Once upon a time, in a log cabin in the American South, there lived a woman who was charmed by three figures: Jesus Christ, Elvis Presley, and Santa Claus. Each offered a different variation of mythological masculinity. This woman’s devotion to Jesus, Elvis, and Santa Claus was exhibited by all manners of collectibles which were on display throughout her house no matter the time of the year. For her, they represented a kind of Southern holy trinity.
Two of the fabled figures of this Southern triumvirate appear as key reference points in Elvis Costello’s own exploration of the American South, the song “The Delivery Man”:
“[It] started out as a story about the impact on three women’s lives of a man with a hidden past. The story took the song ‘Hidden Shame’ as its unsung prelude.”
Costello wrote about “Hidden Shame” in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, indicating that the song is:
“The tale of a repeat offender who wasted his life in prison for minor crimes only to suddenly confess to the apparently random murder of his childhood friend. It was written for Johnny Cash. Johnny transcribed my lyric in his own fine hand, his chosen method for learning new songs, but this only became known to me when his son, John Carter Cash, found the pages among Johnny’s papers and sent them to me in 2014.”
As Costello told the New York Times in 2004, the setting for both “Hidden Shame” and “The Delivery Man” is “an imaginary place, but so is everything these days.” Having said that, it’s hard to imagine that the locale of the story is anyplace but the American South, especially because Costello initially imagined Johnny Cash vocalizing the story.
The sound of “The Delivery Man” is lean as Costello is once again joined by The Imposters, the backing band that was created from the ashes of The Attractions. There’s a solid groove courtesy of drummer Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher’s fat bass sound. Steve Nieve provides suitably spooky keyboard sounds as he alternates between omnichord, Wurlitzer, and piano.
There’s no musical introduction to “The Delivery Man” as a brief snippet of live-in-the-studio chatter is heard before Costello’s voice immediately starts the song as he sings:
“Abel was able,” so Vivian said
Her shoulders flung forward
Her lips in a purse
She talks like the beauty that she never was
Of the fabulous wild nights that she never has.
Costello’s expertise in illustrative character studies. He shares details about Vivian, including the look and feel of her bearing as “her lips in a purse.” Though somewhat harsh, “She talks like the beauty that she never was” is a concise characterization that tells so much about her. It’s not quite as harsh as Bruce Springsteen’s similar line from “Thunder Road”: “You ain’t a beauty, but, hey, you’re alright.” More from Costello on Vivian: “Of the fabulous wild nights that she never has”; her exaggerations can get stretched into straight-out fabrications. After closing out the first verse, Costello and The Imposters move into the chorus:
In a certain light he looked like Elvis
In a certain way he feels like Jesus.
With these lines, “The Delivery Man” confirms that the song is indeed set in the South, referring to two of the three members of the Southern holy trinity. The connection between Elvis and Jesus recalls the blurb that Bob Dylan provided for Last Train to Memphis, the first of Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis:
“Unrivaled account of Elvis as he walks the path between heaven and nature in an America that was wide open, when anything was possible, not the whitewashed golden calf but the incendiary musical firebrand loner who conquered the western world.”
Leave it to Dylan to succinctly illustrate the power of Elvis’s image, likening him to a warrior prince out of legend or so that the myth of Elvis is now commensurate with Jesus and Santa Claus.
“The Delivery Man” is also an opportunity for Elvis Costello to evoke the image of Elvis Presley from whom Costello took his assumed name. Costello writes of the reasoning that went into the creation of his nom de plume in Unfaithful Music:
“The decision for me to adopt the ‘Elvis’ name had always seemed like a mad dare, a stunt conceived by my managers to grab people’s attention long enough for the songs to penetrate, as my good looks and animal magnetism were certainly not going to do the job. There were certainly people on the scene with more oxymoronic names than mine.”
“The Delivery Man” is the third time that Costello has cited this member of the Southern mythical triumvirate with whom he shares a first name. In the 1984 song “Worthless Thing,” Costello sings of the song’s main character “drinking vintage Elvis Presley wine.” The 1993 album The Juliet Letters — created by Costello in collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet — includes the song “Damnation’s Cellar” that presents him singing:
Bring back Liberace or Ollie and Stan
Shakespeare will have to wait his turn
Elvis Presley and Puccini shall return.
It’s not surprising that Costello name-checks Elvis Presley in his songs as his mythical status makes him standard currency in the culture. Yet it’s jarring to hear Elvis Costello sing the name “Elvis” since it is his adopted name. We don’t hear Bob Dylan reference a character named “Dylan” in any of his songs, even though Dylan himself was born “Robert Zimmerman” and the name “Bob Dylan” is an invention. The name “Elvis Costello” may have started off as a “stunt” or a “dare” according to Costello, but it’s also a particularly post-modern designation as it refers to another figure in Costello’s chosen profession, one whose stature is so massive that he is no longer just another musician but rather a historical figure such as Alexander the Great or Napoleon. In the context of “The Delivery Man,” the name-check brings even more connotations since the singer is singing his own name. It purposefully muddies the waters so that the mystery of this Delivery Man character deepens further. He has an air about him that people can’t quite square, but are compelled by him. Costello ends the chorus by singing:
Everyone dreams of him just as they can
But he’s only the humble Delivery Man.
Though Abel is “humble,” his aspect is such that people project their aspirations on him as if he is a figure as significant as Elvis, Jesus, or especially Santa Claus. The characters in the song are making a list for which a stranger will deliver gifts in the middle of a dark night. There’s no telling what the Delivery Man can provide to those in need.
In the second verse, Costello introduces a new character:
Geraldine blushes and brushes away
The cigarette ashes that Vivian scatters
Stares out of the window at the things that she says
While gossip within her competes the widow.
Geraldine and Vivian are friends yet at the same time Geraldine can’t stand Vivian. She “stares out the window at the thing that she says” instead of responding in a way that would lose her as a friend even though she’s endlessly annoying. Furthermore Costello sings that Geraldine “knows for sure Vivian is lying.” They are true frenemies. Besides, they have different feelings about Abel/Delivery Man as Geraldine doesn’t trust him and Vivian seems ready to give him everything. Despite her suspicions, the Delivery Man has gotten under Geraldine’s skin as well. Like everyone else in town, she can’t stop thinking about him.
After this verse, Costello and the band break into a bridge. It has all of the characteristics of a classic Costello bridge: the shift from minor to major chord, a change-up in rhythm, and Nieve moving over to piano from moody organ. In the bridge, Costello introduces a new character, Ivy, the daughter that Geraldine is raising by herself:
Ivy puts down the ghost story she’s reading
Looks up at that face on the wall
Thinking about how her father lay bleeding
Shot in the back ‘cos orders were misleading
And how a flag and a medal don’t have any meaning.
Ivy’s introduction is an opportunity for Costello to fill in the back story of Ivy’s father and why Geraldine is raising Ivy by herself. The key detail in the bridge is that Ivy is reading a “ghost story” that immediately causes her to consider and think about her dead father, haunted by him as in a ghost story. The haunting doesn’t end there. None of the men in the story are immediately accessible. They are away, either dead or out of reach, yet still linger, bedevil, and haunt all three women in the story.
Costello ends the bridge and moves back to the beguiling melody of the verse which serves as another type of haunting. The first line in the next verse reinforces this same theme as Costello sings, “On the 5th of July as they tore down the fair.” The holiday of Independence Day is over, so the carnival is packing up and only memories remain. For one line in this verse, the point of view of the song shifts to Abel: “And he’d seen all the local girls who were worth kissing.” He sure doesn’t think much of the options in town. Immediately after this line, Costello swings the perspective away from Abel:
With the smell of the gunpowder still in air
They noticed that Abel and Ivy were missing.
The point of view is now that of the town’s as everyone is noticing that something out of the ordinary has happened; gunsmoke lingers, and Ivy and Abel are nowhere to be found. Costello is laying out many tantalizing details, rich with clues and possibilities. After singing the Elvis/Jesus lines again, Costello shifts back to Abel’s perspective:
He said “Why can’t you be kind to me like you were meant to be?
When they let me out, I had a brand new identity.
It’s here that Costello connects the story of “The Delivery Man” with “Hidden Shame,” the ex-con trying to get a new start, but who is once again getting pulled into trouble. Abel is not entirely blameless as he allows himself to get into these situations, but there’s some quality about his character that attracts attention and, even more so, trouble. Costello finishes Abel’s thoughts:
“Now everyone dreams of me just as they can
I want to be your Delivery Man.”
With these words, Abel takes on the mantle of being the Delivery Man. He says that people are projecting their dreams onto him anyway, so he will take it as a challenge and help deliver those dreams. Costello finishes the song by repeating the key lines over and over again: “In a certain light he looked like Elvis / In a certain way he seemed like Jesus.”
Thus concludes the core story of The Delivery Man. Costello said afterwards that:
“Parts of the narrative ended up being displaced from the final album by more urgent songs taken from the news headlines. One of the songs moved aside was to find an ideal home on [2009’s] Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.”
“The Delivery Man” feels like the beginning of a great crime story, exploring the dynamics of a small town and the introduction of a mysterious stranger. Though the overall narrative is not completed in a traditional way, the song works as a standalone piece, thrusting the listener into an established mood and setting with alluring characters. What lingers are the Elvis/Jesus lines themselves, haunting memories the same way the face of the stranger affects the three women in the story. The refrain of the song becomes its own Delivery Man.
Image of Elvis: Rossano aka Bud Care, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Image of Jesus: Jesus Christ, the enthroned King of Poland, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Image of Santa Claus: Nick Tribuzio as Santa Claus (Hayward, CA, Studio Kent, 1961), Studio Kent, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.