You'll Be Young Enough Forever
That Fatal Mailing List #84: "The Greatest Thing" (1983)
There’s a lot that can be jarring about Punch the Clock, Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ 1983 release. It’s the product of a very deliberate change in approach; after a detour into country western on Almost Blue and the labyrinthine pop of Imperial Bedroom, EC wanted to put out a pop record. So he hired two of the era’s leading pop producers, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, to help him make one.
The resulting album is not only a completely different sound, but finds Costello taking a fresh and not-entirely-expected view of one of his favorite subjects, romance. As he recalls in the liner notes to the Rykodisc reissue of the album:
I was still writing most of my songs at the piano and almost all of them were melancholy ballads. Clive [Langier] cajoled me into picking up the guitar at least for the purpose of writing some more lively material. He argued that there was a danger in becoming known for only the most cynical and disillusioned songs of Imperial Bedroom. I remained allergic to the happy ending but in reply I managed a pair of proud and wishful songs on Love and Marriage: "The Greatest Thing" and "Let Them All Talk" and a couple about the Ugly Truth: "Mouth Almighty" and "Charm School.”
It’s oddly affecting to hear EC, who has spent the vast bulk of his career chronicling love lost, broken, or destroyed, suddenly dwelling on the beauty of a committed romantic relationship. “The Greatest Thing” starts with Pete Thomas’ 80s pop take on a “Bo Diddley” rhythm, joined quickly by Bruce Thomas doubling down on the beat before EC jumps in and the song kicks into gear. Steve Nieve’s keys and horn riffs from the TKO Horns layer into the mix and the final result is almost ebuillient. Maybe Elvis Costello circa 1983 isn’t the right person to be offering guidance on keeping love alive, but he uncovers a few useful insights anyway:
Punch the clock and in time you'll get pulled apart
If you're married on paper and not in your heart
But I won't be told that life with the one you love is sordid
Just because some authority says you can't afford it
That horn riff, DA-da-DA-DA, DA-DA-da-DA-DA, Dadadadadadadadadadadadadadada, is downright infectious–I am personally incapable of resisting any song with a horn section, so this is catnip to my ears.
The whole damn record is like that. I don’t think Punch The Clock is the best Elvis Costello album; far from it. But if you twisted my arm tight enough, I might admit that Punch The Clock is my favorite Elvis Costello album. “The Greatest Thing” is a good litmus test for whether or not this album is for you. It’s a departure in tone and sound, but fundamentally still a clever-as-all-get-out EC song, lousy with hooks and delivered with gusto.
Stream this song on the service of your choice.