New Lace Sleeves

Sometimes there is a song that just gets to you at the right moment in your life. Then it sticks in your subconscious and kicks around in your brain for a few decades. Always striking you like it did the first time you heard it. It’s lasting power means that it never sounds dated or “of it’s time”. It just sounds perfect to you, forever.

I have a theory that the songs you listen to when you hit puberty imprint upon you in a special way, deeper and stronger than other times in your life. You move from being a child to being an adult. Your brain is awakening, your body is changing, your hormones and body chemistry are raging. You’re thinking about sex all the time. Song lyrics and feelings hit you hard. Those songs stick with you your entire life in a personal and special way. But that is a topic for a completely different blog.

This blog is about the Elvis Costello song “New Lace Sleeves.”  I first heard this moody song when I saw the video around age 11. Yup, puberty.

I almost switched the channel when I saw a black and white music video start up with musicians who looked like they were in bands from the 50’s or 60’s. But I stuck it out. Close ups of the musicians playing their instruments, and lyrics like I had never heard before kept me hooked. The singer was wearing a suit but was actually pretty nerdy. Reminded me of Buddy Holly with his machinist sunglasses that he kept peeking up over the top of. Gap-toothed and slight, he didn’t strike me as a lead singer of a band. But damn, was I wrong.

Face

The video starts with a cool shuffle beat on the drums. This was before I had started playing drums myself, but even as a kid I appreciated the odd gallop of the hi-hat and snare drum. It definitely wasn’t a generic four on the floor beat like I was used to hearing. Then a close up of Elvis playing just one string of his Gretsch guitar. Then a pretty badass bass line comes in, followed by haunting keyboards and piano. The balance is perfect, with everything sitting where is should in the mix. And then the vocals come in. And it was all over from there.

Bad lovers face to face in the morning with
Shy apologies and polite regrets
Slow dances that left no warning of
Outraged glances and indiscreet yawning
Good manners and bad breath get you nowhere
Even Presidents have newspaper lovers
Ministers go crawling under covers

That’s poetry. Some of these lyrics remind me of the great Charles Bukowski. These lines struck me as so profound that I sang along to them over and over again. I was happily surprised to find a lyricist that wasn’t just singing cliché after cliché in simple rhyming patterns. Even his phrasing was unusual to me. Stretching out short words like “Even”, and using vocabulary words not often found in pop songs. He’s almost crooning like Sinatra. I thought he said “Irish glasses” when he in fact says “Outraged glances”. It’s not about getting drunk, but is about awkward interpersonal communication. Listen to the note he chooses when singing “Even ministers go crawling under co-VERS.” It wasn’t until many years later that I would understand his words about the awkwardness of morning-after small talk with someone who you just slept with.

She’s no angel
He’s no saint
They’re all covered up with white wash and grease paint
When you say
The teacher never told you anything but white lies
But you never see the lies that you believe
Oh you know you have been captured
You feel so civilized
And you look so pretty in your new lace sleeves

Here’s my favorite part of the song. I’ve recited this clever lyrical passage countless times. And I can always picture Elvis holding up his hand and wiggling his fingers when he sings, “With their continental fingers that have never seen working blisters.”  This is class envy of the beautiful people, mixed with judgment and derision for them. But he still wishes to be in their circle, or at least be around them. The unattainable women.

The salty lips of the socialite sisters
With their continental fingers that have
Never seen working blisters
Oh, I know they’ve got their problems
I wish I was one of them
They say Daddy’s coming home soon
With his Sergeant stripes
And his Empire mug and spoon

I always thought that he said, “They say that he’s coming home soon.” Which I interpreted to mean that the woman who Elvis just slept with has a husband and he will return soon. Turns out he’s talking about a father returning from the war. Empire mug and spoon is the standard issue gear given to soldiers. The majority of the song is about post-war adjustment and aimlessness.

bass

No more fast buck
And when are they gonna learn their lesson?
When are they gonna stop all of these victory processions?
You say
The teacher never told you anything but white lies
But you never see the lies that you believe
Oh you know you have been captured
You feel so civilized
And you look so pretty in your new lace sleeves

These lyrics moved me with their originality and ambiguous/confusing content. I had to figure this song out, and live it. I found my tape recorder and recorded the song the next time it came on. This was way before the days of being able to just google any song to find the lyrics. Hell, this was before the internet existed. If the band didn’t print the lyrics in the sleeve of their record, you really had no way of accurately determining what was actually being sung. Best-guess. I played the song over and over again, line by line, and guessed at what the lyrics were. I scribbled down the entire song this way in pencil. Then I would sing along and memorize the lyrics I had deciphered. Years later I learned how wrong I was on some of the lines.

