In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: our favorite songs by or produced by Elvis Costello.
Elvis Costello’s 11th studio album, 1986’s Blood & Chocolate—released just six months after King Of America—was his final album with his backing band, The Attractions, for almost a decade. The benefit of hindsight and the knowledge that internal issues were mounting between the band and its frontman can make the record seem laced with tension, and that’s particularly true on its standout track “I Want You.”
In the song’s delicate preamble, Costello manages to manipulate his signature rasp into something resembling tenderness, but this quickly gives way to desperation before veering into full-on creepy-stalker territory. It’s no wonder the song is used to such great effect in Michael Winterbottom’s straight-to-video thriller of same name. But given the multiple parts and theatrical delivery required for performing it, the song seems prohibitively difficult to cover. Leave it to Fiona Apple to find new avenues of despair and menace.
As part of the 2006 “Elvis Costello & Friends” episode of VH1’s Decades Rock, Apple gives an astounding live performance of the track. She minimizes the slowed-down ska inflections of the original, but otherwise offers up a pretty faithful rendition of the tune with Costello on guitar duty. A particularly nice touch that remains intact in this version is the sustained discordant note from the band before Apple launches into the chorus.
Imbued with Apple’s distinctive voice tremor—which somehow conveys resoluteness and vulnerability at the same time—the song climbs new heights and plumbs new depths of range in this singer’s hands. The display of emotion required to sell it serves Apple’s intense stage presence well. From the time she sings, “I’m afraid I won’t know where to stop” until she repeatedly wails, “I want you” at the end, Apple is utterly believable as someone losing the last remaining strands of her sanity. In fact, the listener may feel compelled to warn the object of her affections, because clearly some foul shit is about to go down.