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We Know That He's Desperate
That Fatal Mailing List #62: "Under Lime" (2018)
Elvis Costello’s 2018 record Look Now opens with one of his most ambitious pop-rock recordings of the past 20 years.
It’s not “ambitious” in the sense that some songs on Hey Clockface are; EC and the Imposters are working within a specific genre. It’s not an exploration, at least not musically; more of a refinement, an incredible victory lap of a song on an album where Costello summons all his powers as a songwriter and performer to remind the world that yes, he really is THAT good at all of the above.
“I knew if we could make an album with the scope of Imperial Bedroom and some of the beauty and emotion of Painted From Memory, we would really have something,” EC said in the promotional material for Look Now.
For me, “Under Lime” most closely resembles one of the centerpiece tunes from Imperial Bedroom, “Man Out Of Time.” These are as close as Costello gets to pop epics, something in the category of “Like A Rolling Stone” or “American Pie,” long observational narratives built around sturdy pop hooks and in some cases elaborate instrumentation.
“Man Out Of Time” isn’t so elaborate; it’s more defined by the studio trickery of processed vocals and the go-for-broke performances of the Attractions, who attack the song as though their lives depend on it. Steve Nieve especially doubles down on the track, dropping ten to fifteen piano riffs over the course of the song that are each catchy enough that they could support their own pop singles.
“Under Lime” has a similar moderate uptempo groove, although there’s a distance to it, too; if EC and the Attractions embedded themselves inside “Man Out Of Time” to destroy it from within, then Costello and the Imposters are observing the action from a remove, no less committed but more wry than wiry. It fits well with the “sophisticated pop” approach to the record.
Lyrically, “Under Lime” captures a series of snapshots from the middle-lower end of showbusiness. One of our lead characters, Jimmie, is a struggling old entertainer who we’ve actually met before—he features in the EC song “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” from the 2010 album National Ransom. The lyrics printed in the National Ransom CD give us a time and place for Jimmy’s debut in the Costelloverse—Accrington, 1937.
“Under Lime” fastforwards a few decades; here Jimmy is smelling a comeback thanks to an appearance on what sounds like a What’s My Line-style game show. Unfortunately, they’re almost out of time, so they send a young female production assistant to break the news and keep Jimmy occupied.
Costello spends the first verse and chorus setting the stage, establishing his characters and milieu—the seedy backstage of this low-rent TV show; a delusional Jimmy stumbling around amongst showgirls; the production assistant receiving impossible instructions:
They told the young girl with the clipboard, "Just keep him amused"
"Whatever you do, don't tell him your name"
"Whatever you think, don't let him drink"
Then, EC hops between two points of view—the assistant encountering Jimmy, and Jimmy’s view of the same interaction. I always pause at the moment when EC seems to imply a level of consent from the assistant to Jimmy’s leering and prying questions:
Though she could guess, I think you will find
She thought, "Oh, you know, I wouldn't mind"
He asked her boyfriend's name, then her whole family tree
She thought, "I can't believe, it's happening to me"
I struggle with it because it’s hard not to hear it as a “both sides” moment about how impressed a young woman must be to get attention from a fictional gross old man. But there’s just enough ambiguity throughout the story to draw my interpretation into question.
Mostly, it’s a series of uncomfortable events, punctuated by suggested come-ons and evasions, prompted by a man whose lack of self-awareness comes off as increasingly unhinged. “We know that he’s desperate,” EC sings of Jimmy in the song’s second verse, and that cuts in a number of ways—he’s not just desperate to regain fame, but desperate for human connection, or even just lecherous gratification.
There’s a level of uncertainty created by the situation and characters, and then a second level established by how EC chooses to describe and explain the situation—or in some cases, how he chooses not to. Putting these two people together in a cramped TV studio dressing room suggests any number of awful outcomes. My personal take is that the assistant has the spine to make her objections clear, and Jimmy lacks the spine to do much more than pout and preen after his advances are rejected.
There’s a theme of reinvention here too; the repeated lines, “It’s a long way down from the high horse you’re on/It’s a long way back as you cover your tracks” suggest that Jimmy may see this TV appearance as an opportunity to be reborn in the spotlight. In the dimness of the offstage glow, we see him revealed for what he is, and know that there’s no way he can cover the ground from where is now—where he has floundered for decades—to where he longs to be.
Which is an ambitious scenario to successfully cram into a five-minute pop song; it’s matched by the accompaniment, which employs not just the Imposters but an orchestral section to great effect. There’s a neat instrumental trick between the segments of the song, where Costello’s “baaa-ba-baa” backing vocals are accompanied first by that orchestra, then by the brass section, and then by both together. It suggests the combo on this failed game show playing their way into and out of commercials. Producer Sebastian Krys puts some choice effects on Pete Thomas’ drum parts to lend an air of surreality to key moments in the song.
I am always trying to be as brave a listener as Elvis Costello is a performer. I genuinely enjoy his every foray into unexplored territory. I always give it a try. He brings so much of himself and his skill to every genre and mood he tackles.
But I am only human, and so hearing this song open Look Now felt like a tremendous gift from the cosmos, not just new music from my favorite artist but one of those endless “returns to form” that actually surpasses anything that’s come before. Sardonic and clever, full of empathy and wit, catchy as all get-out and lush with fifes and bassoons and roiling piano—it’s everything I love about Elvis Costello in under six minutes.
Shit, even just the title—”Under Lime” is where the booze and the bodies go, and when you’re skidding downhill like Jimmy, the former’s going to send you straight to the latter.