Wednesday, June 04, 2014

"Big Sister's Clothes" /
Elvis Costello and the Attractions

When Trust came out in early 1981, I felt let down. Considering how I'd loved all his previous albums, why did this one leave me baffled and a little bored?  Had Elvis lost his gift, or was it me who'd changed?

A bit of both, I suppose. Maybe it was time to move on. At any rate, I didn't listen to it nearly so much as his others. (Even today, I'm likely to get confused and think that "Watch Your Step" and "From A Whisper to a Scream" are from Armed Forces and "You'll Never Be a Man" is from Get Happy!)

On the Rhino re-issue's wonderful liner notes, Elvis himself claims that there were way too many drugs in the picture when he made this record. Recycling past sounds was no doubt an easy out when inspiration ran dry. But 30 years or so down the road, it doesn't matter any more which albums the songs were on, or whether the arc of his career was consistent. I've since learned that half the joy of being an Elvis Costello fan is watching him get lost in left field for a while, knowing (as I know now) that he'll eventually wander home. 

And since I've been singing "Big Sister's Clothes" in my head all day, might as well give in to it.

In keeping with the cynical, jagged tone of Trust (talk about ironic titles), "Big Sister's Clothes" begins and ends with an ugly, grating sonic crunch. When I play it in my head, though, I leave that part off -- it doesn't really seem to belong to the song.

Instead I find myself hooked on its perky syncopated tempo, the beguiling hoarseness of Elvis' vocals, the understated arrangement (it's almost folky), and of course EC's playful trademark puns. Lines like "She's got eyes like saucers / Oh you think she's a dish" or "The sport of kings, the old queen's heart / The prince in darkness stole some tart" or "With a hammer on the slap and tickle" (rhymes with sickle, as in the old USSR hammer-and-sickle logo) -- Elvis never could turn away from a clever pun.

But now that I think about it, the part that's always stuck with me is the chorus. It starts off in a cheery major key, just like the verses -- "But it's easier to say 'I love you'" -- but then shifts into a darker minor key on the second line: "Than 'Yours sincerely,' I suppose." It's as if he's wading into moral ambiguity, and digging up some murky depths indeed. He notes, "All little sisters / Like to try on big sister's clothes," then as he ominously repeats "Big sister's clothes," it sure doesn't sound as if this game of dress-up is all that cute or innocent. It sends a chill through me every time.  

At the time, I assumed this song was about Elvis's first wife, a marriage heading for the rocks. But now I can pick up a political dimension that an American like me wouldn't have gotten at the time: It's really about Margaret Thatcher, who'd just come into power. The woman he's singing about is a hard-hearted hypocrite -- "Compassion went out of fashion / That's all your concern meant," a pretty prescient remark considering what happened in 1984 when the Iron Lady clamped down on the coal miners' strike.

It's pretty muddled satire, though; I'm not sure that "getting" the references would have helped make me like the song any more. (It's interesting to note that this is the only song on the album that producer Nick Lowe refused to put his name to. I would really like to know the story behind that.)

And in the end, all I need is that magic key shift in the chorus to keep me humming it 30+ years down the line.


NickS said...

Nice choice for a write-up. As soon as I saw the header I could hear the chorus, but when I read the post I realized that I've never tried to make sense of the lyrics.

In fact, it strikes me, there are a lot of Elvis Costello songs for which I've absorbed the rhythm of the language, some of the key words, and a sense of the emotional tenor, but have never tried to connect the lyrics.

It's an odd feeling, because I think of them as familiar songs, but, like this one, I'd do a very poor job if you asked me remember a complete verse, let alone offer an explanation for how the verses relate to each other.

(It's interesting to note that this is the only song on the album that producer Nick Lowe refused to put his name to. I would really like to know the story behind that.)

The internet seems to think that Elvis Costello recorded and produced the song by himself, after the sessions were mostly over and Nick Lowe had left and gone home.

Uncle E said...

Trust completely passed me by. I think I went from Get Happy straight to Imperial Bedroom, bypassing this one and Almost Blue. Browsing Ye Olde Record Shoppe the other day I come across this for $3.99, so I pick it up. It's an interesting record, but to me there is something lacking, and I want to say it's melody. But it's still too early to pass judgement for me. I'll give any Costello album a spin or 5 before I file it away.