How the Elvis Costello we talk about in 2015 was largely in place 40 years ago…before his first album was even recorded.

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.

The week’s pick: “Poison Moon,” recorded at home, late 1975-early 1976

Gary Stewart: After raving about a brand-new song that hasn’t been released yet on a proper Elvis Costello record, we wanted to focus on another unavailable song. And this time we’re pulling from the opposite end of the chronological spectrum—one that predates My Aim Is True by two years.

It’s revelatory to hear how Costello had this much going on musically in 1975, when he was just out of his teens. Reminiscent of Randy Newman, early Tom Waits, and other music that didn’t need fixing when the corrective of punk came around, “Poison Moon” is quiet, intimate, intense, and even playful in its short running time.

It all starts out with a protagonist knee-deep in a no-win scenario that could come right out of a hellish noir plot (including a line used to great effect later on “Party Girl”), and finishes with a declaration of perseverance—which is where the song really pays off. The way Elvis writes, sings, and sells this, you know that despite the last line of the chorus, our hero is more wishful (and probably doubt-ridden) than he is rebellious. And all this happens in just under two minutes.

Fortunately this song is already being rescued from record collector obscurity by its semi-frequent appearances in recent solo live sets. Also, you can hear the DNA of his future roots/Americana collaborations with T Bone Burnett. Listening to the song now, it’s clear that even if there had been no radical shifts in pop music in the late ’70s, Costello could have easily cut it with the James Taylors, Carole Kings, and Elton Johns of the time.

David Gorman: “Poison Moon” sounds like it was recorded in a closet. Or maybe a prison cell. Possibly a hotel room, just like the one Robert Johnson made his records in. With its barely there guitar and pensive vocal (combined with the shoddy quality of the bootleg LP I first heard it on), “Poison Moon” feels like something unearthed from a past that never existed.

When I first heard it, everything about it seemed familiar, but it didn’t sound like anything I’d heard before. It had the eerie atmosphere of an old blues 78, the cheap-whiskey whine of country, and the dustbowl desolation of Woody Guthrie in a particularly blue mood. It sure wasn’t anything I knew as rock—punk or any other kind—and it was only barely recognizable as being by Elvis Costello. It was a record made by a ghost that haunted honky-tonks in the few hours between last call and first light. It frightened me and, yet, the melody made sure I’d never forget it.

Like most fans obsessive enough to even be aware of “Poison Moon,” I first heard  it on one of the bootlegs (or “imports,” as my local shop would label them to shirk responsibility and avoid lawsuits) of Costello’s early demos. The particular boot I had was called Danger Zone, credited to “Tex & The Attractions.” I pretty much only played side 2, which is where “Poison Moon” was surrounded by four other songs from the same sessions. This small handful of tracks was a revelation to me and, in many ways, the feeling they gave me is still the high I’m chasing whenever I check out a new “solo acoustic” recording.
A couple of those songs I recognized, if only in title, from Elvis’ first two albums, but they hardly sounded like they came from the same artist. There were no liner notes, the Internet was still years away, and so the only information I had was the fine print on the back cover: “studio outtakes, 1975.” So all I knew was that Elvis Costello made these recordings and that he made them when he was only 21. And that might be the scariest thing of all: What these songs, and “Poison Moon” in particular, make clear hearing them now is that the Elvis Costello we talk about in 2015 was largely in place 40 years ago, before his first album was even recorded.