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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.
The week’s pick: “You Bowed Down,” from All This Useless Beauty (1996)
Gary Stewart: When All This Useless Beauty came out it in 1996—nearly 20 years into Costello’s career—it felt like both a summation of everything he had done up to that point, and an indicator of what he’d be capable of doing in the future. Unfortunately, since the album was largely composed of songs Costello had initially written for other artists, more attention was given to where the songs had already been, not where they were going. A recent vinyl reissue of the album, and some glowing reviews for that rerelease, have started righting those wrongs.
The album’s “You Bowed Down” was originally written for and recorded by The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. While McGuinn’s version feels like a then-modern take on the classic Byrds sound (not unlike Tom Petty’s “American Girl”), Costello’s recording is something else entirely. He dials back the 12 string (don’t worry, it’s still there) and ups the accusatory tone. Even though the opening verse ambiguously describes the singer’s feelings about the song’s subject, you know from the beginning that something’s gone wrong. By the time you come out of the bridge with a disarming, unexpected tempo shift, the final verse and chorus kick in. And by then you’re knee deep in a simmering indictment of a sellout and in the middle of something you don’t want to be a part of, but can’t look away from.
David Gorman: When “You Bowed Down” first explodes out of the speakers, its debt to The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” is obvious, but there’s a twist: The hook we’ve heard a million times is inverted. It falls down (OK, “bows” down) instead of climbing up and, just like that, the hippie optimism of the ’60s is quickly turned into its own sinister eulogy. The line, “It must have hurt you to see how dreams sour” kind of sums it up for me. This whole song sounds like a bitter screed against a generation that failed itself, but, don’t worry, it can also salt your wounds on a personal level too. Jump on Spotify and you’ll find a hundred playlists packed with songs about following your dreams, seizing the day, running that extra mile or climbing that mountain. But most of us never do. Most of us give up somewhere along the way, born to run but destined to fall. We get tired, we go broke, or the fire in the belly just dies out. And this song exists to berate us when that happens. To kneel down and rub our noses in our compromised values and abandoned dreams.
While you might walk away from the lyrics feeling somewhat like Gomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket, Elvis brings a lot more musically than R. Lee Ermey could ever muster. This is a big, beautiful, multilayered blast of melody, harmonies, and weird little psychedelic touches that mashes together every gift the ’60s gave us musically, even as it seems to tear down the decade’s failed ideals. Good lord, I’m making this sound so painful to hear, but trust me, it’s fantastic. Just don’t sit with it too long. It might inspire a midlife crisis you’re not prepared to act on.
We’ve been doing this for a while. Thankfully there’s one playlist where you can hear every Elvis Costello Song Of The Week: