Not One with a Defect: The 50 Greatest Song Lyrics of Elvis Costello

I SAW ELVIS COSTELLO for the first time at the Prince George’s County Equestrian Center, a horse farm much farther away from DC than we’d been told, where they stage the occasional outdoor concert. The Brutal Youth tour was the first time he’d played with the Attractions after a long hiatus, and the lads expressed their joy at reunion by turning into the E Street Band for the duration. They kept playing and playing and playing, long into the night, after the men in the crowd had decided en masse to solve the bathroom shortage problem by ceding the Port-o-Potties to the ladies and peeing at the fence behind, after the people with kids had gone home. The longer the band played, the more recognizable the music became, and the closer we got to the stage. By the time they broke into “Accidents Will Happen,” we were practically sitting on Steve Nieve’s piano. At the time, I didn’t know most of the EC catalogue. That night was the first time I’d heard “Indoor Fireworks,” still one of my favorite Elvis songs, and countless other more obscure classics. That night, I was hooked.

Even in the seen-it-all world of popular music, Elvis Costello is something of an outlier. The dude just churns out quality songs, compulsively, as if he can’t stop himself. He’s like Cyclops from the X-Men, but instead of lasers beaming out of his eyes all the time, music flows out of him. Consider: between the release of My Aim is True in 1977 and Blood & Chocolate in 1986, Elvis put out nine albums, a whopping eleven LPs in ten years: a staggering creative outburst that is Bach-like in its fecundity—except that Bach didn’t also write the words. Here’s a more recent example: on a flight to New York from London to work on the Bob Dylan / New Basement Tapes project, he wrote his contribution on the plane, which he then recorded on his iPhone, in the airplane bathroom. Who does that? Who can?

Artistically, his closest analog is Woody Allen, another bespectacled, not-conventionally-handsome genius, who has cranked out a feature film once a year, every year, for decades. Like Woody, Elvis is always good, even when he’s not at his best. Like Woody, Elvis has a relatively small but fiercely loyal fan base. Like Woody’s, his sales are consistently solid but never astronomical. Like Woody, Elvis has worked with some of the best names in the business: in his case, Burt Bacharach, Aimee Mann, Nick Lowe, Paul McCartney. Like Woody, Elvis is funny; he sat in for David Letterman for a bunch of episodes when the talk-show host was on medical leave with shingles. (Unlike Woody, Elvis has not been accused of child molestation, nor did he run off with the adopted daughter of his longtime partner).

Elvis also shares Woody’s artistic flaw: there’s almost too much work to consume, and it sometimes feels as if it were made too quickly. If he’d made five albums instead of 11—if, say, the best tracks on Blood & Chocolate were merged with the best tracks from Imperial Bedroom—how astounding would that discography look? Yet part of the pleasure of Elvis is that there is so much to choose from: songs for all occasions. At a party once, I made the argument that his music covered all possible moods. “What about happiness?” was the non-fan’s retort. And yet this is the guy whose song “Pump It Up” is played at sports arenas the world over to spark just that kind of positive emotion! Elvis can make you laugh, he can make you think, and he can make you cry—I heard him play “Almost Blue” at Radio City Music Hall, and it was heartbreaking.

Finally, like Woody Allen, Elvis has a way with words: he is one of the best, if not the best, writer of song lyrics of the last half century. Lyrically, he loves wordplay. He has a weakness for puns and mots justes. His songs tend to be more collections of cool lines thematically linked together than coherent stories. Sometimes he gets too fancy (“on a shellac of Chopin”). Sometimes he’s off the mark (“smoking the never-ending cigarette of chastity”). But even his misfires are interesting. And the worst Elvis song is still Shakespeare next to, say, Steve “He Made His Living Off Other People’s Taxes” Miller. Or, ugh, Taylor “Band-aids Don’t Fix Bullet Holes” Swift.

This list was pretty easy to compile. I came up with 35 great lines off the top of my head. But to make sure I didn’t miss anything, I asked my old friend and fellow Costello connoisseur Charles Sterne to give me a (helping) hand. (Fourteen years ago, Charles gave us a great wedding gift…a card signed by Elvis Costello himself!) The final list incorporates his suggestions as well (thanks, Chuck!). Ranking the lines was almost impossible, so I generally weighted them according to which songs I like best. Which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Because, as the former Declan MacManus well knows, you can please yourself, but somebody’s gonna get it.

