In 1983, Elvis Costello was invited to record a song as part of a tribute album celebrating the 50th birthday of Yoko Ono. The song that Costello decided to tackle was 1981’s “Walking on Thin Ice,” an arresting and engaging dance track by Ono that sounds like a shotgun marriage between the desperate feel of Berlin era-David Bowie and the rhythms of the post-punk band Liquid Liquid. Costello’s take on the song was released on the 1984 collection Every Man Has a Woman and featured The Attractions, his backing band at the time, as well as musical support from The TKO Horns. The resulting track was a somewhat odd, yet earnest instance of early 80s white soul that some could even say was funky. The lasting legacy of that project for Costello was more than simply another record. It was his first encounter with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. Toussaint produced the track and the two would become lifelong friends and musical partners.
Toussaint was a piano player, songwriter, producer, bandleader, and solo artist. His songwriting credits include a series of hits for other artists including Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law”; “Ruler of My Heart” by Irma Thomas; Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine” among many many others. In addition to these tracks, Toussaint’s production credits are many, including the enduring funk of The Meters. His collection of solo albums is highlighted by the dreamy and indomitable song “Southern Nights,” which later became a hit for Glen Campbell:
All of Toussaint’s body of work is rooted in the soul and rhythm of his native New Orleans making him one of rock ‘n roll/R&B/funk/soul music’s great heroes.
Costello, a renowned fan and student of all aspects and genres of music, must have been in awe when meeting this legend during the recording of “Walking on Thin Ice”. Perhaps their relationship started by the two comparing their respective compositions that shared the same title: “From A Whisper to A Scream.” Toussaint’s song is off of his 1971 self-titled album and deals in subtlety and restrained passion. In contrast, Costello’s “From A Whisper to A Scream” is a somewhat manic duet with Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze that is anything but restrained, leaning towards the scream part of the song’s title.
Costello worked with Toussaint again during the sessions for his 1989 album Spike, which was once again co-produced with T Bone Burnett. Costello described his and Burnett’s concept for the album in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink:
“Spike was my first album for Warner Bros. When I signed my contract, I’d described five different albums that I could make for the label and asked them to choose which they’d like first, so nobody could claim to be disappointed. They said, ‘Do whatever you want,’ I supposed I made all five of them at once.”
One of the five albums that Costello pitched to Warner Bros. that was squeezed into Spike must have included a New Orleans-based record as a few tracks from the album was recorded there, including the song “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror”:
Costello must have had the awareness that if one is recording in New Orleans, the participation of Allen Toussaint will immediately make the track better. For “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” it is Toussaint who plays the song’s “colossal piano part” as Costello later described it. Toussaint’s piano playing is at once soulful and exuberant, drawing from both the church and the dance hall. Toussaint’s piano is forceful yet still smooth as bourbon. His playing can be best appreciated on Toussaint’s later jazz albums, especially 2009’s The Bright Mississippi:
The gospel, piano-based approach for “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” may have had its origins with “That Day Is Done” a song that Costello wrote with Paul McCartney the preceding year. As previously covered on Recliner Notes, the song is an exploration of shame and helplessness including the beautifully conceived line, “She sprinkles flowers in the dirt / That’s when a thrill becomes a hurt.” In addition to being in alignment musically, “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” explores similar themes as “That Day Is Done.” Though the latter song is pointed inward and filled with self-accusations, “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” sees Costello returning to a place of denunciations targeted at someone else. In the first verse, he sings:
One day you’re going to have to face a deep dark truthful mirror
And it’s going to tell you things that I still love you too much to say.
The narrator claims that his love prevents him from telling the truth to his loved one, but that a mirror, one that is both “deep” and “dark” can reveal all. Costello writes in the first verse:
The sky was just a purple bruise, the ground was iron
And you fell all around the town until you looked the same.
The narrator’s loved one is able to take falls “all around town” without any noticeable effect, but it’s the world that feels the impact as the sky receives “a purple bruise.” The mirror is beginning to reveal a portrait of one who drinks too much, but doesn’t see the effect of those actions on others. The extent of the subject’s devotion to a good time is explained further in the second verse:
Now the flagstone streets where the newspaper shouts
Ring to the boots of roustabouts
And you’re never in any doubt, there’s something happening somewhere
You chase down the road ’til your fingers bleed on a fiberglass tumbleweed
You can blow around the town, but it all shuts down the same.
This person is always in search of the party. Even when closing time and going home time is obvious to all, the song’s subject insists that there is still fun to be had, chasing the night for the sake of chasing the night. The image of this person chasing down “the road” until fingers are bleeding “on a fiberglass tumbleweed” is an intriguing image, showing the magnitude of the quest for further celebration. This person needs the exuberance and abandon of a party; a setting and context that provides the necessary cover for further alcoholic intake.
In the third verse, the narrator continues to name all of the things that mirror reflects:
So you bay for the boy in the tiger-skin trunks
They set him up, set him up on the stool
He falls down, he falls down like a drunk
And you drink till you drool.
These lines provide a bleak picture of the relationship at the heart of “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror.” Who is “he” and who is “you”? Costello provides the following insight about the song in his memoir:
“It is hard to live with someone who repeatedly hurls himself into the oblivion of alcohol and anger. It’s harder still when that person is you or someone you are pretending to love.”
This is a veiled reference to Costello’s second wife, Cait O’Riordan, who Costello writes carefully about throughout Unfaithful Music. In the previous verses of “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” any of those specific stories and attributes could have been about either Costello or O’Riordan, making the song a double portrait of sorts. In this third verse, Costello is more specific about the attributes shown by the mirror. He admits that he is a “fall down drunk” and that she drinks until she “drools.” In the second half of this verse, Costello examines the differences between the two:
Well, it’s his story you’ll flatter
You’ll stretch him out like a saint
But the canvas that he splattered
Will be the picture that you never paint.
Costello implies that he is the one taking the fall for their collective drunkenness. “You’ll stretch him out like a saint” is Costello saying that he gets portrayed as a martyr in the name of his songwriting. She allows and encourages this to happen: “It’s his story you’ll flatter.” Ultimately, Costello admits to his drunkenness, but he says that at least he is able to produce some kind of art in this state, even if it is only a “canvas that he splattered.” She can’t even do that. She is simply a mess, using Costello’s artistic ambitions and output as a pretense for her drinking.
Though “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” has a dark portrayal at its center, Costello adds in a layer of remove. He writes the song as an ode to the mirror, but it is actually the text of the song that tells us what the mirror reveals. In short, the song is about the mirror, but the song is in fact the mirror itself. Costello downplays his own work, comparing it to nothing more than paint that is drunkenly and accidentally splattered on a canvas. The song “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” itself reveals the opposite as it demonstrates his transformation of a deeply personal subject matter into art through his masterful command of songwriting craft and skill.
In Unfaithful Music, Costello writes:
“What little compassion could be mustered for the subject [of the song] was only present to the majesty of Allen’s piano playing and the beautiful blur of the Dirty Dozen’s horns as they wound around my voice like someone staring into the light through a kaleidoscope.”
Costello rightly points out his vocals for the song as his delivery is impassioned and sensitive to the words being conveyed. In this quote, Costello also names the other great New Orleans element within “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The band was formed in 1977 and helped force the revival of New Orleans brass bands’ popularity locally and subsequently for national and international audiences. A great early recording by the Dirty Dozen that Costello would have known at the time of recording “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” is the song “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now” off of the 1984 album of the same name:
The culmination of Costello’s partnership with Allen Toussaint was The River in Reverse, a joint album recorded in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The album grew out of Costello and Toussaint seeing each other at various tribute concerts to support New Orleans after the devastating storm. Originally conceived as a way to highlight songs from Toussaint’s back catalog, Costello and Toussaint began writing new songs together that address the collective rage about the government’s woefully inadequate response to the disaster as well as the grief and heartache about those lost as a result of the storm. The album also served as a celebration of sorts as it was one of the first recordings in New Orleans after Katrina. The song that best represents song the album’s themes is the title track:
Costello writes in his memoir that this song “took the outsider’s view of a tragedy, the powerlessness of a remote witness who has sold his soul for the right to look away.” Furthermore, he writes that in the course of finalizing the song Toussaint:
“Began sketching out a horn arrangement that became as memorable for me as anything I was singing. My words had the anger. His horns had the sorrow.”
Toussaint passed away in 2015, but throughout their time together, he and Costello had a rare and remarkable musical partnership, abounding with highlights and a lasting legacy.
Image: Keith Ellwood from Valencia Spain, Spain, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.