1980’s Get Happy!! is Elvis Costello’s fourth album and third with his backing band The Attractions. The album is an attempt to fuse Costello’s lyrical content with the rhythms and sounds of R&B and Motown, resulting in a 20-song record with a flood of musical ideas. Costello wrote about Get Happy!!:
“The lyrical content of the main album still contained the manic spinning of phrases and words that sped into view while touring the world…or a running commentary on the seductions of fame.”
The phrase a “manic spinning of phrases and words” is a good starting description for the song “New Amsterdam”:
The song is unique within the context of Get Happy!! because it is decidedly not a Motown song. As Costello wrote in the liner notes for the 1994 re-release of Get Happy!!, the song “was a fluke recording that came out of a demo session in a fifteen-quid-an-hour studio in Pimlico.” He added in a different set of liner notes:
“As you might guess I didn’t use a metronome but I did employ the owner’s exotic equipment; vibes! a fretless bass! a very nasty synth! even, God forbid, DRUMS!!!”
Costello attempted to re-record the song with The Attractions during the formal sessions of Get Happy!! in Holland, but could not capture both the mood and the power of Costello’s original demo, so the solo effort was included on the album. Costello described it as “a song about a bewildered new arrival in the New World.” The dazed and rattled impact that the city has on newcomers to the five boroughs is captured by Costello’s one-man band musical accompaniment. There is a swirling, carnival sound from the organ and keyboard producing a dizzying, even psychedelic backdrop. Before the instrumentation comes in, the song actually starts with the noticeable intake of breath on Costello’s part. He certainly needs the oxygen for the performance as the delivery of the lyrics comes at a relentless pace. Costello sings the first verse:
You’re sending me tulips mistaken for lilies
You give me your lip after punching me silly
You turned my head till it rolled down the brain drain
If I had any sense now I wouldn’t want it back again.
The “you” in this verse is Costello singing directly to the city of New York and its unrelenting and unrepentant attitude. What makes the composition of “New Amsterdam” distinctive is that it is the best example of Costello’s characteristic and sometimes singular capacity for pun-filled wordplay. In the first line, Costello employs the word “tulips” which are “mistaken for lilies” but then plays off of that word in the next line “You give me your lip after punching me silly,” making you wonder if the original usage is actually “two lips” rather than “tulips.”
Costello continues to sing at a fast clip as the chorus starts immediately after the first verse ends. The melody of the chorus is arresting and catchy, paired with a complex set of lyrics:
New Amsterdam it’s become much too much
Till I have the possession of everything she touches
Till I step on the brake to get out of her clutches
Till I speak double Dutch to a real double duchess.
In the chorus, Costello sings about the narrator wanting to “get out of her clutches,” referring to New York. This connects with the stated desire for “possession” in the previous line. Yet, the narrator also says, “Till I step on the brake,” creating a pun on the double meaning of “clutch” as both “to grasp” as well as the mechanism to operate the gears of an automobile. In the last line of the chorus, the narrator says that he “speaks double Dutch” which refers both to using unintelligible or garbled language as well as a jump-rope game played by children. Costello mirrors the sound of “double Dutch” with “double duchess,” an inference to a woman of nobility who shows two-sides of a personality. Knowing that the song is about New York City, Costello refers to it by its original name — New Amsterdam — when the city was settled by, yes, the Dutch. By utilizing the word “double” in this last line of the chorus, Costello even comments on the dual meanings of the words that he is employing. Puns abound in the chorus, but Costello’s use of puns in this line alone is several layers deep. Despite the intricacy of the wordplay and convolution of the language, Costello makes it work in no large part because of the rhyming of the words in the chorus: “much,” “touches,” “clutches,” “duchess.” They are words that are conducive to singing that, when matched with the melody, makes the chorus irresistible.
Costello continues with the second verse:
Down on the mainspring, listen to the tick tock
Clock all the faces that move in on your block
Twice shy and dog tired because you’ve been bitten
Everything you say now sounds like it was ghost-written.
