Country Darkness

It all starts with sweet tea, Sweet Tea Recording Studio in Oxford, Mississippi, to be more precise. In 2004, Elvis Costello once again teamed up with his backing band The Imposters and recorded the album The Delivery Man at Sweet Tea. Armed with a batch of new songs, Costello was yearning to make another rock ‘n roll record as he said to Elton John during a conversation for Interview magazine in 2004:

“Well, the main thing to remember when you’re making a rock ‘n’ roll record, and have made as many as you and I have, is to take yourself out of yourself. If you start becoming analytical, it turns into another kind of music. There is an element of spontaneity you need to be able to take yourself somewhere — either a place in your own head, or a physical place like Oxford, Mississippi, which is where we recorded The Delivery Man. I knew of a great studio there called Sweet Tea, because the rhythm section in my band, the Imposters, had worked there on this fantastic Buddy Guy record which was named after it. Buddy made a lot of records in the years before he recorded at Sweet Tea that kind of stuck to a formula. But once I heard the album he did there, and how working at that studio liberated his playing, I wondered if that environment could do the same thing for me.”

Costello isn’t wrong about Buddy Guy’s Sweet Tea. On the album, Guy embraces the music of Mississippi hill country blues players such as Junior Kimbrough as illustrated by the track “Baby Please Don’t Leave Me”:

The groove is wide open and loose, enabling Guy to summon audio imagery on his guitar that sounds like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and a crew of a flying saucer playing hooky in Mississippi. 

The abandon that is heard in Buddy Guy’s Sweet Tea sound is also something that Costello found when recording at the studio as he told Rolling Stone after the record’s release in 2004:

“I can’t say I consciously imitated them, but there is a strength to the records by those hill-country guys. They change chords where they feel like it, not where it says in some music lesson. There is freedom in that.”

The Imposters stick to Costello’s predetermined chord changes on The Delivery Man, but what translates from the feeling that Costello describes is the intensity of the playing throughout the album as it bristles with ferocity and, yes, freedom and then immediately downshifts to restraint when necessary. In 2005, Tom Waits selected The Delivery Man as one of his favorite records and shared these thoughts with The Guardian on its impact:

“Scalding hot bedlam, monkey to man needle time. I’d hate to be balled out by him, I’d quit first. Grooves wide enough to put your foot in and the bass player is a gorilla of groove. Pete Thomas, still one of the best rock drummers alive. Diatribes and rants with steam and funk. It has locomotion and heat. Steam heat, that is.”

“Country Darkness,” the second track on The Delivery Man, exhibits the discipline of the band, but also bathes in the “steam heat” that Waits describes:

The song opens with The Imposters playing a quiet, stately riff together in complete lockstep. They display total confidence in this groove within which Elvis Costello can be Elvis Costello. He sings:

This tattered document
A mystery you can solve.

The language here is sparse, showing moderation similar to the band’s own restraint. These lines are unlike the overwhelming deluge of words and concepts that can usually be found in other Costello songs. “This tattered document” is an alluring image, one showing the promise of a good story. “A mystery you can solve” doesn’t provide any more detail to the first line, deepening the mystery for the listener. These lines work as Zen koans, seemingly paradoxical statements that induce “great doubt” within students of Zen thereby revealing the inadequacy of logical reasoning in the quest for enlightenment. Whether Costello has that goal in mind is unknown, but he is purposefully tantalizing in his use of sparse language in order to mesmerize the listener. The verse continues with the following two lines: 

Some burnt out filament
Flies buzzing around the bulb.

Costello does not provide any further details to the hint of a narrative presented in the opening lines. Instead, he pushes the setting, ensuring that we know the vibes of this place. The atmosphere is fully revealed when Costello sings the refrain of the song: “Country darkness.” As he sings the phrase, a pedal steel guitar played by John McFee sounds out for the first time in the song like a train whistle heard in the distance. McFee is a member of The Doobie Brothers and has done session work for a number of acts, including the Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, Steve Miller and more. Significant in Costello lore, he was a member of Clover, the band that provided musical accompaniment for My Aim Is True. It is McFee who plays lead guitar on “Alison”:

The pedal steel provides the right amount of country feel to “Country Darkness.” After this first instance of the song’s title, Costello sings the second verse:

He thought of traveling
Heard an approaching train.
Drown out his desperate pulse
A song with no refrain.

The story that was hinted at in the beginning of the song emerges more in the second verse, expanding beyond the haiku-like approach to the lines of the first verse. A male character is introduced, and the country music signifiers continue with Costello’s mention of “an approaching train.” We learn that this character has a “desperate pulse.” The verse ends with Costello singing, “A song with no refrain.” This line feels like another of the koans from the first verse as it could be referring to “Country Darkness” itself, a song that has no real chorus, but simply Costello repeating the title phrase. 

The band transitions to the bridge — not a refrain, of course — building up to a crescendo as Costello sings: 

She daydreams of forbidden sins
There must be something more.

