Sometimes, the opening notes of a song sounds like a door opening, light suddenly flooding out from an undiscovered room full of mystery and feeling.
Mitchell Froom’s brief intro to Elvis Costello’s “Sleep of the Just” is just such an intro. It’s a few seconds long, not overly complicated or intricate. He’s playing what the liner notes call a “doctored piano,” and I’ll let EC explain what that means from his liner notes to the 1995 Rykodisc reissue of King of America:
The distortion of the piano on "Sleep Of The Just" was achieved in the studio (by running the mikes through a Leslie cabinet) so that we could play to the altered sound.
I play a lot of piano, for fun if not profit; I love the instrument and it’s often my entry point to a song. I’m familiar with the practice of “prepared piano,” which I think I learned about from a Ben Folds record. To do that, you’re putting objects on or around the actual piano strings in order to alter the sound. Bolts, screws, cutlery; the possiblities are endless. As I understand it, this is different from a “tack piano,” where the alterations are permanent; if you’re setting up a prepared piano, you have to be able to return it to its original sound when you’re done.
But this isn’t quite prepared; it’s doctored. The description fascinates me, as someone who doesn’t quite understand music production speak. So the piano was miked, and then that output was run through the Leslie cabinet? And it’s done live in studio, so does that mean some of that reverb leaked onto the other mics? Or was it just run through the headphones? I don’t even know if those are questions a sensible person would ask! I’m just riveted regardless.
Froom is an exceptional player, and here he is working throughout the song with careful economy. Every key stroke matters; if he’s not adding a discrete fill, he’s buttressing the rest of the song with gentle support while EC’s acoustic guitar drives the music forward. The whole record is like this, whether it’s Froom or any one of the other session all-stars that producer T-Bone Burnett recruited for the album. They work solely in service of the song. Everything else is secondary.
What is “Sleep of the Just” about? I have ideas; it may be among my top ten favorite Elvis Costello songs. But as I write this, I’m drawn almost completely into the music, and especially Froom’s piano. Whatever they’ve done to the sound, it conveys a tender instability that echoes the tune’s meaning. The narrators here are uncertain, tentative; it’s a song about farewells, but one where the players are unprepared, deposited into unfamiliar terrain and taking in the scene.
Which brings us back to this doctored piano. It sounds like a piano at its heart, or maybe an organ? It’s familiar, but also strange; delicate by choice, merciful at turns. It’s unsettling and beautiful. It sets the stage for that final crushing verse, where our solider is faced with a moment of embarrassment and humiliation, and the song forgives him for it, even as he can’t quite forgive himself.
Greil Marcus, on King of America in 1986, for Artforum:
You can’t rest with the perfect gentleness of “Sleep of the Just,” with the forgiveness in the way Costello sings “If you must, you must.” What is communicated is a conviction that a form of speech is a form of morality; as the notion rises up with in the music, it can begin to make you nervous.
Listen to “Sleep of the Just” on the streaming service of your choice.
Just discovered you when you subscribed to my column. Wow. I know a lot of people are obsessive about a single artist, but it is rarely warranted. Elvis is the rare exception. I was a fan during his early years, when the context was punk and New Wave, then sort of lost track. He resurfaced for me in his electrifying collaboration with Roy Orbison, including Black and White Night, which I consider one of the great monuments in Western pop culture history. I've randomly checked out two other earlier posts, expect to check out a lot more. Really glad you stopped by!