“Even Presidents have newspaper lovers.” What the hell? I had to look that up. Silly little 11-year-old that I was. I also swore that when he said “No more fast buck,” it was really “No more fast fuck.” I don’t know why I thought that, because that doesn’t really make sense. But in the video his mouth movement doesn’t quite match up with the audio. I thought that could’ve been intentional as a distraction. There was so much sultry singing with abstract lyrics that I convinced myself he had somehow gotten away with dropping the f-bomb on daytime cable television. For all I knew, he was talking about a quickie with someone in a back alley. Wishful thinking, maybe.

There’s no cheesy conceptual distraction in this video, which I greatly appreciated. It leaves the imagery and interpretation of the lyrics up to you. It’s just the four men playing their instruments, and Elvis looking directly at the camera as he sings. Cigarette smoke rises endlessly from the ash tray on the piano behind him. There’s certainly no sexy woman wearing lace sleeves, old or new.  They probably got this video in 2-3 takes. Elvis’s voice is striking and unique. At times smooth and silky, other times slightly nasal and borderline congested. But it works. I love his voice. His phrasing of intelligent and unusual lyrics has influenced me to this day in my own lyric writing. Elvis is the man.

This song is found on the 1981 album TRUST from Elvis Costello and the Attractions. I’ve delved through lots of his other music since then. I’m a huge fan of “Watching the Detectives” (which is a karaoke staple of mine), “I Want You”, “Radio, Radio”, “Alison”, and many others. But no song gets me like “New Lace Sleeves” does. Every time. I feel like I’m eleven years old again. Sucked in and mystified by how good a song can be.

Watch the video here:

New Lace Sleeves

TRUST album cover

 

 

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17 comments on “New Lace Sleeves

  1. I had never heard this song before … pretty good. Thanks!

  2. Margaret Linder says:

    My word!! I thought you shared everything with me at that age!! 😉LOL
    Someone has said that lyrics are like Rorschach-inkblot tests. They tell more about the listener than the writer. I have looked up the lyrics for some of the songs in my past and been very surprised!!

  3. Harry Williams says:

    Always been one of my EC favourites. Really insightful piece Darren. Cheers!

  4. Molly says:

    Interesting that I always thought the line”I wish I was one of them” refers back to the previous line “I know they’ve got their problems.” in other words, I’d like to be one of their problems.

    Great analysis though. Trust is definitely one of my favorite EC albums.

  5. Holly says:

    I always read “I wish I was one of them” as wishing he was one of the socialites’ *problems* (referring to the previous line), not wishing he was in their circle (though of course that would need to be true, too, so it doesn’t change your point)… just a little nuance, having spent a couple decades thinking about this song myself! 🙂

  6. Hans says:

    “all covered up with whitewash and grease paint” (hard to hear the ‘paint’ the way he sings it) – referring to the make up / disguise. Also, “How I wish I was one of them” – and yes, I thought the same as Molly and Holly – that he wished he was one of the socialites’ “problems” 🙂

  7. Chris gow says:

    The whole album Trust is a marvel. My personal favourite is Watch Your Step (“they picked two bitter kids from a bunch of sour grapes”). One thing i have found with EC, after nearly 40 years of listening, is that there are still little lyrical and musical surprises to be found. I no longer try to analyse his songs to find the ‘true meaning’, they are more like montages of rhymes, emphasis and musical tropes. To badly paraphrase a quote of his I once read, “If I meant to say something else in the song I would have said something else”.

  8. bryanjirvine says:

    Oh Darren… What a gorgeous, gorgeous tribute to a song, so beloved…You’re a wordsmith sir and have inspired me to try to write a similar expression for my favourite piece of the moment. I hope I’ll make the grade because something so impactful is worth this amount of dedication and response to something that has given so much. Love this…

  9. KELLY D JOLLEY says:

    Enjoyed this!

  10. Brett says:

    While talking about the salty lips of the socialite sisters, he says “oh, I know they’ve got their problems. I wish I was one of them.” As you mentioned, the case could be made that he wants to be one of them, but the case could also be made that he wants to be one of their problems. That is perfect Elvis Costello, multiple meanings from chorus to chorus, line to line and word to word.

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