Bedhead Melodies #2: Elvis Costello- “Suffering Face” (1985)

“You came in gentle as a lamb
And turned into a terror
And you left your love and other threats
In the steam fading
on my bathroom mirror”

It’s 5:30 am on Sunday in Buenos Aires. I’m still awake after having spent the evening singing ridiculous kitschy karaoke with friends at a bizarre Korean bar. My head’s abuzz from the bottle of wine I just foolishly went through all by myself. I very rarely drink alone at home– it always smacked of romantic boho-alcoholic Bukowski shtick to me– but I figured, I’ve been social enough this week, I can allow myself a relaxing nightcap (as if “being social” gave me a free pass for boneheaded & self-destructive behavior). That nightcap is now effectively a morning cap, as I can now see the sun coming out through my blinds.

What better time to babble on incoherently about one of my all-time favorite songs, the lovely (and criminally unknown) “Suffering Face”?

It seems almost sociopathic at this point to once again remind everybody that Elvis Costello is my all-time favorite musician, but oh, I just went ahead and did it anyway. And out of this man’s incredibly eclectic, 30+ album catalogue, there are two albums in particular that will immediately stop me in my tracks whenever I should stumble upon one of their songs in my iPod’s shuffle mode– “North” and “King of America”. It is, of course, testament to Elvis’s wildly (an adjective I use too much and am starting to feel self-conscious about, but really the best way to describe the turbulent ride of musical zigzags that is the career of one Declan Macmanus) chameleonic (it is a word, I promise; and if it’s not, language is fluid! Let’s make it one) oeuvre (a word I only last year learned how to properly pronounce) that these two albums are so different one from the other: one is a guitar-based country/western/folk pop throwback, the other is a song cycle of somber piano-based jazz ballads, arranged by decreasing morosity. They’re both absolutely gorgeous, emotional albums.

The extra disc on the deluxe reissue of “King of America”, in particular, is a treat. Not only does it feature a genuinely rocking live performance by Elvis accompanied by The Confederates (an all-star crew of musicians including the illustrious likes of James Burton, Mitchell Froom, T Bone Wolk, Jim Keltner among many others), but it also includes what amounts to an EP’s worth of home demos. These demos are simple, unadorned guitar-and-vocal renditions of songs, some of which would end up in the album, some of which would be revisited later, and all of which were apparently recorded late at night after a round of drinking.

By virtue of this, these tracks are marked both by a slightly slurred delivery as well as that raw emotional honesty that seems to come out in a state of inebriation; those sudden blasts of sincerity that surprise even you, and that you would dismiss (or apologize for) the next morning while knowing full well that you meant every word. One of these songs, “Suffering Face”, is exactly that: a slurred confession on a telephone line at 3 in the morning, but expressed with such vulnerability and tenderness and ingenuity that, unlike my own drunken confessions, it would never elicit the harshness of a verbal cuss-out or restraining order as a response.

Unlike the other home demos in the “King of America” bonus disc, “Suffering Face” was never properly recorded for an album. Parts of it were re-used for later songs (the lyrics “even the words of love seem cruel and crass when you’re tough and transparent as armored glass” were later used in “Crimes of Paris” off the “Blood & Chocolate” album; a bouncy, catchy tune, but one that feels slight when compared to the fragile beauty of the song it cannibalized), but the tune was otherwise put in a shelf and left alone for years until it was time to reissue the album. I am continually amazed by how deep and rich Costello’s catalogue is, and how it’s littered with so many amazing lost gems that any other artists would proudly flaunt about.

Listen to the lovely “Suffering Face” here:

“Bedhead melodies” is my very obnoxious and pretentious term for certain songs that capture my imagination way late at night, when I’m in a very specific headspace; that terrifyingly vulnerable stretch of time right before drifting off to sleep, where I find myself pondering the day’s small failures. Thanks for listening along with me, and I hope you will forgive the unnecessary verbosity. Insert “drunken boat” metaphor here.

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