~

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50.
Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired…
—”Welcome to the Working Week,” My Aim is True (1977)

The first words of the first song of the first album comprise this take-no-prisoners clause, in which the narrator sardonically denounces his former flame’s fame, as novel as it is unseemly. But it’s her picture that’s fodder for popular self-abuse, not her herself, the implication being that our antihero narrator, by contrast, finds masturbatory material in the real person. In his first ten words, then, Elvis manages to comment on renown, pretense, illusion vs. reality, and the fickleness of public acclaim, and he’s constructed a sly way of saying, essentially, “Now that everyone’s beating off to your Instagram selfie.” In 1977, he’s talking about Kim Kardashian.

49.
Everything means less than zero.
—”Less Than Zero,” My Aim is True (1977)

Bret Easton Ellis famously purloined the title of this song for his debut novel, which Elvis just as famously did not approve of. But it was the novel that directed my attention to the song, and thus the whole of the EC catalogue. Thus Bret Ellis was responsible for one fan buying 18 albums and going to six concerts. The song itself concerns the rise of a Fascist in an otherwise Democratic society. In 1977, he’s talking about Donald Trump.

48.
There’ll be no sorrows left to drown
Early in the morning in your evening gown
But it was so much easier
When I was cruel
—”When I Was Cruel No. 2,” When I Was Cruel (2002)

Fast forward to a more recent vintage, but Elvis does what he does best: not tell a story, but rather hint at one, peppering the hinting with lovely lines. This is my favorite of his more recent songs, and represents his musical versatility.

47.
When I said that I was lying, I might have been lying.
—”The Imposter,” Get Happy! (1980)

Suggests the George Carlin quip: “The following statement is true. The preceding statement was false.”

46.
There are ashtrays of emotion for the fag-ends of the aristocracy.
—”Pills and Soap,” Punch the Clock (1983)

The vitriol is palpable here, his metaphor exquisite. Also, I think he’s calling rich people “butts.”

45.
Every scratch, every click, every heartbeat,
Every breath that I held for you: 45
—”45,” When I Was Cruel (2002)

A ditty written for his 45th birthday, in which he explores other connotations of the number. Unsurprisingly, 45 records feature prominently.

44.
The right to work is traded in for the right to refuse admission.
—”Clubland,” Trust (1981)

He describes this song as a “poisoned ‘On Broadway,'” which it totally is. Props for the deployment of “right to work,” a phrase generally heard only in the conference rooms of law firms that specialize in collective bargaining.

43.
I don’t speak any English, just American without tears.
—”Americans Without Tears,” King of America (1986)

An uneven album, but the best tracks from King of America rank with anything else he’s done. Again, we have the hint of a story here: New Orleans, Word War II, beauty queens, pick-up artists, strangers in a strange land: no tears, but plenty of crying.

42.
When I think back a couple of days,
If I wasn’t happy then, I never will be.
I wonder was this
Ignorance or bliss?
It’s still too soon to know.
—”Still Too Soon To Know,” Brutal Youth (1994)

Criminally underrated track from a generally underrated album, concerning the heady first few days of a new relationship. When he says it’s too soon to know, what he really means is that he knows the thing is doomed, but refuses to admit it.

41.
So don’t try to touch my heart.
It’s darker than you think.
And don’t try to read my mind,
Because it’s full of disappearing ink.
—”All the Rage,” Brutal Youth (1994)

Isolation, rage, wit, ciphers.

ec brutal

40.
Here lie the records that she scratched.
And on the sleeve I find a note attached.
And it’s so like Candy.
—”So like Candy,” Mighty Like the Rose (1991)

The destruction by scratching of LP records was a big theme in alternative rock for decades. Somehow, “She deleted all the MP3s on my iPhone and sent me a text” doesn’t have the same emotional impact.

39.
I been talking to the walls,
And they been answering me.
—”Human Hands,” Imperial Bedroom (1982)

Never a good sign.

38.
Better send a begging letter to the big investigation.
Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?

Somewhere in the Quisling Clinic,
There’s a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes.
—”Green Shirt,” Armed Forces (1979)
This one, best as I can tell, concerns a newscaster rattling off bad news in a gentle and appealing way, and contains many gems, these two among them.

37.
Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards and notifying the next of kin.
Once again,
It’s all we’re skilled in.
We will be shipbuilding.
—”Shipbuilding,” single (1982)

Written during the Falklands War, a subtle but powerful antiwar song. Music by Clive Langer, who brought in Elvis to spruce up the words. The latter thinks it’s his best writing.

36.
Some of my friends sit around every evening,
and they worry about the times ahead.
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference,
and the promise of an early bed.
—”Radio Radio,” This Year’s Model (1978)

The obligatory rant about how corporate radio blows, but this could just as easily be a line about the American voting public…but then it would be called “Rubio Rubio.”

