A song is considered a standard when it has achieved a certain amount of popularity within a specific genre (jazz, blues, etc.) and sometimes across genres. It becomes part of the “standard repertoire” when a significant number of different artists perform the song. While there are standards within different musical genres, often referencing a standard is actually a nod to the “Great American Songbook” which can be defined as:
“The canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century that have stood the test of time in their life and legacy…the songs published during the Golden Age of this genre include those popular and enduring tunes from the 1920s to the 1960s that were created for Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film.”
Songwriters and composers whose work falls within this canon include George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, and more. While these songs can’t be considered a musical creative commons since most of the songs within the Great American Songbook are still under copyright, their commonality provides artists with an opportunity to express themselves, whether by adhering to the standard or deviating through experimentation such as different arrangements. Sometimes the standard presents a foundation for improvisation. Regardless of how they are used, manipulated, transformed, or presented as an ideal, the standard remains as a constant in the world.
Before he became “Elvis Costello,” the young Declan Patrick MacManus was exposed to the Great American Songbook at an early age through his parents as his father was a jazz trumpeter and singer and his mother worked at a record shop. Even at the beginning of his career which was the time of punk and Costello was included with the wave of “angry young songwriters” in the UK during the late 1970s, Costello demonstrated his reverence for the Great American Songbook One example is when he recorded “My Funny Valentine” by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in 1978:
Costello plays the standard straight, performing the song solo. He describes his rendition this way in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink:
“My version lasted all of one minute and nineteen seconds, accompanied only by the bass strings of my guitar, thrown into a well of reverb but sung tenderly and without any fashionable irony. I’d known and loved that song longer than any brittle quip of my own.”
It is certainly an affectionate rendition and demonstrates Costello’s vocal talents. But Costello is more than a singer and an interpreter of other people’s music. He is a songwriter and an ambitious one at that. Knowing intimately the body of work that makes up the Great American Songbook, he must have presented himself a challenge to contribute a composition of his own to that unofficial collection and receive the distinction of being in that company of songwriters. For Costello to take up the goal to write his own standard is a postmodern pursuit. Whereas the famed songwriters named before wrote songs for a particular purpose such as for a screen musical, Costello’s goal is to compose a song in a style that resembles those standards and could fit alongside those songs in a milieu of the past when they were written and performed.
In May 1981, Costello and The Attractions took a detour from performing across the United States and recorded an album of country music standards. Costello wrote later about the inspiration for the album:
“I decided to take a break from songwriting. Having developed the strong conviction that I could better express my current feelings through other people’s songs, I started to collect material to record. As the title might suggest Almost Blue was not originally intended to be a ‘country’ record, rather a collection of melancholy songs of many styles.”
When Costello returned to songwriting after the recording of the cover album Almost Blue, he must have realized that the title of the record was the beginning of something else. It works as an entrance to compose his own melancholy song that could fit alongside the standards found in the Great American Songbook. The result was the song “Almost Blue” released on the 1982 album Imperial Bedroom, Costello’s first collection of original material after the album of country standards:
The song starts with Steve Nieve’s piano and the click of the cymbals by Pete Thomas. The piano is slow and deliberate, pausing before each chord in the descending progression before settling into an expansive series of notes. The bass by Bruce Thomas slides in just as the intro is completed. Before Costello has even sung a note, The Attractions have already created a world called “Almost Blue,” a place of melancholy and regret. Costello sings the opening of the song:
Almost doing things we used to do.
The time between naming his album of country standards Almost Blue and composing the song with the same name has allowed Costello to contemplate the full impact of what the phrase means in practice. “Almost doing things we used to do” is a beautiful concept demonstrating that the narrator of the song has not lived enough time to cure himself of the instincts created by being in a relationship. Costello continues with the verse:
There’s a girl here and she’s almost you
The narrator finds himself in a romantic encounter, but can’t shake his memories of his previous relationship. “She’s almost you” is a devastating admittance; certainly for the new girl, but especially for the narrator who is in this new situation for the wrong reasons. As the verse reaches the shift in the chord progression, Costello sings:
All the things that your eyes once promised
I see in hers too
Now your eyes are red from crying.
