There's nothing like the rumor of a decent rock 'n' roll marital breakup to get the juices flowing, especially when the evidence is splattered all over the music of the artist in question.
The reigning champs in 1985 were Richard and Linda Thompson, who maintained healthy and creatively viable day jobs on the basis of airing their shattered personal lives in public.
But now, if a new single is any indication, the Thompsons have run into heavy competition from one Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus, also known as Elvis Costello.
All triteness aside, the man's foreboding remake of the Animals' classic R & B ballad "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" (F-Beat 12-inch import) contains some of the most harrowing accusations, admissions and pleas for compassion in the recent history of your basic popular music.
"I'm just a soul whose intentions are good," moans Costello over the tune's ominous Hammond B3 organ figures. "Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood." And that's about the brightest moment of a song that virtually defines the despair of the tortured partner in a relationship.
The production, by T-Bone Burnett, is a masterpiece of understated tension; the performance — by a skeleton crew called The Costello Show, featuring Confederates — is an updated reading of the original; and Costello's vocals are the most haunted of his entire career. Why so glum, chum?
Haven't got a clue, really, though the rumor mill says he's broken up with his everloving wife and taken up with the woman from The Pogues or something.
Who knows? Who cares?
One thing is sure, though. El's got a powerful lot of things on his mind these days. Why, one long-time Costello fiend checked out the photo on the single sleeve and asked "Who's that?"
Heavy, bearded, pasty, dressed entirely in black, with eyes that have taken in one too many all-nighter, Costello is virtually unrecognizable this time around.
It shows in the exceptional music on the flip side of this single, "Baby's got a Brand New Hairdo" — with the above mentioned Burnett, Costello Show and his longtime cohorts The Attractions — is a wicked upbeat slice out of the Armed Forces catalogue, all cheesy Farfisa organ, squeezed vocals, and evil lyric intentions. It's Costello at his most vitriolic.
And his version of the R & B epic "Get Yourself Another Fool," (this time produced by Nick Lowe with the Attractions providing hushed support) is a bitter, recriminatory ballad, delivered in the strained and echoed tones of an alienated individual.
Altogether, a harrowing piece of goods. Too bad it had to happen this way, but these are also Costello's most convincing bits of music since "Shipbuilding." A new album, The King of America, is expected before the end of the month. If this is any indication of the music to come, the time to batten down the emotional hatches is now.