Maybe you don’t care for the hot weather. Perhaps you’re not a big fan of picnics or barbecues. Or it could be that you have some personal reason for disliking the warmest season. Whatever the case, it summer’s charms are lost on you, Elvis Costello has the anthem for you.
Released 25 years ago on Mighty Like A Rose, a far more vitriolic album than anything from Costello’s early days when he was supposed to be such an angry young man, “The Other Side Of Summer” certainly sounds like a top-down, arms-up seasonal standard as long as you don’t listen to the words. When you do, you’ll notice the only thing hot about it is the bile that Costello spits at every turn.
In the liner notes to the Rhino reissue of the album, Costello explained how he subverted the sound of the song with the sentiment. “The arrangement is a pastiche of The Beach Boys after the fashion of The Beatles’ ‘Back In The U.S.S.R.,’ he wrote. “In our case, the music and vocal arts take their vocal cue from some of their early 70’s tracks like ‘The Trader’ and ‘Funky Pretty.’ The words are a catalogue of pop conceits, deceits, hypocrisies, and delusions. I include myself in the parade of liars and dupes.”
With a studio ensemble including heavy hitters like T-Bone Wolk, Larry Knechtel, Benmont Tench, Jerry Scheff, James Burton, and Pete Thomas in tow, Costello had no trouble conjuring the boisterous, colorful sound he desired. But by the time the opening lines of the song are through, we can tell that he has a lot more on his mind that sailboats and suntans: “The sun struggles up another beautiful day/And I felt glad in my own suspicious way.” He also quickly lets us know that both sides of the story will be given equal time: “There’s malice and there’s magic in every season.”
The chorus illustrates exactly that point, presenting iconic summer images in a sinister light: “From the foaming breakers of the poisonous surf/The other side of summer/To the burning forests in the hills of Astroturf/The other side of summer.” Costello’s cast of characters include a drug-addled pop star, an insecure teenager, and a madman accosting all passersby. John Lennon and Roger Waters also make indirect appearances, as they get the stuffing taken out of them for what Costello perceives as hypocritical songwriting in “Imagine” and “Another Brick In The Wall,” respectively: “Was it a millionaire who said, ‘Imagine no possessions’?/A poor little schoolboy who said, ‘We don’t need no lessons.’”
In the closing lines, Costello puts together an impressively ugly litany of calamities that pile up in the heat: “The casual killers/The military curfew/The cardboard city/An unwanted birthday.” He ends on an apocalyptic note: “Good night, God bless and kiss ‘goodbye to the earth/The other side of summer.”
There’s nothing like the thought of world annihilation to perk up your next road trip playlist, right? But the thing about “The Other Side Of Summer” is that it’s so irresistibly catchy, albeit in a morose kind of way, that it makes for an unlikely singalong classic. And for those looking for a little bit of shade, Elvis Costello throws enough of it around in this song to keep you cool all summer long.