Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Battered Old Bird (album version)Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Battered Old Bird (alternate version)
Alternate versions of songs, unless we’re talking about Coltrane or something, are predominately fan-only affairs. In jazz, where improvisation is essential and there’s no such thing as a “definitive” version of a song, hearing an alternate take can be revelatory. But in rock and roll? The exceptions where an alternate take adds anything new to the experience of the original are few and far between. Elvis Costello’s “Battered Old Bird”, from his 1986 album Blood & Chocolate
, is unique in that the album version of the song (itself sewn together from two different takes) and the alternate version are considerably different but equally good.
For the last couple years Rhino
has been releasing sets of Elvis Costello albums, packaged as double discs with the original album remastered on one and a collection of alternate takes, live tracks and B-sides on the other. Mostly these bonus discs only serve to make apparent why the album versions were used or why the B-sides were considered throw aways. (The most recent Rhino reissue, of 1993’s The Juliet Letters
, is particularly curious in it’s scraping of the bottom of the Costello catalogue. How big a market could there possibly be for outtakes of a poor-selling and mostly forgotten foray into string quartet classical music?) But if you decide to start investing in any Elvis reissues, Blood & Chocolate
is a wise place to start.
Don’t let the release date scare you, despite dropping in the same year as the atrocious roots-rock mess King Of America
, Blood & Chocolate
is an Attractions-era masterpiece on par with the best (My Aim Is True
through Get Happy
) of early Elvis. As it appears on the album “Battered Old Bird” is a classic Costello song, similar to trademark anti-love songs like “Alison” – it’s slow but it’s too angry to be classified as a ballad. The instruments in the background are incidental; a slight tapping of drums, a few quiet guitar chords, hints of piano. But Costello, his voice and his lyrics are all that matter. It could have been a cappella and been just as gut wrenching.
He is the perfect songwriter, able to put common situations into words that few could articulate. Here he unravels a story of a house, a landlady, her pill-popping husband and their French-cursing son. But the mundane details are transformed through Costello’s pen into a vividly surreal scene; the house becomes a place “where time stands still”, the husband swallows “sleeping pills like dreams” and tells the son to have a “dream that goes beyond four walls". Keeping a fir tree in a closet becomes a place where “it is always Christmas at the top of the stairs.” Each line is painstakingly stretched, instruments routinely drop out to add emphasis to certain phrases, Costello’s voice quivers in places as he pushes it to its breaking point. The song is deliberate but not sluggish, and necessarily so. Or so I thought.
On the Blood & Chocolate
bonus disc’s alternate version, “Battered Old Bird” is warped into a full speed ahead rave up. The emotional resonance of the album version is left in the dust of a breakneck-paced 12 bar blues, the bitterness gives away to humor, the dark and disturbing images become comical. Elvis and his soon-to-be-disbanded Attractions choose the most serious piece on their album and sound like they’re having a great time tearing it apart. You can understand why it was left off the album that Costello described as a “pissed-off, 32-year-old divorcé's version of This Year's Model
”, but it’s hard to think of either as a definitive version. I love them both, in different ways, for different reasons. Right now, gun to my head, I would have to say that I prefer the faster take. But it might be different tomorrow. Either way, at least one of the disc’s of Blood & Chocolate
is never gone from my CD player for long.
to buy it from Amazon.)