You have to understand that back in the day, as “they” say, the anticipation for new recordings by Elvis Costello was a bit of an event for fans and collectors alike. Arguably not since The Beatles had there been an artist so aggressively working his audience amidst what Bruce Springsteen called a “perfect storm” of music. Fans like me quickly learned to make friends with the independent store owners who were able to get imported pressings of Elvis’ numerous singles from the UK on Stiff, Radar and F-Beat Records. Eventually, as he became popular in the USA, domestic singles and EPs were released on Columbia Records.
Even after Elvis changed labels to Warner Brothers, the fun continued for a while even into the CD era, with a barrage of groovy CD singles and EPs with non-LP bonus tracks as well as 45s and 12-inch vinyl counterparts. And then Elvis negotiated his multi-album / multi-label deal with Universal Music Group and things seemed to stop.
Things started changing…
Albums kept coming at regular intervals, but the vinyl singles became increasingly elusive and you saw them appearing less and less in music stores, or if you did they were impossibly expensive. Lately, however, I’m getting a happy sense that Elvis is rekindling some of that marketing joy which makes a lot of sense in these days of streaming and downloads of albums — why not put out some of that material in special editions which can live on beyond the Internet?
Last year Elvis put out a curious single, a frisky cover of an overlooked song from Squeeze’s seminal 1981 album East Side Story. “Someone Else’s Heart” is a neat stepping stone cover finding Elvis backed by The Roots! Its a fun version. You can find the vinyl single on Elvis’ bandcamp page which is cheaper than its going for on Amazon… It is also streaming on Tidal.
This year for Record Store Day, Elvis put out something a bit meatier: Purse is a nifty 180-gram, quiet well-centered black vinyl 12-inch EP (there is also a 7-inch version in the UK apparently) featuring four new tracks, each based on Costello’s writing with other artists including Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.
Track two, “The Lovers That Never Were” is perhaps the most significant on Purse, at least to music fans of a certain age who happen to be fans of The Beatles as well as Costello since it was co-written with Paul McCartney. Dating back to the 1987 songwriting sessions which resulted in McCartney’s comeback hit “My Brave Face” (on Flowers In the Dirt) and several tracks on Costello’s album Spike, this new version is quite a bit different than how McCartney eventually recorded it on the Off The Ground album (1993, click here to read more about its genesis).
From Elvis Costello’s book Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink he says of this: “One of the best songs that Paul and I wrote together was written at the piano. It was a sweeping, romantic tune that could almost have been an epic Bacharach ballad. In its first draft, it was a little reminiscent of “It’s for You,” a song that Paul had written for Cilla Black in 1964.”
The demo version was eventually released on a deluxe edition of Flowers In The Dirt a few years ago and you can hear it in MQA format on Tidal if you have access to that streaming music service (click here) and there is also a later 1988 demo eventually released as part of the Archive series of releases (click here for that Tidal MQA stream).
So how is the new version? Fabulous! Elvis finds that special balance between his original vision for the song, Paul’s demos and where Elvis is today with his ever thoughtful-wonderful backing band, The Imposters. You can hear it streaming in CD quality up on Tidal as well (click here). It is quite the epic.
Track one, “Everyone’s Playing House” is right up there as well, written with the great Burt Bacharach; this one would sit neatly on their collaboration album Painted From Memory but also works fabulously on this EP (especially back to back with the McCartney co-written track that follows).
Side Two is interesting not only for the Johnny Cash co-written song “If You Love Me” but also “Down On The Bottom” featuring lyrics by Bob Dylan. The latter is significant since Elvis was part of a bigger project which resurrected unpublished 1967 lyrics by Mr. Zimmerman ending up on an album called Lost On The River by The New Basement Tapes — a 21st Century supergroup which includes Costello. There, numerous versions of certain lyrics appeared with different songwriters tackling the music. Elvis had five co-writes there and this is another one that didn’t appear on the album (My Morning Jacket’s Jim James got that distinction with the album opening version of this song). You can read my review of Lost On The River by clicking here.
Frankly, I think I like Elvis’ version better, which has a more soulful feel. James’ version is written and sung like outtake from Dylan’s 1968-’70 period which is cool, but that seems a kind of obvious path to take. Elvis took the song to a swampier place that stands on its own. If you have Tidal, you can click here to hear that version and here for Elvis’ interpretation.
The copy on the back of the EP says Purse is “Where the secrets are kept…. where the kisses begin… where the treasure is held…” I hope this is signal about continued greatness to come from Elvis Costello who certainly pleased many of us last with his finest album in a long while, Look Now (click here for my review). You can find Purse on Amazon but it is pretty pricey there so look around at your favorite independent record store as you may well find it for a more reasonable price (I paid about $16 for mine).
Whatever way you get it, Purse is a compact four song masterclass in classic songwriting.
So, yeah, you need this…