35.
The salty lips of the socialite sisters,
With their continental fingers
That have never seen working blisters—
Oh, I know they’ve got their problems.
I wish I was one of them.
—”New Lace Sleeves,” Trust (1981)

A return to a common Elvis theme, that of class differences between the suitor and his desired mate.

34.
So there He was on a water-bed,
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand,
Reading an airport novelette,
Listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Requiem.”
He said, before it had really begun,
“I prefer the one about My son.”
—”God’s Comic,” Spike (1989)

Kind of a long way to go for a musical theater joke, but, again, who but Elvis would go this far for a musical theater joke? Also, and not for nothing: it’s a good joke. And if there is a God, this is exactly how He’d be.

33.
He’s contemplating murder again—
He must be in love.
—”Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Hat,” Blood & Chocolate (1986)

We have all been Mr. Misery.

32.
I feel like a juggler running out of hands.
—”Welcome to the Working Week,” My Aim is True (1977)

Penultimate line of the first track of Elvis’s raucous debut album. Recall that the song opens with the allusion to “rhythmically admired” pictures, so we know what his other hands are occupied with.

31.
Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?
—”Beyond Belief,” Imperial Bedroom (1982)

One of the signature lines from what is, in my humble opinion, his best song.

Elvis

30.
Tear off your own head. It’s a doll revolution.
—”Tear Off Your Own Head,” When I Was Cruel (2002)

Not sure what this means exactly, but I think it presages the Tea Party movement.

29.
Tighter and tighter I hold you tightly,
You know I love you more than slightly.
—”Human Hands,” Imperial Bedroom (1982)

Ah, the glorious understatement.

28.
In a perfect world, where everyone is equal,
I’d still own the film rights, and be working on the sequel.
—”Everyday I Write the Book,” Punch the Clock (1983)

His most overrated single, one of the four EC songs reliably played on the radio, but here he has fun with even the less heralded aspects of publishing a book.

27.
So toll the bell or rock the cradle
Please don’t let me fear anything I cannot explain.
I can’t believe I’ll never believe in anything again.
—”Couldn’t Call It Unexpected,” Mighty Like the Rose (1991)

1991, the year in which my novel Totally Killer is set, was very much about Gen X disillusionment. He nails the zeitgeist here.

26.
She’s my soft touch typewriter, and I’m the Great Dictator.
—”The Great Dictator,” Armed Forces (1979)

Also the Roi of the Double Entendre.

25.
Don’t say you love me when it’s just a rumour.
Don’t say a word if there is any doubt.
Sometimes I think that love is just a tumour;
You’ve got to cut it out.
—”Lipstick Vogue,” This Year’s Model (1978)

Pop music has suggested that love hurts, love stinks, and love bites, but only Elvis would claim it was carcinogenic.

24.
He’s got all the things you need and some that you will never,
But you make him sound like frozen food: his love will last forever.
—”I Hope You’re Happy Now,” Blood & Chocolate (1986)

Blood & Chocolate is Elvis at his most bitter; apparently the eponymous chocolate is that health-food-store dark stuff that you need to chase with M&Ms.

23.
Don’t you think that I know that walking on the water won’t make me a miracle man?
—”Miracle Man,” My Aim is True (1977)

His girlfriend is very demanding.

22.
Thirteen steps lead down.
—”13 Steps Lead Down,” Brutal Youth (1994)

What happens when the 12-Step Program doesn’t take.

21.
But do people living in Toledo know that their name hasn’t traveled very well?
And does anybody in Ohio dream of that Spanish citadel?
—”Toledo,” Painted from Memory (1998)

The best track on this, the album he co-wrote with Burt Bacharach, involves the malefic aftermath of an affair. The chorus is a bit of whimsy.

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20.
My poor belated chastity fell foul of grown-up games.
With false and lovely modesty, I can recall the names I’ll miss.
In the particle of me that cares for this,
I betrayed those little atoms with a kiss.
—”Little Atoms,” All This Useless Beauty (1996)

Elvis is known for his sardonic view of the world, but this is about as pure and innocent a song as can be found: about the infinitesimal loss of innocence brought on by romantic love.

19.
Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay,
It only took my little fingers to blow you away.
—”Watching the Detectives,” My Aim is True (1977)

One of these days, I’ll write a Song Beneath the Song about “Detectives,” which seems to concern itself with the juxtaposition between the intense cop drama on TV and the the distracted woman watching it. There’s a lot of gun imagery on My Aim is True, suggesting an alternative meaning to the album’s title.

18.
“My Favorite Things” is playing again and again,
But it’s by Julie Andrews, and not by John Coltrane.
—”This is Hell,” Spike (1989)

A pretty strong two-line depiction of Hell, eh, Sean Beaudoin?

