Listen To Elvis Costello’s Fabulous Cover Of Paul Simon’s “American Tune”

Paul Simon’s 1974 song “American Tune” is one of his most beloved and enduring compositions. It’s not an overtly political song by any means, instead it builds on one of Simon’s favorite themes about the little guy struggling to make sense of life, and struggling just to get by. But the song is called “American Tune” because he subtly conflates the little guy’s challenges with those of the country as a whole:

But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong…

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…We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed

Over the past several years I’ve noticed Simon’s been reviving the song, playing it on the late night shows at the expense of his sometimes brilliant newer material. I suppose you could say that “the age’s most uncertain hour” has become whatever the current time is these days, making the song perennially relevant.

Meanwhile, Elvis Costello has never shied away from the political, once writing a song about wanting to “tramp the dirt down” on Margaret Thatcher’s grave. In 1983 Costello wrote another anti-Thatcher screed “Pills And Soap” and released it under the pseudonym The Imposter. Well this week Costello revived The Imposter nom-de-plume for his cover version of “American Tune”, so I guess we can assume his motivations for recording it, if they weren’t obvious already.

Costello punches a blast of energy into the song, making it sound a lot less resigned and a lot more defiant. The single was produced by Steven Mandel of The Tonight Show, who also produced Costello’s excellent 2013 collaboration with The Roots, Wise Up, Ghost. And it sure sounds like the Roots’ Questlove slapping truth on the snare, and the brilliant, kinetic bassline of Mark Kelley driving it home.

It’s a really unexpected treatment for such a familiar old standard, but I think it works beautifully, breathing new life and a new urgency into it just in time for these uncertain hours. Listen to the track here.




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