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That Fatal Mailing List #103: "Home Truth" (1984)
EC fans need no introduction to his 1984 album Goodbye Cruel World; we can all recall the putdown that the Man himself issued in his liner notes to the 1995 Rykodisc edition: “Congratulations! You’ve just purchased our worst album.”
It’s such a bold statement that I can’t consider the record without it springing up in my brain. That makes it very difficult to distance the artist from the art, or in this case, the artist’s entirely justified pan for the art he made in the 80s.
I’ve always felt that Goodbye Cruel World mostly sounds as terrible as its reputation, but that there are many good songs that could be rescued by a different approach. There are acoustic demos of some tunes available on reissues that are stark and uncompromising emotionally; as I wrote when we talked about “Sour Milk-Cow Blues,” it’s like an erudite bitter divorcee’s Nebraska.
Costello distanced himself from his 1995 assessment in the liner notes from the 2004 Rhino reissue, admitting that there were some great songs buried beneath the tug-of-war production. We agree that “Home Truth” is one of those standouts.
"Home Truth" is as stark, unguarded, and unpolished a lyric as I had written to this point. I could not find any disguise for the simple recitation of falling out of love with someone that I'd adored for many years. The closest thing to distraction is the lyrical allusion to Dan Penn's "It Tears Me Up" in the bridge. Within the year I would add both Penn's "Dark End Of The Street" and Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone" to my repertoire.
Costello has never been a confessional songwriter, but that doesn’t mean his experiences and entanglements haven’t influenced his work. His own admission places “Home Truth” in a mode of direct first-person emotional revelation. In some form or fashion, this disillusion of his first marriage seemed to play out in slow motion across a few albums, starting with Imperial Bedroom in 1982 and proceeding all the way through 1986’s Blood and Chocolate.
But of course, he’s far too good a songwriter to simply pour his feelings into his tunes; instead, fragments are refracted through other characters, situations, approaches. “Home Truth” anchors itself around the idea in its title, that there is some kind of foundational truth represented by “Home” (which stands in for love, stability, trust) that can be lost when communication ends and lies become common currency. When the “home truth” ends, what’s left behind? Is there anything worth salvaging?
Although somewhat lost beneath a haze of mid-80s ambiance, the Attractions do serve the song well, especially with a recurring three-beat riff that echoes through the song, which is carried throughout by Steve Nieve’s piano but is doubled by Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums as the couplets of each verse conclude. It’s a place where the fog of war that Costello creates around the production actually works to the song’s favor; there’s something brittle and dark about it, tugging constantly at the fraying edges of the song’s rotten romance.
Listen to “Home Truth” on the streaming service of your choice.
BONUS: Costello played the song on his 1984 tour supporting Goodbye Cruel World in a full-band arrangement that takes its cues from the record, but also represents the ragged, rowdy edges the band brought to every song live, especially in this era of his career. They do tear into it with gusto, but at the same time, you can almost hear the band struggling not to deflate around Costello, clinging desperately to the song almost by instinct alone.