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Vinyl Tap: Elvis Costello – “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4″

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I raid my record collection and randomly rediscover the tracks of my years…

“Please don’t let me fear anything I cannot explain
I can’t believe, I’ll never believe in anything again.”

Having seen Elvis Costello live more times than I have Bruce Springsteen and, in days of yore, the Kinks – and that’s saying something – I’ve probably yielded to the ultimate Costello concert cliché and shouted out requests for “Pump it Up” as much as the next seat holder. But truth be told, if my real favorite Elvis song didn’t have such an unwieldy title and wasn’t such an unpopular downer — and no, it’s not “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)” — I’d be doing “Freebird”-sized freak-outs for the poignant and disquieting “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4.” Which you could call – if you do the math — twice the song in many ways the equally polysyllabic “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 2” is, both songs aptly if disjointedly hailing from the not entirely mighty Mighty Like a Rose, from 1991. (Though the album does offer the stellar Beach Boys-on-Manson anti-anthem “The Other Side of Summer,” and boasts the Paul McCartney co-penned “So Like Candy.”)

After all, we’re not talking about pumpin’ and puttin’ “your passion out under the pressure pin” set to a raucous bass-heavy beat, as much as we’re addressing the the need for solace and mocking sentimentality, all underscored by a melodic tune and rollicking calliope-style instrumentation that almost derides  death, first in the initial vignette of a girl who’d “found her consolation”:

I saw a girl who’d found her consolation
She said “One day my Prince of Peace will come”
Above her head a portrait of her father
The wilted favour that he gave her still fastened to the frame
“They’ve got his bones and everything he owns
I’ve got his name”

Recalling the infectiousness of the titular “Wall of Death” carnival ride Richard and Linda Thompson sang about on 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights (“You’re going nowhere when you ride on the carousel … let me take my chances on the Wall of Death.”), listeners may get so carried away by the tuneful echo and sway that they might not catch the happenstance of serendipity: “I’m the lucky goon who composed this tune from birds arranged on a high wire.”

An expression of faith and acceptance becomes a desire to transform ineffable concepts into reality:

Well you can laugh at this sentimental story

But in time you’ll have to make amends
The sudden chill where lovers doubt their immortality
As the clouds cover the sky the evening ends
Describing a picture of eyes finally closing
As you sometimes glimpse terrible faces in the fire
We’ll I’m the lucky goon
Who composed this tune
from birds arranged on the high wire 

Who on earth is tapping at the window?
Does that face still linger at the pane?
I saw you shiver though the room was like a furnace
A shadow of regret across a young mother’s face
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

This overarching belief clinches the thematic messages of the song, which remains powerful even when Elvis goes off mic to perform it – mortality, faith, solace, providence — while capturing the more personal relevance and significance. And that’s pumpin’ up the unexpectedness.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • http://www.morethings.com/wordpress Al Barger

    This is an excellent and perhaps under appreciated song, but “So Like Candy” is the real bomb from this album. He’s never played it live any time I’ve seen him, but I was very pleased to see him perform it in season 2 of his Spectacle talk show.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks, Al. I’ve seen him perform “Candy” several times with much expressiveness and subtlety, and read that it’s one of his favorite collaborations with McCartney.

  • Kit O’Toole

    I agree with Al–“So Like Candy” is a great Costello/McCartney song. May I add “Broken” and “Playboy to a Man” (also a McCartney collaboration) to the list? :) Very thought-provoking, Gordon.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks Kit. While on the subject, I would also add “Veronica,” and on McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt, probably my favorite of the collaborations, “My Brave Face.”