It was a deal done, if not with the Devil, then with Elvis Costello. After Transvision Vamp, Wendy James was keen to put together an album of great songs and approached one of the finest songwriters of this or any other generation for a tune. He was willing to oblige, on one condition — that he not just contribute a song but write the entire album. Wendy must have thought that all her Christmases, at least three of her Easters and a couple of Grand Final Eves had all come at once.
But being a great songwriter does not mean you write only great songs. Getting Elvis on board does not mean that you'll end up with the sequel to This Year's Model much less something as good as Armed Forces or (my own favourite) Blood and Chocolate. I can't say for certain, but I'll bet that the songs on those truly excellent albums took more than a weekend to knock up. The same cannot be said, however, for the songs on Now Ain't the Time for Your Tears. Along with his wife, former Pogue Cait O'Riordan, Elvis Costello wrote all ten tracks over the course of one weekend. Clearly, he didn't want it to interfere with his day job.
The results are nothing short of infuriating. There are brief moments of promise, such as the opening song, "This is a Test," which actually sounds like a half-decent Elvis Costello song, complete with invective and just the right level of bitterness. In fact, I'd go so far that to have Wendy James sing it seems like something of a masterstroke. Hearing the words of Elvis in the mouth of someone else does a lot to put a new spin on a formula that by the early nineteen nineties was in danger of getting stale — something Elvis himself soon recognized before embarking on a process of reinvention.
But, as promising as it is to begin with, there's a point at which a bunch of songs, tossed off over the course of a weekend, tend to sound as though that's exactly what they are. There's a certain grim fascination at hearing a young singer attempting to strike out on her own and singing songs like "Puppet Girl" and "Fill in the Blanks." But, sadly, these songs aren't built to go the distance. They are, instead, the Emperor's new clothes.
Matters weren't helped by the choice of "The Nameless One" as lead single. Ostensibly, it's trying to be a big artistic statement but ends up being more of a stutter. The single stalled just inside the perimeter of the top-forty before quickly fleeing to the safer climes of obscurity. The album eventually suffered a similar fate; It would be another eighteen years before Wendy James released another solo album — I Came Here to Blow Minds — to which the obvious response is, 'You came here eighteen years too late.' The songs on the follow up were not written by Elvis Costello.
Now Ain't the Time for Your Tears is one of those things that looks like a great idea on paper. In theory, having someone like Elvis Costello write you an entire album of songs is a dream come true.
The fact is, he should have taken more than just the weekend to do it. James does her best with the material but, in the end, it wasn't enough.
Done right, it would have made her career and seen her cast off the pall of her old band, becoming a star in her own right. Instead, the songs feel as if they've been written by the numbers which, in all fairness, they probably were.
So close and yet so very, very far.