The Meaning Behind “My Brave Face” by Paul McCartney and How Elvis Costello Helped Him Embrace His Beatles Past

Paul McCartney didn’t choose songwriting partners lightly, especially considering his first one was John Lennon. Luckily, he chose wisely with Elvis Costello, and the pair cranked out several memorable tracks for albums from both men. McCartney’s “My Brave Face” offered a bracing blast of Beatles nostalgia on the 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt.

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What was the song about? How did McCartney and Costello team up to write it? And how did Costello convince McCartney to embrace some elements of the song that were very reminiscent of The Beatles? Let’s explore all the nooks and crannies of “My Brave Face.”

A Fan and Then a Partner

Elvis Costello wore his Beatles’ fandom proudly. When he was still just a lad, he was a member of the official Fab Four fan club. Their music filtered down to his own, especially on Imperial Bedroom, his masterpiece 1982 album with The Attractions that borrowed some of the baroque tendencies of the Beatles’ best.

It wasn’t much of a surprise then that Costello jumped at the chance when McCartney suggested they write some songs together. They began by working on some songs that each had started on their own, but they also did some straight co-writes, including “My Brave Face.”

On this song, the pair went unabashedly into Beatles territory in terms of the melody line and the instrumentation. In fact, McCartney was encouraged by Costello to play his Hofner bass, something he hadn’t done much of on albums around that time, to give the song a distinctly Beatle-y bounce.

In fact, when the pair were initially writing the song, McCartney hesitated at some of the resemblances, as Costello explained in an interview (as reported by The Beatles Bible):

“I started writing the bridge of ‘My Brave Face,’ that Beatle-y descending Ever since you’ve been away … We were doing a vocal rehearsal in the kitchen and he sang the line, Take me to that place. I hit the low harmony on place and he went, ‘Oh no, no. This is getting to be too much. That’s exactly like “There’s a Place” or “I’ll Get You.'”

Nonetheless, Costello prevailed upon McCartney to go with it, and the end result is a song that does indeed sound like it would have been right at home on Rubber Soul. (It even starts with the refrain a la Beatles gems like “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Just as the McCartney/Costello collaboration “Veronica” gave Costello a hit upon its release a few months previous, “My Brave Face” hit the Top 25 for McCartney in the summer of 1989 when released as the first single from Flowers in the Dirt.

What is the Meaning of “My Brave Face”?

“My Brave Face” tells the story of a newly minted bachelor trying to make sense of the single life and stave off the sorrow over missing his ex. McCartney and Costello do an amazing job of meting out the details at the right pace, so this guy’s courageous facade falls away slowly until we finally hear what a wreck he is.

He starts off positively enough: I’ve been living in style. He’s chipper about his current prospects: I’ve been hittin’ the town / And it didn’t hit back. After sounding happy about the fact he no longer has to answer to anyone, some chinks in the armor start to appear. He admits in the first pre-chorus that he wants to go bury my head in your pillow. By the final verse, I’ve been living in style turns into I’ve been living a lie.

That’s when we find out the depths to which he’s sunk, how he’s been throwing away dirty dishes and setting the dinner table for two. All he wants is to see something other than his own miserable visage futilely trying to look strong: Take me to that place / Where I can’t find my brave face. Speaking of bravery, Paul McCartney showed some by waking up the echoes of his Beatles past on this song. That it stood up well in the comparison shows just what a fantastic job he and Costello did.

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Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

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