Here is an introduction of a woman in the song; a typical Costello character thinking about sex, but not actually having sex and feeling unfulfilled. Costello emphasizes the second line of the bridge by adding perfect country vocal harmonies. The band hits an ascending chord as Costello sings: “The prison she lives in / The one with the open door.” These lines tell of a self-imposed entrapment that she can leave at any time. The harmonies return for “The one with the open door” as Costello and the band reach the musical apex of the song. Immediately after the last line of the bridge, there is a musical transition led by Steve Nieve’s piano which is highly complex, sounding almost like prog rock, before the band settles back down into the central riff of the song again. Costello sings the third verse:

A veil is covering
A glistening cruel blade
Suffer little children
Repent, unfaithful maid.

Costello is back in Zen mode, once again presenting specific, detailed lines without additional context which piles mystery on top of mystery for the listener to sort through and find connections between the individual lines as well as with the rest of the song’s lyrics. He quotes the Bible, Matthew 19:14: “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” He also calls on the “unfaithful maid” to repent. Is this an appeal to the woman in the bridge who is thinking about “forbidden sins”? But she has not acted on those daydreams despite the knowledge that she has the freedom to leave her confinement at any time since the constraints are self-imposed. Perhaps these lines represent the voices that she imagines she would hear if she were to act on her true desire; “Suffer little children / Repent, unfaithful maid” are the restrictions that she is placing on herself. She can’t help hearing the perceived judgment of the church and her community if she were to step out of line. She is placing those roadblocks in front of her, inhibiting her own freedom. Costello says that this kind of self-imprisonment and limitations is “a glistening cruel blade,” a weapon that she has created within herself and that restricts her pursuit of happiness. She is unable to find joy.

Costello hangs the phrase “country darkness” over the entirety of the song. In most cases, “darkness” in a song conjures a sense of foreboding or doom. In this instance, Costello is welcoming the “country darkness.” It is a benevolent force, helping the passions of its occupants’ imaginations to unfurl and thrive. The darkness rejects any perceived judgment and welcomes freedom. Costello’s “country darkness” shares qualities with the darkness found in the 1967 soul song by James Carr, “Dark End of the Street”:

The lovers in “Dark End of the Street” seek out the darkness as it is the only place that they can go in order to be free. They know what they are doing is beyond morality, but they don’t care. By utilizing the phrase “steal away,” there’s an implication within the song that the lovers’ actions are criminal. Carr even sings: “It’s a sin and we know it’s wrong.” Despite this knowledge, the darkness is a welcoming force as it is in “Country Darkness.” It provides a shelter for the lovers, a haven for freedom and passion. They only feel hurt from their shame within the daylight: “If we should meet just walk on by / Oh, darling, please don’t cry.” Within the world of “Dark End of the Street,” the darkness holds no judgment as it does within “Country Darkness.”

The musical accompaniment of “Country Darkness” matches the sound of “Dark End of the Street,” except that Costello utilizes McFee’s pedal steel guitar for flourishes and ornamentation whereas Carr and company use a horn section. Carr’s song lives within the soul world. Costello attempts to fuse the soul feel of “Dark End of the Street” within the country tropes found in the lyrics of his song. 

Shortly after the release of The Delivery Man, Costello recorded a live session, not at Sweet Tea, but in another part of Mississippi which provided the name of the album: Delta-Verité – The Clarksdale Sessions. On this record, Costello and The Imposters perform live cuts of some songs from The Delivery Man as well as a few selected covers, including “Dark End of the Street”:

From this selection, we can infer that Carr’s song was not far from Costello’s mind during the creation of “Country Darkness,” providing a conceptual foundation for his own exploration of a benevolent darkness. Costello does this through his lyrics of course, but also through the embrace of the sound and feel of the location. This is evident throughout all of The Delivery Man album, and best exemplified in the lyrical content, band sound, and Costello’s vocal performance within “Country Darkness.”

Image: Photo by Johannes Beilharz on Unsplash.

One thought on “Country Darkness

  1. Brilliant song, one of my very favorites to play (bass guitar) in an EC tribute band when I get the chance. My take? The lyrics should be understood in the context of the theme of The Delivery Man record, which you’d hit on when talking about its title track. “This tattered document” in the first verse likely refers to a marriage license that is not exactly being honored if not useless, then the second and third verses offering small vignettes into the also-tattered emotional states of the couple whose names are on it, who could be the same couple in the song “There’s a Story in Your Voice:” both wanting something more, with ex hubby viewing the situation with some desperation and without closure (“a song with no refrain”), while ex wifey leaves things open to chance adventure (“the [prison] with the open door”). In through that door walks The Delivery Man. It doesn’t end well. Sounds shockingly Southern Gothic like a Flannery O’Connor short story. But does Elvis include that glimmer of God’s terrifying grace that Ms. O’ Connor always managed to insert into the most dire of circumstances? I doubt it but who knows??


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