The narrator continues to compare a new potential relationship with his previous love affair. The song isn’t directed at the new woman, but rather the past love. By singing “Now your eyes are red from crying,” it places this previous lover in the same room as the narrator. The narrator isn’t simply recalling this relationship in his own mind, but actually saying these words to his ex-lover since her “eyes red from crying” RIGHT NOW. These words reveal the poisonous motivations of the narrator, moving beyond melancholy and regret to bitterness and revenge. Costello underlines the revelation for this listener by shifting the color of the mood; it’s no longer a sorrowful blue tone, but rather red, the color most associated with anger. The song continues:
Flirting with this disaster became me
It named me as the fool who only aimed to be...
The narrator admits that he is purposefully creating this situation for the sake of being a part of a “disaster.” He’s being willfully cruel. While Costello sings these words, the piano and the bass are contending with one another as if playing out the roles of two ex-lovers speaking over one another. With the last line in the verse, the narrator says that he was “aiming to be” and the thought is completed with the first lines of the next verse, “Almost blue.” It’s a neat little trick employed by Costello that carries the action forward from one verse to the next, using the title phrase “Almost Blue” as the pivot point of the song. The next verse begins:
It’s almost touching it will almost do
There’s a part of me that’s always true… always.
The word “almost” is the load-bearing weight of the song; feelings and actions that just about happened, but not quite. It’s employed well in this verse: “almost touching” so that “it will almost do.” The people in the song can’t quite complete any sort of connection. The narrator then says, “There’s a part of me that’s always true.” It’s a recognition that there’s a role that he’s supposed to play in a relationship, being fully committed and “always true,” but he can’t quite get there. Only part of him can be “always true.” Almost always.
The song approaches the conclusion:
I have seen such an unhappy couple
The narrator brings himself and his ex-lover into a giant, almost embrace, almost connected as an “unhappy couple.” As Costello sings “Almost me,” the minimal percussion drops out. The bass hits a quick series of ascending notes. Costello then sings “Almost you” and the piano answers with its own run of ascending notes. The bass gets one last word in just before Costello sings the last line, the last “Almost blue” of the song. Costello sings these words beautifully drawing the notes out for a big conclusion. Unlike other songs from Imperial Bedroom, there is minimal production in the audio presentation of “Almost Blue” as it’s mostly straight-forward, but with the final line, Costello’s voice is drenched in reverb, not dissimilar to the reverb sound of Costello’s rendition of “My Funny Valentine.” The piano, bass, and drums finish up their parts as the words “almost blue” echo on and on, always and almost.
“Almost Blue” is a song that captures many emotions, certainly melancholy, regret, yet also pain, bitterness, spite, and even vengeance. In his memoir, Costello referred to “Almost Blue” as an “unguarded song.” Yet there’s still a sense of detachment within the song, intentionally so with the narrator adopting the “almost” theme. This detachment is fascinating when considering the inspiration for the song. Costello wrote later that “Almost Blue”:
“was written in imitation of the Brown/Henderson song ‘The Thrill Is Gone.’ I had become obsessed with the Chet Baker recording of that tune, firstly the trumpet instrumental and, later, the vocal take. It is probably the most faithful likeness to the model of any of my songs of this time.”
Chet Baker was a singer and trumpet player, who came to prominence in the 1950s with movie star looks and a super cool persona in both his singing and playing. The best writing on Baker’s personality and musical approach comes from the essay “A Life in the Arts” written by the late and sorely missed art critic Dave Hickey which was collected in Hickey’s 1997 essay collection Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy. Hickey writes that listening to Baker:
“infected that Oklahoma lonesome with L.A. city-lights tristesse, so, the song seemed to glide past me like low-riders down Pico Boulevard, sleek and self-contained, with the fleet glimmer of the city chasing down their dark reflective surfaces.”
Baker was not a natural songwriter and relied on standard for most of his work. Hickey zeros in on the particular quality that Baker brings to a song:
“Baker knew what all songwriters know…that all songs are sad songs, borne as they are on the insubstantial substance of our fleeting breath…He sang those great sentimental lyrics by Larry Hart, Johnny Mercer, and Ira Gershwin…but he sang them at one remove, cool and plain, acknowledging the sentiment without buying into it—glancing at it over his shoulder, as through the window of a door closed behind him—so that what we get is not the feeling but the memory of it.”
When comparing “Almost Blue” with “The Thrill Is Gone,” it’s easy to see how Costello and The Attractions attempt to make their song fit the template established by Baker with the piano-based accompaniment and not a whiff of guitar. The clearest resemblance between the songs is Costello trying to match Baker’s remove, as Hickey called it, through his own vocal delivery, though it’s hard for anyone to match Baker in that respect. Foremost, Costello writes to the idea of the remove in Baker’s music. The narrator in “Almost Blue” could be Chet Baker himself, singing about detachment, not quite letting himself fully commit. In the lyrical content, we get not the immediate feeling of the affair, but rather “the memory of it.”
