One of Elvis Costello’s best and …. arguably … least-regarded songs is “Battered Old Bird” from the 1986 “Blood and Chocolate” album. It’s a song you never hear on the radio or even discussed that much. Graham Thompson dismissed the song in less than a sentence (calling it “dreary” and “disjointed”) in his Costello biography “Complicated Shadows.” I had pretty much forgotten about the song myself until I heard it again today and it knocked the wind out of me.
From what I’ve gathered “Battered Old Bird” is about the building where Costello grew up as a young boy and the various people who lived there. The song almost sounds like Costello’s version of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” only much sadder and more despairing. The song starts off quiet and builds in intensity and emotion, with Costello’s voice getting louder and cracking at various moments.
Some particularly memorable lyrics:
“But on the first floor there are two old maids
Each one wishing that the other was afraid
And next door to them is a man so mild
‘Til he chopped off the head of a visitor’s child
He danced upon the bonfire
Swallowed sleeping pills like dreams
With a bottle of sweet sherry
That everything redeems”
“Here’s a boy if ever there was
Who’s going to do big things
Guess that’s what they all say
And that’s how the trouble begins
I’ve seen them rise and fall
Been through their big deals and smalls
He’d better have a dream that goes
Beyond four walls”
Again, this song crept up out of nowhere on my iPod today and nearly left me shattered by the end of it. An immensely powerful song that should be a standard, even though I’m kind of glad it isn’t.