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Sung In Different Keys
That Fatal Mailing List #104: "The World and His Wife" (1983)
It opens with a piano riff that sounds like a bowling ball falling across the low keys, then after a howl from Elvis Costello, the horns come in with a riff straight out of the Dexy’s Midnight Runners playbook. Pete Thomas is laying down a bouncing pop beat while Bruce Thomas’ fluid bass lines gurgle beneath the treble. There’s electronic handclaps on the 2-4 beat and EC’s own voice on stacked backing vocals. Occasionally, an organ interrupts.
This may seem like a lot for a dark lyric exploring the seamy underbelly of middle class family life, and it is. It is a lot. The entire album, 1983’s Punch the Clock, can also be a lot, and represents a stylistic pivot for EC from the Beatlesque baroque pop of Imperial Bedroom in 1982.
For Punch the Clock, Costello recruited contemporary hitmakers Clive Langer & Alan Winstanley, who had delivered “Come On Eileen” for the aforementioned Midnight Runners and “Our House” for Madness, among others. The pair managed to wring “Everyday I Write The Book” out of Costello and the Attractions, which hit 26 in the UK and 36 on the Billboard charts in the US, their first appearance in the Top 40.
Thematically, Punch the Clock finds EC searching for a few of the silver linings behind the dark and beautiful clouds he’d conjured with his previous release. Songs like “The Greatest Thing” and “Let Them All Talk” sound like an upbeat self-help guru compared to the bleak outlook on some of the Imperal Bedroom tracks. On tracks like “Love Went Mad” and “The Element Within Her,” EC does his usual exceptional job of capturing jaded lovers in mid-repose.
He ends it with “The World and His Wife,” suggesting that’s where all love affairs inevitably wash up. However happy the beginning, eventually you’re stuck forcing conversation with people you don’t like very much, while a thin veneer of propriety and politeness struggles to contain deep-seated resentment and perversion. “Daddy went out with the rubbish and he kept on walking / between Mum and the walls, God only knows who does the talking.”
At the same time, the song is a party in a tight 3:26, sketching a domestic horror scene with its lyrics even as the music grooves and bops. In that, he’s capturing something of his own contemporary worldview in the early 80s, as Reaganomics and Thatcherism cast their own glossy polish to cover up weaponized cruelty and exclusion. As Costello wrote in his liner notes to the 1995 Rykodisc reissue of the album:
Between 1979 and 1983 something strange happened. The British government mutated from an annoying and often disreputable body, that spent people's taxes on the wrong things, into a hostile regime contemptuous of anyone who did not serve or would not yield to its purpose.
The same could easily be said of the American cultural landscape, which makes “The World And His Wife” a near-perfect expression of a moment in history for the western hemisphere. There’s dancing to be done, horn riffs to blow and pianos to pound; but as the song fades to nothing, it’s a living and this is the life.
Listen to “The World and His Wife” on the streaming service of your choice.
BONUS: Fans who’ve picked up any of the reissued editions of the album will no doubt remember the early version of “World and his Wife” performed on EC’s 1982 acoustic tour, where he tried out tunes that would eventually appear on Punch the Clock as well as its 1984 follow-up, Goodbye Cruel World. This is a gutting version…and yet, casting it as a mournful acoustic ballad sorta takes the subtext and makes it text. Worth hearing, but as controversial as it may be, I think I prefer the album cut.
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