It’s hard not to hear Costello rediscovering the simpler pleasures of volume and spontaneity
KEVIN DAVIS: Elvis Costello’s “Gwendolyn Letters” (the name he gave to the collection of songs he penned for former Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James, all of which she subsequently recorded on her 1993 album Now Ain’t the Time For Your Tears) are among the man’s few true remaining rarities, having been omitted from the great Rhino reissue campaign of ’01-’05 and currently available only to those with a penchant for hunting down out-of-print CD singles on eBay. While the record that James made out of these tunes didn’t land with the impact that the tunes deserved, it has understandably taken on a sort of curio status among Costello fans, the unlikely home for an entire album’s worth of material that our hero supposedly birthed over a long weekend and then gave up for adoption. But these songs are significant for several reasons: First, they represent Costello’s first real dalliance with small ensemble rock ’n’ roll since disbanding the Attractions in 1986, and indeed they quite directly point the way to his next proper indulgence in the field, 1994’s Brutal Youth (whose opening track, “Pony St.,” sounds like a more sophisticated version of the melody that comprises “Puppet Girl” from these sessions). Second—though not to be underestimated—they ain’t a bad bunch of songs. After the lush eclecticism of Spike and Mighty Like a Rose and the academic exercise of The Juliet Letters, it’s hard not to hear Elvis reveling in the immediacy of these recordings, rediscovering the simpler pleasures of volume and spontaneity amidst the increasing sophistication of his post-Attractions career.
“Do You Know What I’m Saying?” is my favorite of these demos, in part because of the completely uncontrived presence of the recording (it feels delightfully “on the fly,” with a sort of direct-to-tape spontaneity that is hard to capture in a more formal environment), but also in part because of the perfectly Dylanesque couplets, which take pains to describe a lowbrow female entertainer (“She danced like an ambulance/Talked like a cartoon mouse/She took off her clothes/And it brought down the house”) and some scuzz-bucket dude that’s affiliated with her in some way (“The male counterpart – stupid, brutal, and rich/Lies under the arm of the world like an itch”). This is not uncharted territory for Costello, but his finger-pointing is timeless and forever vindicating, and the rhymes are expertly placed both within the linear structure of the lyrics and as accessories to the music. I also love Costello’s detached vocal delivery; unlike other proclamations of judgment from atop his high horse, here he sounds not like a lover scorned or the bitter recipient of a rejected advance but like an unflappable cool guy whose use for his subjects begin and end with the function they serve him in song. But to answer his question, I don’t know what he’s saying. The lyrics in the song don’t seem to require a rhetorical question to solicit further investigation into their meaning. And interestingly, this is the second song from this time period to mention a “cartoon mouse” (“You Tripped at Every Step” being the other).
I know Costello’s version of “Do You Know What I’m Saying?” isn’t a “proper” studio recording, but I nevertheless love the uncompromised, almost tangible quality of the recording. Costello’s guitar feels like it’s coming out of a small practice amplifier a few feet across the room. So many of Elvis’s demos—the early acoustic demos, the Spike home tapes, the Church Studios—recordings capture this in-the-room vibe. Fingers crossed that Elvis releases “The Gwendolyn Letters” as a Nebraska-style album sometime down the road.
JORGE FARAH: I recently went through the arduous process of reassembling my iTunes library after my old computer suddenly crashed. I painstakingly scoured through old hard drives and dropboxes to cull together my old digital collection, then went through the debris deleting duplicates, filling in missing track information, and ensuring everything was accompanied by the correct album art. It’s the kind of frustratingly snail-paced, almost completely unrewarding exercise that only the obsessive-compulsive or the desperately bored would subject themselves to. It took about 3 weeks. By the end of the process, I found that my Elvis Costello artist folder was made up of 1296 songs across 92 albums. If that number seems astronomically high, it’s because it includes compilations, reissues, collaborations, outtakes, several live albums and bootlegs, all filed under the artist name “Elvis Costello” for convenience. That is easily the highest track count for a single musician in my entire collection. This is all to say: I own a lot of Costello albums, and I’ve heard a lot of Elvis Costello songs. Until Kevin brought this song to my attention recently, I’d never heard “Do You Know What I’m Saying.”
I was vaguely aware of the Gwendolyn Letters as a kind of “holy grail” of Costello material—seems people have been clamoring for some kind of official release for these demos for years—but it never occurred to me to actually seek them out and listen to them. And I’m glad I didn’t, because this is a thoroughly rewarding little mini-album—scuzzy, almost haphazardly thrown together, playful and raw, without too much time to get overly precious about the compositions or the performances (Momofuku is the closest we’ve gotten to this so far, though Brutal Youth would partially follow this approach with songs like “Kinder Murder” and “20% Amnesia”). It’s a real thrill to listen to, and something that I really wish we had more of: a peek into what Elvis would sound like if he were a garage musician recording on cheap equipment.
Here’s a small treasure, nearly lost forever
“Do You Know What I’m Saying” is probably the best track on the collection, a direct precursor to “All This Useless Beauty” (you could easily sing the verse melody of one over the other’s music). By virtue of its status as a demo, it is a bit rough around the edges, but its strengths shine right through: the lyrics, reminiscent of earlier songs like “Satellite” and “Harpies Bizarre” in their style of storytelling, the lilting verse melody which soars into the achingly gorgeous chorus, and the no-nonsense instrumental arrangement, which despite its sparseness manages to color the harmonic space beautifully. Yes, it is delivered in a stark and unadorned way, but the drama is built into the song: You can almost hear the strings swelling as the chorus hits that first, gloriously melodramatic note. And Kevin is absolutely correct about Elvis’s understated, almost-merely-functional vocal approach, which gives this song a certain listlessness that would likely be missing from a proper album recording of it. Wendy James’s album version is predictably fuller and better-produced, but feels a bit like a missed opportunity. The single version, however, is probably closer to what Elvis imagined for the final product—certainly what Elvis’s demo seems to point to—and it’s quite worth listening to. That said, I’m glad we have this demo recording; not just for its practical use as a grittier alternative to listen to, but also because of what it represents: a small treasure, nearly lost forever to obscurity and instead rescued from the murky depths of Elvis’s expansive catalogue. It is a reminder that we’re really not exaggerating when we talk about how Elvis’s body of work is littered with unheralded gems, and that even obscure little throwaway oddities like this one would be absolute career highlights for most other musicians.
For reasons that should now be obvious, “Do You Know What I’m Saying” didn’t make it on to our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist. But don’t you want to hear all the songs that did?