Costello shifts the perspective of the song in this second verse, employing “you” to refer to the narrator instead of the city. Costello uses puns in these lines as well as the narrator is listening “to the tick tock” while maintaining the ability to “clock all the faces.” In the next line, the narrator admits to being “twice shy” and “dog tired” because he’s “been bitten.” This is a play off of the cliché “once bitten, twice shy” but the bite is not from a dog, but from being “dog tired.” The incessant puns may be wearing on both the narrator as well as the writer of the song as Costello sings, “Everything you say now sounds like it was ghost-written.”
After another rendition of the chorus, Costello immediately moves to the bridge:
Back in London they’ll take you to heart after a little while
Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile.
With these words, Costello shifts perspective yet again, no longer employing the second-person tense, but rather embraces the viewpoints as his own by saying, “I still feel like an exile.” After finishing that line, there’s an actual break in the singing allowing Costello and even the listener to take a breath after the cascade of words flowing out of Costello. In the last verse, Costello ensures that the first-person point of view of the song is clear:
Somehow I found myself down at the dockside
Thinking of the old days of Liverpool and Rotherhithe
The transparent people who live on the other side
Living a life that is almost like suicide.
Despite the overwhelming and unfathomable confusion that Costello has shared about New York in the song, he somehow finds himself at home especially when comparing it to his own experiences in Britain, “living a life that is almost like suicide.” With these words, Costello reveals the depths of his own feelings and mindset that brings him to New York. During the writing and recording of Get Happy!!, Costello recalls that “I hated just about everything in my world, reserving the greatest disdain for myself.” This self-loathing is apparent in the final words of “New Amsterdam,” imagining having to return to his old life in the U.K., one that would amount to a kind of self-death if not leading to actual suicide. These are dark thoughts for the narrator of the song as well as the song’s composer.
After singing the final chorus, the song moves away from Costello’s voice to an instrumental outro, ringing on and on as the song fades out. Is that a keyboard or a guitar? It’s hard to decipher. Costello has created a vivid world in “New Amsterdam” through not only the lyrical content but his one-man band approach. There’s a certain amount of irony that Costello and The Attractions weren’t able to record the song to Costello’s satisfaction when actually recording in the land of the Dutch.
Although Costello and The Attractions were able to record the rest of Get Happy!! together, Costello including his solo demo for “New Amsterdam” on the album mirrors the experience of his contemporary Bruce Springsteen two years later. Springsteen released his album Nebraska in 1982 as a collection of his home demos since his attempts to record the songs with his backing band the E Street Band lacked the force and power of the solo performances. Though the songs of Nebraska have a starker feel and sparser sound than the buoyant, swirl of “New Amsterdam,” the self loathing and the utter desolation of Costello’s point of view can be found in Nebraska, namely the song “State Trooper”:
Springsteen sings in the song:
Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife
The only thing that I got’s been bothering me my whole life
Hey, somebody out there, listen to my last prayer
Hi ho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere.
Springsteen has cited the seminal New York art punk rockabilly electronic band Suicide as having inspired the approach for “State Trooper.” Suicide also opened for Costello on tour in 1979. “State Trooper” is an austere and bleak perspective matched by Springsteen’s performance. It certainly fits the nihilism that Suicide sometimes embraced:
Both Suicide’s “Rocket USA” as well as “State Trooper” by Springsteen share Costello’s mindset during the recording of Get Happy!! of hating the world and “reserving the greatest disdain for myself.”
A few years after the writing of “New Amsterdam” and the other songs on Get Happy!!, Costello would change his compositional approach. Costello writes in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink that he
“tried to rein in my impulse to play with words as an end to itself. Some people can do crossword puzzles, some people can effortlessly work out anagrams. For a while I had a nervy facility with puns, but it started to put distance between the intentions of meaning and feeling.”
Obviously, Costello is entitled to this opinion, but “New Amsterdam” is a unique union of language and emotion. It’s the peak of Costello’s pun-centric compositions, layer upon layer of double meanings and wordplay. The overwhelming deluge of these words, images, messages, hints, and implications produces a wooziness for the listener. When paired with the music which works in contrast with the rest of Get Happy!!, “New Amsterdam” stands out as a strange, despondent, yet visionary dream.
Image: Collier, J., photographer. (1941) Manikins. Amsterdam, New York. United States Amsterdam New York Montgomery County, 1941. Oct. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017821406/.