17.
Shall we agree that just this once, I’m gonna change my life
Until it’s just as tiny or important as you like?
—”The Other End of the Telescope,” All This Useless Beauty (1996)

Written with Aimee Mann, no slouch lyricist herself…for all I know, this is her line. Whatever, it’s still the song I danced with my wife to at our wedding.

16.
Between the Disney abattoir and the chemical refinery,
I knew I was in trouble but I thought I was in hell.
—”Tokyo Storm Warning,” Blood & Chocolate (1986)

He gets a free pass into Rock Lyricist Nirvana just for juxtaposing Disney and abattoir. The slick wordplay of the second line is gravy.

15.
Was it a millionaire who said, “Imagine no possessions?”
—”The Other Side of Summer,” Goodbye Cruel World (1984)

Imagine, Elvis criticizing the hypocrisy of John Lennon, who was not to be confused with V.I. Lenin when it came to property rights.

14.
I don’t know if you are loving some body.
I only know it isn’t mine.
—”Alison,” My Aim is True (1977)

If I’ve had enough to drink, I can make a compelling argument that this song is about a woman who becomes pregnant with what she thinks is the narrator’s baby, and he, like Michael Jackson in “Billie Jean,” denies it. Hence, “I know it isn’t mine.” Hence, “My aim is true.” But probably it’s just a clever pun.

13.
I’ll cry until you suspect my tears.
You’re not the only one who can turn it on
Where and when you need to.
—”Suspect My Tears,” unreleased

I heard him play this live, in 2002 or so; I think it was when he toured just with Steve Nieve. He never released it, and I only heard it once, and I still remember the chorus and the words.

12.
It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for.
It’s the way your shoulders shake, and what they’re shaking for.
It’s knowing that he knows you now, after only guessing.
It’s the thought of him undressing you. Or you undressing.
—”I Want You,” Blood & Chocolate (1986)

An extended track, unusual for Elvis, supposedly written and recorded on one extremely drunken evening. The consensus #1 Elvis song among Elvis cognoscenti (although I respectfully disagree). The raw, bitter agony of the heartbreak is palpable.

11.
The words of love are whispers and the acts of love are screams.
—”Brilliant Mistake,” King of America (1986)

Iambic septameter, motherfuckers.

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10.
She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.
—”Watching the Detectives,” My Aim is True (1977)

There is a name for this technique of two verbs in parallel construction with radically different meanings, but I think you need an MFA to know what it’s called.

9.
In this almost-empty gin palace,
Through a two-way looking glass, you see your Alice.
—”Beyond Belief,” Imperial Bedroom (1982)

What I most like about this song is that it is one of the blessed few in his catalogue that is hopeful. If this barfly can find happiness, hey, why not me too?

8.
She said that she was working for the ABC News.
It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use.
—”Brilliant Mistake,” King of America (1986).

I love this song so much, it hurts. In addition to the poetical (see #11) and the heartbreaking (see #3) is the hysterical: this may well be the funniest of his lines.

7.
Not all good things come to an end, now
It is only a chosen few.
—”Almost Blue,” Imperial Bedroom (1982)

A nail through the heart.

6.
Everybody loves a happy ending, but we don’t even try.
We go straight past pretending to the part where everybody loves to cry.
—”Indoor Fireworks,” King of America (1982)

Heard this for the first time at the Prince George’s County Equestrian Center. Thought it was his best song. It’s still very high on my list.

5.
They keep you hanging on until you’re well hung.
—”Accidents Will Happen,” Armed Forces (1979)

The best Elvis double entendre, in one of his best songs.

4.
I said, “I’m so happy, I could die!”
She said, “Drop dead,” then left with another guy.
—”(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes,” My Aim is True (1977)

A major theme in his work is the wronged man, the guy who gets dumped, the heartbroken Mr. Misery. This line neatly encapsulates all of that, with equal part humor and pathos.

3.
I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this loving feeling
Disappear, like it was common sense.
—”Brilliant Mistake,” King of America (1982)

The longing for the love to never have occurred to ease his pain, and the backhanded suggestion that love runs counter to prudence.

2.
I don’t wanna be your lover.
I just wanna be your victim.
—”The Beat,” This Year’s Model (1978)

A major theme, if not the major theme, of his work, distilled into two succinct lines.

1.
I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused.
—”(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes,” My Aim is True (1977)

Oh, how I wish I’d known about this when it was time to pick my senior high school yearbook quote, because these, my friends, are words to live by.

About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
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One Response to Not One with a Defect: The 50 Greatest Song Lyrics of Elvis Costello

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