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That Fatal Mailing List #106: "Last Boat Leaving" (1989)
Elvis Costello’s 1989 album Spike is filled to bursting with ideas–musical genres, lyrical witticisms, emotional trajectories that shoot off in every imaginable direction. And rich characters–men and women struggling to manage emotional turmoil of every shape, from a loved one succumbing to dementia to a lover who strays far from home and leaves behind an empty husk of a partner.
It’s the first EC record of the CD era, and he fills it with a whopping 15 tracks, 64 minutes of music, many of the songs stretching out over four and five minutes in length. But it’s not indulgent; every decision is made based on what will best serve each story told.
It’s also EC’s first record under his deal with Warner Bros. Records, which represented a moment of relative hope and largesse on the part of both parties involved. As he described in the liner notes to the Rhino reissue of Spike:
I had the blueprint of five albums in my head. Having felt hostility turn into invisibility at Columbia, I offered W.B. their choice. I would even shoot it out with a highly commercial producer if they so desired - believing the songs and my voice could hold their own. They told me to make whatever record I wanted. I seem to have elected to make all five albums at once.
Given that expansive opportunity, “Last Boat Leaving” emerges as one of the more straightforward and simple recordings on Spike, built around EC’s acoustic guitar as gently lifted by T-Bone Wolk on bass and Jim Keltner on brush-work drums. EC himself layers on piano, organ and mandolin, along with tracked backing vocals that pierce into the song’s chorus. Wolk contributes a gentle, sad accordion; Cait O’Riordan assays the sleigh bells.
Costello describes “Last Boat Leaving” as one of a few tunes on Spike inspired by the experiences of his grandparents; here he takes on the role of of a man not unlike his grandfather, departing for a stint as ship’s musician on the White Star Line in the 1920s and 1930s. The lyric captures the pathos of the final moments on the dock before he boards; the singer doesn’t want to go, but feels he must.
“It would be better for you two/If you don’t look back when we sail,” EC sings, and you can imagine a young mother and child in a greywash snapshot, captured mid-turn as they pivot away from the man they both love, who has to leave them to provide for them, there’s just nothing else for it. “You’ll read my story in history books/Only they won’t mention my name,” and there the personal escapes from the narrative and aligns with a much bigger story, a time of poverty and struggle in England when the only work for a music man was on the sea, far away from his family.
It’s the final song on Spike, and somehow it manages to pull together the album’s threads of history and loss into a simple tale that leaves the listener with one final emotional sock across the jaw.
Listen to “Last Boat Leaving” on the streaming service of your choice.