Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"When I Write the Book" / Nick Lowe
"Every Day I Write the Book" / Elvis Costello

Someone had to be copying someone else on this one. Nick's "When I Write the Book" appears on Rockpile's 1980 album Seconds of Pleasure, while Elvis's didn't come along until 1983's Punch the Clock -- you do the math. I suppose it's possible that Elvis wasn't thinking about his buddy's song when he penned this slick little pop song, but I sincerely doubt it. (For once, it wasn't Nick doing the stealing!)

I'm sure Nick thought he was working that metaphor for all it was worth, with lines like "when I write the book about my love / It’ll be a heartbreaking story about love and luck / When I get down on the pages all I felt / It will make the hardest-hearted of critics’ hearts melt" -- but really, this genial little number is just another way to self-dramatize a lover's pain and suffering. (I do love that bridge, though, as he describes himself "When I was young love was fun and I was so happy /I looked so good and I dressed so snap-py" -- umm, yes I bet you did, Nick!)

But then here comes Elvis, swooping in on his intro with a swelling power-pop sound and rabid howl of fury, then blasting away with lyrics like

When your dreamboat
Turns out to be a footnote
I'm a man with a mission
In two or three editions

and the absolutely priceless couplet

ven in a perfect world
Where everyone was equal

I'd still own the film rights
and be working on the sequel.

He breaks down their whole jejune relationship into trite little chapters; he dismisses everything about her into his quotation marks. There's nothing boppy or bright about this song, with all its unsettling chord changes and sneering melodic phrases, and the harpy chorus singing back-up. No, he's intent on revenge, and fairly bursting with paranoia and contempt. That book he's writing is a poison-pen hack job, and he's feeding on the chance to hurt her -- it's more important than the relationship at this point.

Sorry, Nick, but Elvis wins this round, hands down.

When I Write the Book sample
Every Day I Write the Book sample


Mark said...

Nick's song has to be my favorite from the Rockpile album. It has such a giddy, infectious charm. I love the lyric, "I was a fool to myself, when I kept on runnin' around/but I fared little better when I tried settlin' down."

Maybe you could do a whole week of book song posts, Paperback Writer, I Could Write a Book.

I thought it was interesting that Nick and Elvis both have such similarly titles songs, I think Elvis may have "nicked" his! (I really don't know any of Elvis's work, he's next on my list of "people I need to own a CD of.")

willdeuel said...

Both songs are great, no doubt. And I do agree that Costello gets the edge here for more clever wordplay (well, duh!) and striking a perfect balance between poppy and snide musicality.

But Rockpile's cover of Girls Talk pwns Elvis'.

Natsthename said...

Funny, I have both of them in my "books and other reading" playlist. (Don't ask. I have weird playlists!)

I used to get them mixed up, though they really don't sound alike. I think they should collaborate on "When I Write The Book Every Day." ;)

Uncle E said...

ohnonononononononono, must vehemently disagree with you on this one, respectfully.
Now, you know I'm an Elvis fan, but this song, with the plinking pedestrian piano playing and the faux Motown backing singers has always rubbed me the wrong way. As a matter of fact, I can recall being put off Costello for a good four or 5 years afterwards. I've since gone back and revisited and subsequently kicked myself in the arse for being such a dimwit (Shipbuilding is such a beautiful song!), but still this...song just doesn't appeal to me.
Please bear in mind this bitter rant could have something to do with the fact I just arrived home from a 14 hour, three plane flight back from Tennessee...think I'll go pour myself a drink and go to sleep for a while...thanks for listening.
(not quite as rant-y as Philbert, was it?)

Holly A Hughes said...

"Not as ranty as Philbert" is setting the bar AWFULLY low...

I hear ya, Unk. When this song first came out, I felt just the same. It was the beginning of the end of my Elvis infatuation* -- and "The Only Flame In Town" sealed the deal.** I was positive Elvis had sold out and would never be good again. But lo and behold, when I listen to this song I cannot remember why I dismissed it then. I highly recommend you give it a new listen.

* As you all know, it turned out to be only a temporary end to my Elvis infatuation...
**...and even The Only Flame has won me over, as I wrote here a couple weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

Take that back! :-)

Nick is DA MAN and face it he worked hard to put Elvis on the map eevn wrote a big hit for him. When I write the book is real and heartfelt, I agree that "when I write the book" has a few clever lyrics but the production sucks the life out of it.
And besides - it's not a contest!

Holly A Hughes said...

Agreed, it's not a contest. And Nick IS da man (as you'll notice if you read further in this blog, in which I generally totally embarrass myself with Nick-olatry.)

Though I must quibble on one point -- Nick didn't write "What's So Funny" FOR Elvis, he'd already written it for his own band and EC just picked it up.

Holly A Hughes said...

FYI -- I just saw that Nick sang "When I Write the Book" at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass over the weekend. I don't recall this song cropping up at all in his live performances in the past few years. I am now officially terrified that he has read this blog and that's what gave him the idea to pull this old song out of the drawer.

Now I'll have to go back and read all the gushy things I've written about him and hope I haven't embarrassed myself TOO much...though I fear that's a lost cause...