Elvis Costello: “Town Cryer”
On the days when I don’t claim XTC as my second-favorite music band/artist, there’s a pretty good likelihood that I’d be saying it was Elvis Costello instead. He has had an incredible career, from his early peak in the late ’70s and early ’80s through his varied and often-excellent-but-occasionally-hit-or-miss output since. Unlike many artists who have coasted in the later parts of their career (Rod Stewart being one of the more obvious examples), Costello has kept his edge and has put out some great albums in the past few years. Very few artists are as prolific as Costello, with something like 25 albums of mostly original material over the past 34 years, so to keep the music interesting after all those years and albums is really saying something.
The period from 1977 through 1982, however, is unrivaled anywhere else in his catalog. With few exceptions (King of America, Blood and Chocolate, and a couple of more-recent albums), his greatest albums are concentrated in this period. And the final great album in that stretch (prior to 1983’s occasionally great but mostly spotty Punch the Clock) is 1982’s Imperial Bedroom. Produced by Geoff Emerick — the recording engineer on a majority of The Beatles’ albums, most notably Sgt. Pepper — Imperial Bedroom is a continuation and maturation of Elvis’s great songwriting from his earlier albums filtered through Emerick’s studio mastery and tricks. While not exactly aspiring to be Sgt. Pepper, it nonetheless has many more studio effects evident than any other previous Costello album. This manages not to get in the way of the songs for the most part, thankfully, because they’re a great batch of songs — in fact, the album has landed on several “greatest album” lists, including #166 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
If Imperial Bedroom is the last of Elvis’s great early albums, then “Town Cryer,” its final song, is the last of that period’s great songs. A relatively simple production compared to the rest of the album, it’s a song of heartbreak and self-pity that jumps out initially because of its straightforwardness. Although it does build into an orchestra-backed piece, the stark piano that it begins with sets the tone for the rest of the song. It’s Elvis doing some of his best Cole Porter-style songwriting and at the same time highlights how good his voice had become by 1982. He had come a long way from the angry, caught-in-the-throat snarl of My Aim Is True, nearly making himself over as a crooner for this song. Elvis claims he’d like to hear Barry White sing the song, but it’s hard to imagine White singing lines like:
Maybe you don’t believe my heart is in the right place
Why don’t you take a good look at my face
Other boys use the splendour of their trembling lip
They’re so teddy bear tender and tragically hip.
“Town Cryer” is proof that Elvis could do emotionally fragile as convincingly as he could do angry and jaded — as much as he lashed out at the hypocrisy of the world around him, he was always just a romantic at heart.