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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: “How to Be Dumb,” from Mighty Like a Rose (1991)
Gary Stewart: We’ve spent many weeks extolling the virtues of the roots of Elvis Costello’s Americana side (aka the roots of his roots), and in the process went out of our way to fight the stereotypes that were used to narrowcast his early work. This week I want you to forget all about that. Let’s swing wildly in the other direction and embrace every angry young man, punk, and post-punk stereotype you ever believed. Because even if you were only in it for the Elvis Costello of “Radio Radio,” “No Action,” and “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” the odds are you missed this one.
“How to Be Dumb” is as confrontational, accusatory, and seething as anything from This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, or Blood and Chocolate—or, for that matter, anything that came out of punk, grunge, or the current indie world. Even if you lived and loved those references, this may have eluded you when it was hiding in plain sight on his 1991 album, Mighty Like a Rose, a collection of ornate baroque pop, spare confessionals, and even a rap-influenced track rife with the raging variety that characterized its predecessor, Spike. Back then, “How to Be Dumb” stuck out like a sore thumb on track 3 yet also got ignored. Inspired by an assessment of a former collaborator, it’s full of bile in the best sense of the word. Anyone who’s ever had to contain rage about suffering fools will love its oft-repeated chorus line, “Are you ready to take your place in the modern museum of mistakes?”
And by the way, that’s not the Attractions driving the track (though Pete Thomas plays drums). The Blonde on Blonde-era piano comes courtesy of seasoned session player Larry Knechtel, of the soft-rock ’70s band Bread and the piano part on “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” That he was capable of something with so much intensity is a testament to his versatility and to Costello’s ability to bring out that side of him.
David Gorman: I love a good diss track as much as anyone, but why should hip-hop have all the fun? Everyone from Eminem to Jay-Z gets to sling threats and insults across the airwaves, but middle-aged white rock acts haven’t really let fans sniff their dirty laundry since the immediate aftermath of The Beatles’ breakup. But then comes “How to Be Dumb,” where Elvis rips into an ex-Attraction with enough venom to make “How Do You Sleep?” sound like a lullaby. So, yeah, I suppose Elvis could taken the high road after ending up on the wrong side of a dirt-dishing memoir (especially given how few people ultimately read it), but I’m glad he got pissed enough to slap back with this song.
Sure, it might feed on the same base emotions that drive us to savor the depths of reality show voyeurism, but how can you not listen in when an artist who’d been labeled angry since the ’70s finally unleashes on such a personal level? The music and lyrics pound away mercilessly. And it’s amazing. It’s big and melodic and the perfect synthesis of the straightforward rock/punk/new-wave Elvis built his reputation on and the unbridled experimentalism and genre-crashing he’s been defining himself with ever since.
But all that aside, it’s really about the visceral thrills of his righteous rage. And in that sense, Elvis hits a level that would’ve made Tupac proud. If you don’t believe me, just take a listen to the way he hits the word “fucker.” He makes sure you hear it, and it’s spit-on-the-mic vicious. And the song is just getting started. All I can say is that while I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of it, I can’t resist being a spectator. But that doesn’t mean I’m hoping Elvis and Jay-Z don’t get mad at each other.
Whether you’re still catching up with us or just want to hear an alternate-universe best-of collection that dances schizophrenically across 40 years of Elvis’ career, we’ve got you covered with our nearly comprehensive Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist: