In his very own “Penny Lane,” Elvis Costello sings us through the London of his dreams.

This week’s pick: “London’s Brilliant Parade,” released on Brutal Youth (1994)

 

Gary Stewart:  “If something you missed didn’t even exist, it was just an ideal…”

That line comes from “All This Useless Beauty,” wherein Costello looks at the downside and dangers of indulging in the fallacy of nostalgia. It also applies here—but in a much more upbeat way—when he sings about the joys of projecting an almost giddy, surreal fantasy onto the idea of place. And what a place it is, especially when you experience it the way E.C. does here.

It’s one of E.C.’s most cinematic songs—like an audio-only version of the Umbrellas of Cherbourg or An American in Paris—rooted in what seems like a dream state, where seemingly incomparable sights and sounds abound, where lions and tigers have escaped from the zoo, and laissez-faire speculators finally get their just desserts. Yeah, there are some dark notes, but they never break the mood. It’s a warts-and-all love affair—a predecessor of sorts to his New York love letter “I’m In the Mood Again”—celebrating London’s beauty, its folly, its vanity, and its eccentricity.

I love the way the many moods come rushing in with the music’s stops and starts, along with a grab bag of sounds, production techniques, and a “throw everything you’ve got at it” approach (courtesy of Steve Nieve in peak form) that doesn’t sound at all random and shows off what the Attractions were capable of. This is less the Attractions that gave us This Year’s Model and that archetypical aggressive sound and more the Attractions of Imperial Bedroom, who were capable of so much more layered, sophisticated, and whimsical sounds when given the chance.

As an L.A. resident, I’m jealous we didn’t get something like this instead of the completely punishing “Heathen Town.” Maybe if we clean up our act someday . . .

 

David Gorman: Readers should know that our debates about which Costello song to dig into each week consist mostly of one of us blurting out a song name and the other either saying, “Eeeeh . . .” or “Yeah, that’s a good one.” Sometimes rejections are more nuanced, such as “We’ve done a lot of downers lately . . . can we pick something more upbeat?” or “Let’s hold off on the (fill in genre) for a while.” So while it might seem like we are telling some sort of ongoing story from one song to another, it’s never intentional. The only deliberate aspect of our decision-making is to skip around Costello’s discography to show its breadth while mostly focusing on songs we don’t think most (casual) fans stopped to appreciate. I’m bringing this up to say that it’s a coincidence we’re talking about “London’s Brilliant Parade” the week after we dove into “Hoover Factory.” And it’s not just the parallels between two songs evoking nostalgia for London (or, in the case of “Hoover Factory,” a place “five miles out of London”), but in my own experience with these songs.

“London’s Brilliant Parade” is a song that immediately appealed to me for its surface thrills—it’s Costello’s own “Penny Lane,” complete with nostalgic sound effects and a breezy music-hall melody worthy of McCartney himself. I loved the way it shifted from wistful to sinister, splitting dreams from reality. But the lyrics were largely lost on me. Having never been to London when I first heard the song, the lyric I seized on (and failed to cleverly work into conversation) was that bit about “having the time of my life . . . or something quite like it.” I still love it and wish I could claim it as my own, but I came to realize I’d been using it wrong: It wasn’t actually a more literate and less bombastic version of adding “. . . not!” to the end of a sarcastic observation, as I’d interpreted it (longtime readers of this feature will note my proud history of misreading lyrics), but rather a way of evoking the thrill of recollections better than the events that created them.

But the same way “Hoover Factory” revealed itself to me as I went spelunking through Detroit’s own faded factories, “London’s Brilliant Parade” exploded in my head years after it came out when I finally traveled to the U.K. for the first time. It was impossible to walk around London as a tourist, passing by the places name-checked in the song, without singing them in my head. Regent’s Park! Camden Town! Hammersmith Palais will always belong to The Clash, but otherwise, my first time wandering around London will forever be remembered as walking out and about with Elvis as my musical tour guide.

Take your own magical tour of Elvis Costello’s catalog of songs with our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week Playlist: