“You sing songs very vividly when they’re directly attached to experience, but time brings a different view,” Elvis Costello explains while engaging in conversation and song with pianist Marian McPartland in this 2003 installment of her long-running NPR program Piano Jazz. “As [the songs] become, hopefully, more universal—in the sense that other people hear them—the selfishness of the writer has to diminish a little bit and you have to find the more universal voice of the song, if it’s going to endure.”
Costello’s performance on this session, recorded a few months before the release of his ballad record North, stays true to his scholarly words. His method of interpreting standards and ballads has become stately and mature over the years; his abilities as a “respectable” vocalist are now at a post-graduate level where he can hold his own with a subtle and tasty accompanist like McPartland. Costello has been covering and writing these kinds of songs ever since his 1977 debut: Bacharach and David’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” was an early concert favorite, while his own “Just a Memory” was written with Dusty Springfield in mind. As his career has descended down numerous paths of idiosyncrasy, his voice (which, as McPartland notes, has “an operatic quality”) has developed into a classically robust instrument capable of traversing the rock, soul, and jazz forks in the road.
So when Costello sings “My Funny Valentine” now, some 20-plus years after he released a rendition as the b-side to “Oliver’s Army”, there’s something aged and fatal in his throat. His voice becomes less stable as it skyrockets into the upper registers; those pleas of “stay little valentine” are exceedingly desperate and burdened with decades of experience. Reduced to a beggar clamoring for sentimentality’s pocket change, Costello holds onto “stay little valentine” like he’s holding onto a vanishing hope. His 1978 performance of the same song, while commendable, reveals a more hurried pace and a vocal tic that’s more trembling lip than controlled vibrato. He could sing the song as a young man, but perhaps he wasn’t capable of knowing it as he is now.
The same can be said for this session’s performances of his 1982 original “Almost Blue”, a devastating bid for inclusion in the fakebook canon, and “Gloomy Sunday”, made famous by Billie Holiday and covered by Costello circa Trust (the recording of which is available on that album’s reissue). He navigates the self-imposed gloom of “Almost Blue” like a trenchcoated soul drifts down a dark alley, loading the rich lines (“All the things that your eyes once promised / I see in hers too”) with beautiful resignation. The song—and this rendition in particular—is equal to a man whose pressed suit is a fraud, or just too big; the only comforting route is to disappear within it. Costello tackles the suicide ballad “Gloomy Sunday” alone on acoustic guitar, and it compels McPartland to comment; “That might be the all-time miserable song,” she confesses immediately afterwards. With both eyes firmly focused on the supremely dark, Costello’s performance isn’t an expression of tunnel vision, but rather the only vision a tunnel bestows its passengers.
Even when interpreting somewhat lighter standards like “At Last” (a desert island disc, he tells McPartland) and “The Very Thought of You”, Costello cramps up with doubt and regret: his voice naturally constructs a layer of murky subtext beneath the most harmless words, which, despite the reservations some fans have expressed over his occasionally pursuing the ballad form, is the indisputable mark of a true vocalist. “You sound just like a jazz singer,” McPartland says at the conclusion of “The Very Thought of You”, wonder in her delivery. Costello responds with humility, admitting “it’s a romantic leading man role that I don’t naturally see myself in as a person”. No matter—these songs lend themselves to some self-reflection, but finding the universal thread is the path he’s on.