of piano riffs, organ fills, and that manic theremin outro.
And then there’s the subject matter: the kind of woman who seems unapproachable because she doesn’t really want to be approached, protective because she’s done with jerks, guarded because she’s too smart to be suffering more fools. On the other end, it takes aim at the deluded guys who think they’ll be the one exception to the rule because of their charm, money, and sense of entitlement. And in the midst of this Costello even finds room for vulnerability and empathy.
David Gorman: Funny how these things go. Last week we were taking about EC’s vicious teardown of an ex-Attraction, and here we’re at the single that announced that band’s reunion, bassist intact. Here’s to hatchets raised and then buried.
Anyway, I hear the lyric a little differently than you, Gary—a lot less sympathetic to that Sulky Girl and possibly even as some sort of noir confessional. For me, it comes off as a deep dive into the twisted feelings of a dangerously obsessed ex, jealously watching the men who try to lure the woman only he truly understands (or so he thinks). After all, he seems to have just as much contempt for her as he does for the guys who think they have a shot. He airs her dirty laundry, mocks the men who fall for her, holds her up as too good for them, and then rips her to shreds.
As the song shifts from a kinda pleasant opening to a more chaotic and demented end, Elvis’ singing changes with it. He starts off almost matter-of-factly gossiping, but ends up spitting words out like venom. Hell, he pretty much goes maniacal by the last verse, screaming out his character assassinations of the girl he described so empathetically a few minutes before. That last line especially comes off like the bitter threat of an obsessed madman: “There are a few events I think we’ll spare the censors.” When the song fades, the drums are being outright assaulted, the arrangement descends into chaos, and I always picture Elvis in a straitjacket, being dragged down the long hallway to his cell.
So many songs, such a fine playlist: Check out (nearly) every Elvis Costello Song Of The Week here. All that’s missing is our snappy commentary.