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: “Last Year of My Youth,” first performed on the June 4, 2014, Late Show With David Letterman
Gary Stewart: Hearing this song the week after a 40th high school reunion gave it an added resonance, an almost uncomfortable kick. Not bad for something that was conceived the day before a last-minute booking on Letterman, where he premiered it.
Though it was written in a flash, there’s no way this song could come out of anything less than a deeply sober reflection born from a lifetime of experience and observation. In many ways, “Last Year of My Youth” is a sequel to his last “where was I then/where am now?” song, “45.” Yeah, it has the fury of the Attractions, but there’s just no mistaking this for an early side. It’s a painfully grown-up song about delusions around the “good old days,” the struggles of the present, and arguably, the need to face up to getting on with it. Romantic notions are rolled out and almost immediately dispatched with. Then a nightmarish middle-age scenario climaxes with this line, “I began to lie about my age, knock off a year or two, ’til I woke up one day, and I was younger than you,” before reaching a place of acceptance that’s every bit the opposite of self-pity.
As we get older, music can become less integral to expressing who we are, more rare for it to feel like it gets/speak to us. Sure, we can appreciate the craft and connect with the beauty, but it’s difficult to find a Quadrophenia/Horses/Nevermind for middle age. This song might remind you of that time when music spoke for you—when you were in that space where you needed it like oxygen—but without a shred of nostalgia.
David Gorman: Apparently, we have Lana Del Rey to thank for this song, since it was her cancellation that landed Elvis on Letterman that night. You mentioned how he wrote it almost on the spot, and while it’s damn impressive that a song this biting and to-the-bone insightful is the kind of thing he just knocks out in the backseat of a cab (true story), it’s more impressive that he wrote a new song for the occasion at all. Who the hell uses a prime spot on a top-rated, national TV show to bang out a song nobody had heard before and that nobody could buy once they had? The man just doesn’t seem capable of creative atrophy.
Personally, I’m desperately trying to avoid this song becoming the story of my life—as much as I’d love a fast, new sports car (blue, not red), I’m not willing to trade my wife for it. The lyric hit me the same as it hit you, and it’d likely be the most depressing song I heard all year if it wasn’t delivered with such celebratory gusto (though there are some live versions from his solo shows on YouTube that are more resigned). “Hold on to your fondest wish . . . or whatever you call the truth” is the new battle cry of the midlife crisis and would make a perfect Cialis slogan if the good folks at Eli Lilly and Co. had a sense of humor.
I also have to praise the too-seldom-heard sound of a singer alone with an electric guitar here. I don’t know why so many performers default to acoustic when they’re playing alone, but I love it when that coffeehouse cliché is ditched in favor of plugged-in crunch. It’s what turned me on to both Billy Bragg and Magic Sam, and the immediacy and energy of that sound is what gives “The Last Year if My Youth” its (suspended) adolescent snarl.
Since “Last Year Of My Youth” isn’t available (yet?), it’ll be a missing tooth in the smile that is our playlist of all previous Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy: