The circumstances of Elvis Costello's career and life that surround and motivate the release of this extraordinary record make it impossible to view it as just another sausage on the conveyor belt. Rather it's an abdication, an SOS, maybe even a self-addressed valediction.
Melodramatic correspondence-course psychology? Well listen... anyone with two ears knows that Costello's last LP, Goodbye Cruel World, was his worst, a nadir. Crisis One. Since that, rumours (too difficult to substantiate, too persistent to ignore) have pulsed endlessly along music's bush telegraph. They tell of a troubled love life, of a drink problem, and of an artistic stone wall.
The truth or otherwise of these things is uncertain but at London gigs and clubs last year he was a bloated, sweating presence. For whatever reason or reasons, he looked a wreck. Crisis Two.
So what does Elvis Costello choose to record and issue into the teeth of this gale but a version of an undisguised knees-bent plea for compassion, for a breathing space, for a ray of hope. And what a version! This is a funereal dirge, devoid of anything but the red raw edge of Costello's gravelly, wires-bared, delivery. As a single, as a piece of pop, it's hopeless, hence the assertion that, consciously or otherwise, it's a harrowed howl for help.
Still not convinced? Check the B sides. "Baby's Got A Brand New Hairdo" is Costello-by-numbers but is credited, schizophrenia fans, to one Declan Aloysious McManus, and is made interesting only by flashes of bitter, corrugated, guitar by Costello himself.
The third song is also a cover, this time an agonisingly slow self-flaggelation through "Find Yourself Another Fool." Over a stuttering organ, Elvis sings "at last I've awakened to see what you've done / all I can do is pack up and run / now I know the rules / find yourself another fool." If those aren't the words of someone hacking desperately away at the past — his own and yours — then what are? It's unbearably crushed and truly moving.
In the face of all this, then, the fact that this is Costello's "worst" record obviously matters not at all. I hope I've completely misread him, that he's playing to the gallery and will emerge widely grinning and artistically restored; I hope that he somehow needed, and is using, this record-as-public-disembowelment to bring order to apparent chaos; and I hope that "Misunderstood" isn't a landmark in the nosedive of one of the great pop talents of the past decade.
For a variety of reasons, most of them wrong, an astonishing record.