Every year on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, many observers in the Western Christian faith engage in a practice called the Stations of the Cross, a 14-step devotion observing Jesus’s last days as part of the Passion of Christ. The Stations of the Cross:
“are commonly used as a mini pilgrimage as the individual moves from station to station. At each station, the individual recalls and meditates on a specific event from Christ’s last day. Specific prayers are recited, then the individual moves to the next station until all 14 are complete. The Stations of the Cross are commonly found in churches as a series of 14 small icons or images. They can also appear in church yards arranged along paths.”
As an adult, Elvis Costello describes himself as a “lapsed Catholic” after a childhood that included service as an altar boy. Costello writes in in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink:
“I suppose learning the catechism, making my first confession, and all that world-without-end stuff literally put the fear of God into me, but nobody did it to me. I did it for myself. I had become obsessed and fearful about eternity and was losing sleep and getting distracted at school. Like most Catholic children, my faith was an uncomplicated matter made up of storybook versions of the Bible, the repetitions of the Rosary, and the plain-sung litanies during the days of Lent, when I would as likely forgo vinegar as sugar.”
Besides the insistent sense of Catholic guilt lurking in the background, Costello pulled from Catholic imagery often throughout his career, none more so than in the song “Stations of the Cross”:
The third track on Costello’s 2010 release National Ransom, the song opens with a dark groove, driven forward by a processed drum machine beat, Dennis Crouch’s double bass, and ominous depth charges via an electric violin played by Stuart Duncan. The song also features dobro master Jerry Douglas as well as guitarist Marc Ribot, who is known for transforming music into Cubist paintings. This combination is representative of the whole album that incorporates musicians with various Costello connections and disparate backgrounds, a hallmark of any T Bone Burnett production. Along with Attraction/Imposter Steve Nieve on piano, the collective group shifts moods throughout the song to reinforce Costello’s lyrical ideas. Costello said of the song in Unfaithful Music:
“‘The Stations of the Cross’ recalled the rituals of Friday in Lent, but only in the way we may peek into a procession of other people’s miseries as long as the news networks deem the story worthy of their time and advertising dollars or until we avert our gaze.”
Within the song’s verses, Costello shares stories of hardship, devastation, and conflict. In the first version of the chorus, these tales of woe are flattened out as one in a thousand different daily news reports:
He’s buying his way into heaven I suppose
He weeps at the blows
But down in a location that we cannot disclose
He turns the dial slowly
Through the Stations of the Cross.
The 14 different Stations of the Cross through which a believer must offer up prayer in order to seek redemption through Christ’s suffering has been short-changed in Costello’s dark vision. Christ’s blessing in the afterlife can be easily accessed through capital and technology as Costello conflates and mutates the Stations of the Cross into different channels on the television. The last verse provides a hint of what could have been the motivating factor for Costello to compose the song:
The water came up to the eaves
You’d think someone had opened a valve
It’s too soon to stay now and too late to leave
So spare your remorse all the way up to Calvary.
Costello summons the awful and heart-breaking images seen by the world in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The helplessness of those watching the tragedy as it unfolding on television was reinforced in the knowledge that the tragedy could have been lessened and in fact was made much worse by the inadequate response by those in government positions. Mobilized relief efforts could have begun much sooner and in greater strength. Costello nods that these lines are referencing the horrific Katrina debacle and resulting tragedy with an endnote to the listed lyrics in the National Ransom microsite created for the album’s: “In An Undisclosed Location, Possibly New Orleans, 2005.” Though it’s not an official confirmation by Costello, it’s enough.
For the final chorus, Costello sings:
They’re hurling themselves into heaven I suppose
Before the gates are closed
But down in a location that we cannot disclose
I’m turning the dial slowly
Through the Stations of the Cross.
With this chorus, Costello utilizes one of his go-to songwriting tricks of shifting the pronouns within an established set of lyrics. Instead of saying “He turns the dial slowly / Through the Stations of the Cross”, Costello changes the line to say “I.” As explored on Recliner Notes previously, Costello performs the same kind of pronoun switch in “Watching the Detectives”, “Brilliant Mistake”, and “Suit of Lights” and it works yet again on “Stations of the Cross.” The song expresses disappointments and hurls accusations about society’s removal from human suffering through the substitution of our ancient rituals that help with the understanding of redemption to simply changing the channel on the television if something is being shown that is too hard to take. Costello tells the audience that he is part of his own disappointment. He includes himself in the song’s castigation of the world.
