"Baby Plays Around" /
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???