COMMENTS: This was the first Elvis Costello song I ever heard. It showed up somehow on the local dumbass AOR station between Journey and REO Speedwagon as I remember. I don't know how to express what a stunning and exciting moment it was simply laying on my bed listening to the radio, but it hit me between the eyes like nothing since my experience several years previously of first hearing the Beatles. The strange rhythms, the hypnotic bass line, the mysterious and menacing words - it was a transcendental moment that comes very rarely. It is something difficult to explain, but try I must.


The whole effect of the record is of mystery and menace coming to a slow boil. The song is built on sharpened and minimalized reggae rhythms, somewhat like the Police were doing about that time, but with a sense of foreboding they never achieved. Part of this foreboding was from the murder mystery organ of Steve Naive, whose keyboards put the neuroses and psychoses into the arrangements of much of Elvis' greatest work. Props must also be given to the bass creeping around like a single minded stalker in the bushes.


The lyrics are something of a mystery, much like the crimes not fully explained in the story. Between the lack of a lyric sheet with the album, his vocal's place in the mix, and the purposeful vagueness of the narrative at certain points, I have spent years pondering these words - even after I got the printed words from the internet.


The words describe a dangerous mix of perverted lust, emotional abuse, insensitivity and violence all magnified by the constant barrage of the omnipresent media busily desensitizing the masses. The story apparently involves a woman blithely watching yet another murder mystery on television. "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake" describes the casual consumption of violent entertainment as well as the calculated coolness of a murderer returning to the scene of the crime. Eventually the story seemingly turns real around the consumer, until the narrator shows up as the avenger talking to her now apparently lifeless body. Seemingly she - and by extension the whole consumer society- have been killed (or at least emotionally deadened) by passivity and desensitisation.


The main vocal melody starts with coldly dramatic lines setting up the story, like short, sharp cuts in a film: "she looks so good that he gets down and begs...she's filing her nails...", etc. Stop for lines of emotional commentary with longer, slower notes and bigger jumps in tone, borne down for emphasis "I don't know how much more of this I can take." He goes from coolly descriptive to emotionally pleading. Then the last verse comes out as one long breathless line as the whole thing builds to the payoff line of final vengeance. "Oh I hear it took a miracle to get you to stay; it only took my little fingers to blow you a-waaaay."  Not for nothing was this first album called My Aim Is True.


Though the original studio version is probably the definitive one, the live version now included as a bonus track on the already indispensable Armed Forces album is unique and nearly equal. It really does particularly well in bringing out that last line.


Elvis had an odd place in his coming out, never fully belonging to the punk / new wave movement with which he was inevitably identified. Largely this is because truly great artists hardly ever can be contained by the simple descriptions of any movement or cause. Elvis liked to say his group was never punk rock simply because they could actually play their instruments. However, this song shows how well he fully represents what the cause was ideally about: a real live raging soul cutting through the layers of artifice and commercial calculation in the industry to express what is in his heart.


Holla Back! 

Elvis Costello Is King

Music Sustains the Soul

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