Another song that employs the stations of the cross as a key metaphor is the title track of David Bowie’s 1976 album Station to Station:
As outlined by the excellent Pushing Ahead of the Dame blog, Bowie was in the grips of a cataclysmic cocaine addiction during the time of the recording of “Station to Station” — cocaine is name-checked in the song as if it’s a family member. It left him haunted by paranoia, resulting in stories and rumors that are so outlandish that it’s hard to sort fact from fiction. In the midst of this personal miasma, Bowie infuses the song with reflections on Christianity, the Kabbalah, magic, fascism, the Old World versus the New, and German Expressionism. The song also sees Bowie and the assembled musicians incorporating motorik and funk into the shifting musical modes. “Station to Station” is Bowie’s masterpiece, a swirl of influences both lyrical and musical metamorphosed into a new creation that is uniquely Bowie’s.
How does all of this apply to Elvis Costello? He has been quoted numerous times about Costello and The Attractions’ devotion to Bowie’s records while touring the United States. Specific to that album, he wrote for a curated Spotify playlist that his song “Moods For Moderns” “betrays the hours spent listening to Bowie’s Station to Station album.” In addition to the shared lyrical fascination with the spiritual exercise in both songs, Costello’s “Stations of the Cross” includes a musical reference to the Bowie song as Costello sings:
Crowd done up dandy
In diamonds and finery
Baying and howling
All bloodlusty calling
Fists like pistons
Faces like meat spoiling
Haul, boys, haul, bully-boys haul.
This sequence is presented as a call-and-response between multiple Costello vocals overdubbed in a falsetto and Costello’s “regular” voice which represents the narrator of the song. This exchange enables Costello to inject other voices as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the images of misery presented on the television. The vocal quality of Costello’s falsetto in the Greek chorus is quite similar to Bowie’s own voice in “Station to Station” when he sings the line, “The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.” For Costello, the lyrical content of “Stations of the Cross” necessitates a musical nod to Bowie’s masterpiece as tribute to its influence.
After the release of National Ransom, Costello appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on November 5, 2010 to promote the record. The house band for Fallon’s show is the immensely talented, versatile, sensitive, and exhilarating band The Roots. Costello performed “Stations of the Cross” with The Roots during his appearance:
Guitarist and fusion jazz titan John McLaughlin joins Costello and The Roots during this rendition. On the April 20, 2022 episode of the Questlove Supreme podcast, Costello recalled the circumstances that led to this performance:
“Well, first thing I remember is that I was playing Wurlitzer. I don’t usually play piano for one thing, not leading a band, but I really wanted to play the feel of that song, simply, on the Wurlitzer to get it locked in from where I was sitting. I knew the rhythm would be great. I felt like there was something going on with the bassline that had been played on the double bass by Dennis Crouch so I was really interested to hear Mark [Kelley] play on it…It was always supposed to be a really ominous song…It is a very dark song.”
During the podcast, Costello went on to say that Questlove — The Roots drummer, impresario, and all-encompassing musical guru — were walking in the hallway in the lead-up to the performance:
“Quest said, ‘And now we’re learning these Inner Mounting Flame songs.’ And I said, ‘What the hell for?’ [laughs] ‘Those are so difficult!’ He said, ‘Cause John McLaughlin is here. He’s sitting in with us.’ So I said, ‘Can he play on my song?’”
The performance that night by Costello, The Roots, and McLaughlin transforms “Stations of the Cross” from a song with hints of foreboding into something much more troubling and powerful. The assembled musicians hit the target that the composition naturally aims for but that the studio recording slightly misses. There’s an angry bite to the live performance. Costello drops the falsetto voice for the call-and-response section, singing it in full Costello voice. The horns and McLaughlin bring a fuller sound to the song as well as another perspective as Costello commented on the podcast:
“It was simply a vamp on one chord in between the verses, so we just let [McLaughlin] fly…He was so good-natured about it. I had no idea if he had ever heard my name before that day. But he went into it so openly. It created a different kind of tension. If anything it was like a moment of lightness.”
