This week of Elvis Costello is truly random. It’s just whatever comes into my mind. Everyone seems to have a soundtrack for their lives, and Costello is certainly a big part of mine. One such song is off King of America, “Sleep of the Just.” I’d never heard that phrase before I heard it in the song, but it is so clear. As Oxford puts it, “A deep, untroubled sleep.” It is something I don’t ever recall having.
I have a vague memory of seeing Costello do the song live in San Jose around that time — 1986. I think it was the Blood & Chocolate tour. Nick Lowe opened for him. Costello did two sets: one on guitar and one (rather silly) on piano. And for an encore, he did “I Want You” with even more intensity than he performed it on the album.
Regardless, lyrically the song is opaque. There are some things that are fairly clear. There is a brother and sister. The brother is in the army and the sister is a pinup girl. The brother is ashamed to have his fellow soldiers ogling his sister. What’s so frustrating about the song is that he plays around with point of view in a most careless way. But I’ll still give it my own narrative.
The singer has a confrontation with a soldier in a bar. The guy’s a jerk, but nothing comes of it. The next day, the singer is on a bus (Tour bus?) and it breaks down, so he has to spend the night there. He meets and sleeps with a young woman. He imagines that she is the sister of the soldier. And the final verse is his imagining of what the sister is imagining. Or not. I’m more interested in it from a formal standpoint.
Costello couldn’t help but throw in a little reference to Madonna, although I think it’s awkward. I think he means it as in, “Is it immaterial, girl?” And not, “Is it immaterial girl?” It is, in fact, immaterial given that all women are some mother’s daughter. But ultimately, we all need, and I dare say deserve, the sleep of the just.
For all you Costello fans, I just found this set of acoustic demos for the album: King Of America Demos.