Billboard, August 20, 2005

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Billboard

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"Tide" revisited

Costello adjusts lyric to make Civil War song more timely

Jim Bessman

He had a 4 a.m. wakeup call, but it wasn't necessary because Elvis Costello couldn't sleep the night before his recent appearance on NBC's Today with his band, the Imposters and guest Emmylou Harris.

It was then that the additional lyrics to his 2004 Academy Award-nominated song "The Scarlet Tide" from the movie Cold Mountain came to him: "I thought I heard a black bell toll up in the Highest dome / Admit you're wrong / And bring the boys back home."

He repeated this portion of the first verse of the anti-war song, which he wrote with T-Bone Burnett with a second revision: "You know you lied / Just bring the boys back home".

The song originally related to the Civil War setting of Cold Mountain. Costello performed the rewrite on Today and the updated implication was not likely lost on a Costello-friendly crowd.

"We have to speak up now" says Costello, who lives in New York when he is not on the road.

"I have looked forward to living in the true value of this country for the last 25 years, and it is an ideal we give up at our peril," he continues. "Everything that I have ever loved about America is rapidly being eroded – the unspoiled vastness, that, at its best, can absorb such cultural, religious and regional diversity, and the basic decency – when it isn't tainted by one or other corruption of a belief inspired by a government intent on establishing some freakish hybrid: a spin controlled theocracy".

Costello points out that Burnett "always said 'Scarlet Tide' was an anti-fear song". He credits Freda Payne "for the inspiration" for the "Scarlet Tide" revision – pointing to Payne's Vietnam-era hit "Bring the Boys Home" which he featured in his Artist's Choice compilation for Starbucks.

Costello has since performed the altered "Scarlet Tide" in concert.

It is impossible to say whether every last person approves of the sentiments contained in the amended lyrics," he says. "There was a considerable roar of approval in Boston, but I was even more encouraged to receive a similar response in Pittsburgh, which I have always regarded as a more working-class town. In the 1980s I played a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament benefit show in Barrow-in-Furness in the north of England – where the submarine yards were the main employer – so I know that this can be tricky territory. My guess is that it is still these towns from which the men and boys are being culled to do the dirty work. Nevertheless, the cheer was considerable.".

His appearances with Harris on this tour infused a "stronger American folk music element" into his shows, better enabling Costello to "speak to people in their own musical language".

This freedom, he says, "has allowed me to finally reveal the life-during-wartime background of The Delivery Man tale," he adds, referring to the loose narrative running through several songs on his current album.

"'Bedlam' has never felt more timely, and I have started to underline the fragment of the story – contained in the bridge of the title song – in which Ivy's father is described as going off to war to be killed by 'friendly fire'. I prefaced 'Heart-Shaped Bruise' by telling the audience that the song was a war widow's confession that her 'perfect marriage' was a sham."

He followed this with "Gathering Flowers for the Master's Bouquet," the Stanley Brothers' bluegrass classic about death. Its relevance, Costello concludes, "was perhaps not lost on some of the listeners."

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Billboard, August 20, 2005


Jim Bessman reviews Elvis Costello & The Imposters with Emmylou Harris, Friday, July 22, 2005, Today Show, Rockefeller Plaza, New York.

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