COMMENTS: Old school country musicians sometimes had a special quiet way with expressions of despair and even insanity and psychosis. Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson have sang gentle contemplative songs about killing their lovers. Then there was old Porter Wagoner breaking down "The Cold Hard Facts of Life" in "The Rubber Room."


Blues and rock singers do psycho, but generally they do it by wailing away. There are many fine songs expressed that way, from "Shotgun Blues" to "Manic Depression" to "Jeremy." That's fine, but sometimes you can get a better look at the heart of darkness by easing up to it.


Elvis Costello is supposedly a "punk rock singer" and he's from England besides, but he's got more real classic American country music in him than any of these half-assed modern Garth Brooks. He's written a number of absolute unmistakable country songs, and quite a few that could be mistaken for country.  He's had no lesser stamps of authenticity than covers by Johnny Cash and George Jones.  


Elvis is country despite Almost Blue, his quickie album of country covers. It was produced by infamous country schlockmeister Billy Sheridan, and ended up totally unconvincing. It sounded like country, all right: Kenny Rogers country. It was a bizarre and seemingly emotionless, bloodless record coming from someone who had accidentally exhibited such understanding of the music.


This little gem makes it all up. It is a stone cold country song, complete with the steel guitar. "Psycho" is an obscure live cover version originally put out as the B-side of a single. It was added to the Almost Blue album as a bonus track for the Rykodisc reissue, and unilaterally justifies the cost of the CD.


The narrator shows up at his mother's home. He's famished and falling apart. He's suicidally depressed and obviously schizophrenic. He has been on a blind killing spree, blacking out and not remembering or even realizing what he has done half the time. He's struggling to maintain control in front of his mama, while begging for help. "You'd better let them lock me up."


There are all kinds of subtle emotional shadings in the song. He expresses an overwhelming bleak hopeless despair that dominates the record. He colors that with alternating regret for the damage he knows he's causing, fear, confusion, and guilt.


Some of these emotions are written into the words and phrases of the melody and some come from Elvis' creepily restrained vocal. It's difficult to separate them. Anyway, Elvis gives an astonishing performance that makes me feel more grokking for this kind of mental state than any rock music.


In fact, in occasional moments of despair, I have put the song on repeat for an hour or two at a time. Not that I'm psycho or anything.


Holla Back! 

Elvis Costello Is King

Music Sustains the Soul

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