Saturday, August 09, 2008

"Baby Plays Around" /
Elvis Costello

Spike may be my least favorite Elvis Costello album. When it first came out, I bought it but almost never listened to it, and therefore I completely overlooked this song. How could that have happened? Now every time I hear it I'm absolutely riveted; it haunts me for days at a time.

Elvis -- or should I say, Declan (as I like to call him, in my detailed fantasies in which we are best friends) -- Declan wrote this song with his then wife, Cait O'Riordan. I know squat about their relationship, but just from listening to this song, I gather that it was, shall we say, tempestuous. I put this song in the same file as two other Elvis ballads, "Motel Matches" (Get Happy!) and "Almost Blue" (Imperial Bedroom) -- his voice is positively ragged with jealousy and crazy bitterness on all of them. Listen to how wearily it cracks on that opening line -- "It's not open / To discussion anymore" -- he's already packing it in, and the song's barely gotten started.

It's the old, old story he has to tell us -- "She's out again tonight / And I'm alone once more" -- and his voice drops lower, dragged down with self-pity, as he morosely adds, "She's all I have worth waiting for -- /But baby plays around." That's a killer line, somehow -- by yoking "baby" and "plays", two words that normally do go together, he underlines the deadly irony of the cliche "plays around." There's nothing playful about playing around. He's got the term "baby" so twisted up in various meanings, I can't even tell if it's meant as a term of endearment anymore. Which is precisely the point -- that's how messed up their relationship has gotten to be, he can't even think straight about it.

The whole song is just Elvis/Declan singing with an acoustic guitar, and that's perfect -- the simple arrangement reflects how numb and raw this guy's feelings have become. The melodic line is surprisingly jazz-like, with lots of oddly modulated intervals and edgy chord shifts, the musical equivalent of the emotional vertigo he's describing. (Elvis has been dabbling with jazz much longer than most people realize.) Hoarsely, he muses, "And so it seems / I've always been the last to know / To hold on to that girl / I had to let her go." Complicated grammar for complicated feelings. And again, on the third line, his complaining and explaining breaks down into a howl of sheer dumb misery: "I wish to God / I didn't love her so -- / 'Cos baby plays around."

There's one more great couplet in this song, in the last verse: "She walks those shiny streets / I walk the worn-out floor." Wonderful parallelism, with the ""shiny/worn-out" contrast cutting right to the heart of things. It reminds me of a line in another of my favorite adultery-jealousy songs, Dr. Feelgood's "Don't Wait Up" -- "I've got the keys to the door / And you've got the keys to the street." It's just a matter of time for this couple; really, they're already ruined. It's all over but the shouting.

By the way -- hunting for an mp3 sample to post (which I couldn't find on Amazon -- it looks as if I'm not the only one who relegated Spike to an early rubbish heap) -- I just discovered that Curtis Stigers did a cover of this song. Who is this Curtis Stigers? I feel like he's haunting me. I only know him as the guy who covered "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding" for the soundtrack to The Bodyguard and therefore made Nick Lowe a packet of money. I suppose I should be grateful to him for that...yet I resent the fact that a lightweight like this could have the big hit which Nick himself should have had. Or maybe he isn't a lightweight? I also see that he's done a cover of Nick's "You Inspire Me," and Ron Sexsmith's "Secret Heart," AND that Randy Newman song "Living Without You" that Alan Price did such a smoky version of, AND Joe Jackson's "Fools In Love" -- AND the Kinks "Tired of Waiting"!!! This is just creeping me out! And the worst thing is -- some of them actually sound pretty interesting. WHO IS THIS GUY???


Natsthename said...

First off, Spike has actually grown on me over the years, though it is nowhere near close to being my favorite Costello disc. I love Baby Plays Around, too!
Stigers. LOL. I think he used to creep up on Arsenio Hall's show now and then, since he was prone to feature some crappy music. He covered lots of stuff, and his first album featured lots of a-list backing players (Paich and Porcaro, to name two), and was a mild hit.
I visited his site, since he's still plugging away, and had to chuckle over his bio:
With one of the most distinctive voices in music, Stigers pushes the boundaries of conventional jazz performers and expands the jazz repertory, creating modern jazz standards.
So, could you name one modern jazz standard he's released? I didn't think so. LOL.

Holly A Hughes said...

So how DOES a guy like that become a platinum-selling artist? It's like -- why are the Rolling Stones called the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the world, instead of -- oh, say for instance, the Kinks. Ah, I get depressed if I think about stuff like this too long.

Maybe that's why Spike is growing on me -- because in a world where Curtis Stigers is considered a great artist, ANY Elvis Costello album has got to be an improvement.

Anonymous said...

Steigers was the early 90s James Blunt or David Gray - the inoffensive non entity that appeals to the type of person who buys 2 albums a year.

Surely this one rings a bell? For what its worh, he's a hell of a lot better than James Blunt, but I suppose that's like a headcold being better than cancer.

I've never bought Spike. That covers always put me off.

Holly A Hughes said...

Nope, that song doesn't ring a bell. Thank goodness! Better than Blunt...that could be Stigers' new slogan.

Yeah, that Spike cover is hideous, isn't it? Whatever was he thinking? Or maybe, more to the point, whatever was he smoking?

Carabella said...

I remember being all jazzed that EC had a new bit, buying the cassette (remember that?) and then pretty disenchanted with the content. Alas. Can't complain about the cat as he has been so prolific and had more hits than misses (well he has been through a few misses, how many kids does he have now?)Some of his stuff stays with me and I might check out bits I played over and over years ago again. Right now the EC tune that comes back to my brain is "The Other Side of Summer".

Cheers Holly!

Holly A Hughes said...

Ha! Yeah, I've got it on cassette too -- I guess I should be grateful that the cover images are smaller on cassettes (plus the lucite case gets scarred and then you can't see the cover art much at all...oh, the joys of the audiocassette days!).