In “A Life in the Arts,” Hickey hypothesizes on Baker’s approach for recording a song:
“The song plays the music and the music plays the player and that, consequently, the song, as played, is not a showcase for the player’s originality, but a momentary acoustic community in which the players breathe and think together in real time, adding to the song’s history, without detracting from its integrity, leaving it intact to be played again.”
Baker’s method, as theorized by Hickey, upholds the ideal of a standard; a song that can be used by any artist for their own purposes, but then remains as a constant. As discussed in previous Recliner Notes posts on Costello, he often approached songs from a postmodern perspective by commenting on the song within the composition of the actual song. That’s not the case with “Almost Blue” as the goal is to write a standard, one in which Costello captures the essence of how Chet Baker sings a standard. It is telling that Costello calls “Almost Blue” an “unguarded song” when he is purposefully trying to write a Chet Baker song. Fully embracing the remove inherent to Baker’s musical identity is what Costello needs in order to reveal himself.
Costello returns to the idea of writing his own standard throughout his career, including his collaboration with Burt Bacharach on 1998’s Painted from Memory and, most notably, North, a piano-based album of torch songs released in 2003. But it is another song that Costello writes that enables him to meet and work with Chet Baker himself. In 1982, Costello wrote the song “Shipbuilding” for Robert Wyatt. It is not an attempt to write a standard by Costello, but rather a commentary on England’s participation in the Falklands War. Wyatt’s recording of “Shipbuilding” is gorgeous and haunting with the appropriate amount of irony and bite for a good protest song. The next year, Costello recorded “Shipbuilding” on his own album Punch the Clock. Costello felt the song required a trumpet solo. After rejecting the trumpet players recommended by the record company and considering Wynton Marsalis, Costello instead made an offer to Chet Baker to contribute his trumpet to the song:
By the time he was playing on “Shipbuilding,” Baker had long ago lost his teen idol good looks after being subjected to many difficulties, including a drug sickness. Notwithstanding, his playing on “Shipbuilding” is exquisite, providing note-perfect solos while also weaving his trumpet in and out of the song, answering and supporting Costello’s vocals. As Costello sings, “Diving for dear life / When we could be diving for pearls,” Baker presents the notion of what “diving for pearls” should sound like on a trumpet, especially when he overdubs and doubles his own part. The sound cascades outward, capturing the musical equivalent of light refracting underwater. Baker’s offering is the best part of Costello’s version of “Shipbuilding.
Looking back on the session, Costello wrote that during the recording of “Shipbuilding” he slipped Baker a copy of Imperial Bedroom and:
“suggested that he might listen to one track in particular. Although we met up again at his subsequent London engagements and even worked together on one occasion, he never mentioned the record again. It wasn’t until several months after his death that I found out that he had been including ‘Almost Blue’ in his later sets and that it would feature in photographer Bruce Weber’s documentary on Baker, Let’s Get Lost. Chet’s performance of the song, before an indifferent film festival crowd, makes for very uncomfortable viewing, but there is a wonderful version, featuring an extended trumpet solo, on a late ‘live’ album from Japan. He finally seemed to get what I hoped he would recognize in the composition.”
Recorded in June 1987, 11 months before Baker’s death, Chet Baker in Tokyo includes his rendition of “Almost Blue”:
The song opens with an absolutely heart-breaking trumpet solo by Baker. The pain and loss are up front and underline Hickey’s dictum that “all songs are sad songs.” The trumpet solo is followed by a showcase for Harold Danko’s exquisite piano. Then Baker begins to sing. His infamous remove is there in spite of the agonizing solo he had played just a few minutes before. At what would be the end of a hard-lived life, Baker’s vocal chops aren’t what they once were as heard on the earlier recording of “The Thrills Is Gone.” Despite this, he seems to live in the “almost” space that Costello created expressly with him in mind. The detached sadness culminates with the “Almost me / Almost you / Almost blue” ending. Baker hits the last note and it is spell-binding and chill-inducing. Costello recognizes now that “Almost Blue” is his “most covered composition” making it by definition a true standard. But the destiny of the song was finally fulfilled with Chet Baker’s performance of the song.
Image: World Telegram staff photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.