Costello’s sneeze-and-you’d-miss-it soundtrack appearance in The Big Lebowski deserves a closer listen

JORGE FARAH: We continue on from last week’s discussion about “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way,” the song Elvis wrote for this year’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, to tackle another one of his contributions to cinema, “My Mood Swings,” recorded for The Big Lebowski. An absurdist comedy that is also rich with pathos, pop culture, and literary references, it’s a good fit for a down-and-dirty Elvis Costello rock song. And though it’s not exactly the song the movie hinges on—that honor would go to Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me” or, to a lesser extent, Kenny Rogers and First Edition’s “Just Dropped In”— it’s a great addition to the soundtrack, fitting in perfectly with the film’s laid-back, groovy-but-grimy vibe. I know we both like the song, Kevin, but I’m curious: Are you a fan of the film at all?

The Big Lebowski was a good fit for a down-and-dirty Costello song

KEVIN DAVIS: Absolutely! I’m not a cinephile by any stretch but I’ve always loved the Coen brothers’ films, and I imagine it’s pretty difficult to have any affinity for pop culture at all without eventually finding yourself in the position of having to decipher a Lebowski reference. If memory serves, “My Mood Swings” is kind of hidden in the film, playing on Jeff Bridges’s headphones while his character receives a medical exam?

JORGE FARAH: Yes! The song makes a very quick appearance while The Dude is about to be . . . examined (“he’s a good man. And thorough”). Being the kind of music and film nerd I am, this gets me thinking. Given the fact that this movie takes place in the early ’90s, and that The Dude is listening to the song within the film’s diegesis (meaning that the song is occurring within the reality of the film as opposed to externally, as an orchestral score would), that tells me that this Elvis Costello song exists as either a one-off or an album track within the fictional universe the Coens created with this movie. And, since the track features guitar wizard Marc Ribot, I’d say that within this fictional version of Costello’s oeuvre, this song belongs in either 1988’s Spike or 1990’s Mighty Like a Rose. Which of those albums would you say this song would fit best into? Or would it be an awkward fit for both?

The dirty riff that powers the song is pretty irresistible

KEVIN DAVIS: I do think it would feel out of place on either of those records, but it’s interesting that you pursued this line of thinking because, especially when you consider the personnel present on the track (Ribot, drummer Jim Keltner), as well as the loose four-piece arrangement, this song actually strikes me as having a lot in common with the sessions that produced Kojak Variety, the covers record Costello recorded in the early ‘90s but didn’t release until 1995. You get that same casual band-in-a-room vibe, as well as that same emphasis on Elvis’s endearingly uncomplicated rhythm playing. So perhaps in this universe, “My Mood Swings” was cut during those sessions and put out as a one-off single. Either way, it’s interesting that whether the song is dated to its timeline in the film or the timeline of its release, either moment represents something of a drought for Elvis Costello rock songs. The song predates my Costello fandom by a few years, but for those averse to Elvis’s more offbeat projects, I imagine this song was something of a beacon for them. That dirty riff is pretty irresistible.

The song harkens back to the ’70s in a way that even Costello’s songs from the ’70s don’t

JORGE FARAH: Absolutely, that fuzzy Keith Richards-like guitar riff is the kind of thing you’d probably be clamoring for if you weren’t much of a fan of the previous year’s Burt Bacharach collaboration, Painted From Memory (note: we both are). The song also has the kind of dirty rock’n’roll swagger most people don’t really associate with Elvis Costello. It feels like it’s shooting for that throwback vibe, both in the composition and in the sonics. From the guitar sound to the way Elvis’s vocal is processed, it harkens back to ’70s rock in a way that not a whole lot of Costello songs do (even the ones that came out in the ’70s). I am not aware of whether this song was written specifically for the film, but in any case, that approach fits the characters perfectly, since both The Dude and Walter seem to obsess over the past quite a bit themselves. What I love about this song is that it showcases a side of his work that sounds like very little he’s ever done, yet at the same time accomplishes what he’s dedicated much of his career to doing: taking elements from the past and incorporating them into his own musical vernacular, reconfiguring them in his own image.

KEVIN DAVIS: Speaking of reconfiguring, it’s worth pointing out that an alternate version of this exists featuring the Brodsky Quartet (originally appearing on their 2005 album Moodswings), which adds some class and refinement to the standard arrangement but keeps the compositional integrity as well as the song’s effortless sway fully intact. In a lot of ways these are the two most fully-realized “mirror image” arrangements in Costello’s entire catalog, both presenting the song in lights that are equally flattering to its melody and sense of playfulness. It’s well worth seeking out if you like the original and just can’t get enough, or if you’re simply the kind that favors a little refinement to begin with.

We can’t offer you Creedence tapes, but we hope the Dude would abide our ever-growing list of our favorite, overlooked Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week: