No One Told Me It Was Raining
That Fatal Mailing List #52: Lost Songs, Pondering - "What Do I Do Now?" (1996)
I was listening recently to an episode of the exceptional Elvis Costello podcast Dangerous Amusements, where host Stu Arrowsmith and his guest Theo Delaney chose their five favorite covers performed by EC. One of Stu’s was Elvis at Live Aid, where he emerged alone with just an acoustic guitar and led a hundred thousand people in the vast audience in a rendition of “an old Northern folk song,” the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.”
In speaking about the cover, Ian mentioned the audacity of EC to walk onto such a massive platform—a huge in-person crowd and millions more watching live via satellite—armed with just a guitar and a great song.
It takes an incredible artist to pull that off, and EC has done it plenty throughout his career. In 1996, Costello took that stripped-down approach to his version of a song by the UK band Sleeper, “What Do I Do Now?” Originally recorded for a British music magazine bonus CD, it’s since been released on the bonus disc of the Rhino edition of All This Useless Beauty.
Written by Sleeper’s lead singer Louise Wener, the original “What Do I Do Now?” is a satisfying slice of mid-nineties Britpop, complete with crunching guitar chords and keening synth bleeps. I don’t know if they were seen as contemporaries at the time, but the sound makes me think of Cerys Matthews and Catatonia.
Even bolstered by the backdrop of a full Britpop band, “What Do I Do Now?” is ultimately a lament. It’s a breakup song that starts right before the breakup, about a woman in a relationship that feels like it’s crumbling beneath her feet. The signs of closure are devastating, but more painful is the uncertainty, which sits right there in the title—what does she do now? Are they going under? She thought they had it sorted.
Wener finds so many aching details throughout the song—the sound of her corduroy flares, or the way the two lovers reach for each others’ hands out of habit on the way home from a pub. Her words lay bare the brutal honesty of someone who starts to question her relationship and is suddenly questioning herself:
Is there someone else? Am I too familiar?
Was it when I said I wanted to have children?
Unadorned, set plain against the chords of his acoustic guitar, EC cuts straight to the emotional core of the song. It may be one of his most vulnerable recorded performances. The simple arrangement for the verses and choruses allows him to hesitate, to add a veil of emotional withdrawal, where even as he’s pleading for answers, he’s afraid of what those answers will be.
When the bridge hits, as the singer exposes her fear and admits she’ll miss her lover, electric guitar chords start to shimmer in the distance. A simple bass line rises up under it. EC’s double-tracked backing vocals sharpen and a single tambourine taps out a lonely rhythm. Later, organ and what sounds like a melodica fill out the backdrop as well.
It’s almost as though when the singer reaches her most desperate moments of longing, the music recognizes her pain and supports her sad wonderment. It’s an incredible performance of a gorgeous song.