Watching the video of the performance is a disconcerting experience to see audience members dancing behind the band during this particular song. The groove is certainly compelling, but Costello betrays no happiness in the words he is singing as he is stone-faced throughout. Costello declines to include the middle section of the song, moving right to the last “water came up to the eaves” verse. Costello gestures for emphasis as he barks the line, “So spare your remorse all the way up to Calvary.” It’s a call to everyone listening and watching to seek out and truly engage in their own community and eschew the passive relationship created by television. It’s a certain kind of irony that Costello is able to capture the proper tone and approach to “Stations of the Cross” while performing on a late night program on NBC.
This collaboration between Costello and The Roots didn’t stop with that Late Night performance. Costello recalls on the podcast:
“To have that kind of lock on this ominous groove and this kind of hump that Quest found in the beat which ended up being like another piece for us.”
Inspired by their performance, Costello, Questlove, and producer Steven Mandel began collaborating on a new project, centered on sampling music that Costello made earlier in his career. Costello wrote in Unfaithful Music:
“[The songs made with The Roots] began as new bulletins collaged out of my old papers but ended up in the company of brand new verses, all jammed together. Quest’s beats gave the words different air to breathe and allowed me to place fresh emphasis…Each mix that Steven Mandel sent me got closer to the final picture: beat dropped out here, sounds distorted out of all recognition there, voices sent out into dub orbit, new ideas appearing where others vanished.”
The end result was the 2013 album called Wise Up Ghost, which included the song “Viceroy’s Row”:
As Costello indicated in Unfaithful Music, the foundational groove for “Viceroy’s Row” came from a four bar sample of the horns from the 2010 performance of “Stations of the Cross” on Late Night. “Viceroy’s Row” is the new piece that Costello referred to on the podcast. The music has a turbulent and woozy feel, underlining the murky perspective of the song as best represented in the chorus:
And they’re gathering flowers
In the crack of hours where all of the nightmares go
Watching the pipeline as it overflowed
Sitting pretty here on Viceroy’s Row.
Costello has taken on the point of view of someone surveying a nightmarish cataclysm of society from a safe distance. It’s not dissimilar to the perspective seen in “Stations of the Cross” or especially “Station to Station.” The latter song’s narrator sings: “Here am I, flashing no colour / Tall in this room overlooking the ocean.” “Viceroy’s Row” seems to have the same prospect of looking down from on high, not having to be where “nightmares go,” but instead “sitting pretty.” It’s probably no accident that Costello chose the word “viceroy” as it is a similar ruling class association as Bowie’s “Thin White Duke.” There is no need for the ultra-rich nobility to be a part of the mess as they are able to sit at a remove and let others contend with the razing of the world.
As “Viceroy’s Row” proceeds, the perspective changes as Costello shifts the wording of the tagline of each chorus. ”Hiding up here on Viceroy’s Row” becomes “Staring in the dark up on Viceroy’s Row” changing to “Hammering on the door upon Viceroy’s Row” and settling on “We came to overthrow those on Viceroy’s Row.” The revolution has come to the gates, seeking retribution and judgment for those in power on Viceroy’s Row. Yet the song ends with Costello singing the same tag: “Sitting up here on Viceroy’s Row.” The revolutionaries seized power and control of the state and now they have become the viceroys and the thin white dukes, obsessed with their own security and holding on to control. Through the evolution of perspective of “Viceroy’s Row,” Costello presents the full life cycle of the revolution, suggesting a circular pattern of those with power and those who don’t. Costello arrives at this fascinating place through a creative process that started with the studio recording of “Stations of the Cross,” moving to a live performance of the song with The Roots, and resulting in a completely new work of art. He did this all while utilizing a compelling ritual of Christian faith and employing an influential Bowie song in order to grapple with themes of privilege and power, exploring who has it and who does not.
Many thanks to the volunteers at The Elvis Costello Wiki for their assistance in the researching of this post.
Image: Church of Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Avranches, Manche, Normandie, France. Fourteen enamel paintings, technique from Limoges, representing the Stations of the Cross, Tango7174, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.