The Top 20 Elvis Costello Songs of All Time

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1. “Man Out Of Time”

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Mixing the political and the personal, the public and the private, wit and wisdom, humor and heartbreak, droll observations and naked confessions, screeching rock and stately pop, “Man Out Of Time” is the emotional centerpiece and master stroke on Imperial Bedroom, Elvis Costello’s tremendous 1982 album. To these ears, it is his finest single song, although it is a testament to the man that this was an extremely difficult choice because of the abundance of sublime competition for the spot.

It is ironic to think how this monumental track nearly went awry. The evidence can be heard on the bonus disc of the Imperial Bedroom reissue: An early version of the song that barreled full-steam ahead in a breathless tempo that ramped up the intensity but trampled right over the nuance in Costello’s lyrics.

But Elvis didn’t discard this early take completely; he wisely used it to bookend the more restrained take on “Man Out Of Time” that ended up as the definitive version. The wild screaming served as a contrast to the more measured reflections of the lyrics, almost as if the id of the song’s protagonist was released to let out its frustration.

That off-kilter intro also serves its purpose as a palette-cleanser; when the opening strums of the more sedate take begin, it’s like the air has been cleared. The Attractions reached the point on Imperial Bedroom where they were just as adept with the material that required more touch than thunder, and their performance on “Man Out Of Time,” to a man, is exquisite.

Costello once again indulges in his love of film noir and the shady underbelly of society on the song, but with far less lurid fascination than in the past. There is a certain weariness in tone, as if being able to uncover these tawdry secrets no longer gives him any pleasure. Perhaps that was because, as he admitted years after writing the song, he didn’t have to use all that much imagination to get inside the heads and hearts of these morally-bereft, emotionally-spent characters.

Indeed, he does his job so well of identifying with these cloak-and-dagger archetypes and their various methods of subterfuge, that the line blurs between the songwriter and his fictional creations. Costello clearly was influenced by the kind of scandal that ensnares the rich and powerful when they become too fast and loose with their indiscretions, yet he’s more interested in mapping out the internal malaise that would drive them to such foolish deeds than in detailing exactly who did what to whom.

“For his private wife and kids somehow/Real life becomes a rumour,” Costello sings, acknowledging the innocent victims of all the espionage. He coins some of his most memorable jabs at the expense of the soulless cad at the heart of his narrative. “He’s got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge,” he sings. “He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege.”

Evan as the booze flows, lust eradicates common sense, and nervous systems are wheedled down to a nub, the song keeps its eyes clear. “Love is always scarpering or cowering or fawning,” Costello sings. It is not the typical idealized version of romantic love that runs rampant through most pop songs. It is the sober, realistic observation of a man who knew better.

Costello really brings everyone in tight for the heart punch of the refrain. He uses the first person for the first time, singing, “To murder my love is a crime.” Through a twisting series of chord changes, his voice effected to sound as if it was beaming in from purgatory, Elvis asks the crucial question: “But will you still love/A man out of time?”

He is a man out of time as in a man who has been disassociated from his loved ones, his beliefs, his better self. But he is also a man out of time as in a man who has gone so wrong that his opportunity for redemption has elapsed. And yet he still asks, vulnerable, yearning, hoping for a positive answer that even he knows he doesn’t deserve.

I would venture a guess that most of us have reached a desperate moment or two when we feel that our lives have gotten away from us, that we no longer recognize who we are. That’s the brilliance of “Man Out Of Time.” A precious few of us have been embroiled in a public scandal, but the bereft emotions of the song are recognizable to all.

That’s the kind of thing that great songwriters can give to us. They can tell us truths about ourselves and our world that we may know deep inside but can’t quite always locate or articulate. Elvis Costello, as this countdown has proven again and again, has insightfully, inspiringly, furiously, funnily, eloquently, elaborately, and empathetically told us these truths. Long may he continue to do so.


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