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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: “45” from When I Was Cruel (2002)
Gary Stewart: About every eight years, Costello (with The Attractions and/or The Imposters) makes one of those loud, aggressive records for which he was first known (but fortunately is no longer confined to in the world of public expectations): 1978’s This Year’s Model, 1986’s Blood & Chocolate, 1994’s Brutal Youth, and 2002’s When I Was Cruel. “45,” which opens When I Was Cruel, is a perfect example of a song that couldn’t have been on one of its predecessors. Written as Costello was approaching that very same age, this short, simple, and deceptively repetitive track touches on the relationship between one’s self and one’s parents’ generation—the shared and unshared cultural touchstones—before calling for an examination of where you’ve been, where you’re going, how fast it all goes by, and just what it all means.
The sheer ambition of the subject matter, in lesser hands, would take the form of an overly self-conscious, ponderous piece, or worse, an overly syrupy ballad. But Costello gives us a much tougher, unsparing take within the confines of an unsentimental rocker. It’s one of the best midlife reflection songs (as opposed to a midlife crisis songs), and more importantly, it’s insanely catchy.
David Gorman: I first heard this song when Costello performed it on The Tonight Show. He was still touring behind Painted From Memory (well, technically, its jazz reinterpretation, The Sweetest Punch), so it was a bit of a shock to have him step onstage and play a brand-new rock song, and one as good as he’d ever done. And it shoulda been terrible. An autobiographical song about turning 45 wrapped up in an extended metaphor using a 45 record? But, then again, that’s the kind of thing Smokey Robinson built his legend on, right? And Costello pulled it off. I was shaking by the end. The song is masterful—a deeply personal love song to music itself. It shows how music wraps itself up in your life and how it defines you. “Every click, every scratch, every heartbeat” rips you back to the days when a song was all that mattered—when listening to music was an active and all-consuming experience, not the passive soundtrack it’s become in the playlist era. To many of us, music was something we turned to for comfort when we had nowhere else to turn. “Bass and treble heal every hurt.” Amen.
Catch up on all the Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week (so far) with this handy playlist: