Elvis Costello

Pun lovin' fool with some major girl problems

Strongest album: Imperial Bedroom
Must to avoid: Mighty Like a Rose

Simply put, Elvis Costello is the greatest songwriter of his generation, a more than worthy successor to Dylan, Lennon/McCartney, Ray Davies, and such pre-rock greats as Porter and Gershwin. However, his recorded career, while mightily impressive, is problematic. First of all, he can't sing. His voice is limited and abrasive, and he overemotes and/or oversings, all of which undercuts some of his best material. Secondly, he's far too addicted to wordplay, excising his private demons on vinyl but not making his obscure private plaints properly universal. He's never really written a standard like "Yesterday" because he's never seemed willing to open up his songs to the public - he keeps obsessively circling back in on himself. Costello's lack of commercial success is shameful, but it's probably due to the aforementioned problems as much as record company incompetence - his songs aren't the type to be played at proms and whatnot. He just doesn't have that common touch; his songs are just too smart and wordy for most people. Which brings us to his good points, which are numerous. For starters, just browse through the discography below: it's massive. He has committed over 300 or so songs to vinyl (or aluminum these days), and the high quality of most of them is astonishing. Most songwriters would kill for his discards. Secondly, he has essayed a wide variety of styles on his albums, from angry young man neo-punk to polished popster to soulful garage rocker to pre-rock cocktail singer to country singer to Celtic balladeer to his recent excursions into classical chamber music. The fact that Costello has not had the impact upon other musicians and the public in general as his predecessor Bob Dylan is partly due to the non-universality of his songs, but in a large part to the generational zeitgeist: he had the misfortune of appearing on the scene during the self-absorbed late '70s, when rock had been around far too long to have become anything more than a commodity, not something that really had that much of a greater societal impact. Reviewing his canon for neophytes presents a problem, mainly because there's so much of it. Deciding where to begin is far from an easy task, especially in light of the fact that compilations are practically useless as far as Costello is concerned. Fans hardcore and casual can't agree on what his best songs are; you might not like his "hits", but really love overlooked gems - the original albums are a much safer bet. Elvis' back catalog has recently been reissued with all of the albums beefed up with good-to-great bonus tracks, some of which are better than the material on the original albums. The packaging of these reissues has been uniformly stellar, with informative liner notes from Elvis himself - kudos all around; even if you're not a fan, you have to admire how well done it all is.

If you go anywhere, go to the Elvis Costello Homepage. I never truly realized how psycho some fans are devoted to obscure trivia until I stumbled across the "Musical Allusions In EC's Songs" section - how long it took these people to detail these many pages is not something I would like to dwell too much upon.

My Aim Is True (1977) *****

Declan McManus was a miserable computer programmer stuck in a dead-end rut who took enough sick days off work to record this album with some competent but bland American bar band, Clover, who later struck gold with a new lead singer by the name of Huey Lewis. McManus took Costello as his stage name, ditched Clover, and watched this record make him a star even though it had no real hits. Overnight, England's most critically acclaimed singer-songwriter shared stages with the likes of the Clash. While he wasn't really punk, Costello shared an inner rage and get-to-the-point brashness that made him a kindred spirit to the mohawked breed. And man, was young Elvis pissed. Mainly he seems ticked off at women, which would become his main theme throughout his long career (though less after he became happily married. He was married when this record came out, but evidently he wasn't too satisfied with that relationship). The songs and melodies are his clearest and most direct, nodding a bit towards '50s uptempo rock in "Mystery Dance" (the lonely teenage I'm-a-virgin-and-I-don't-know-how-to-have-sex blues), '50s balladeering in "No Dancing" (more sexual insecurity) and ah yes, "Alison", perhaps the most beloved song of Costello's career. There's a smattering of filler, but you'll barely notice "Blame It On Cain" and its ilk next to such classics as "Welcome To The Working Week" and "Watching The Detectives". "Less Than Zero" concerns fascism, another one of Elvis' Big Themes, and maybe in my more mellow later years I might consider forgiving Bret Easton Ellis for using the title for that stupid book of his. Favorite couplet (from an album that consists of practically nothing else but great couplets): "I said I'm so happy I could die/She said drop dead and left with another guy". The bonus tracks on the reissue consist mostly of acoustic demos made in hopes of a record contract, and are already sharp and accomplished enough to make that budding songwriter in you toss away that second-hand guitar in frustration.

This Year's Model (1978) ****

Between this album and the debut, Costello had found a new back-up band, the Attractions. Now Costello had a band who could match his verbal skills with music that rocked as angrily. And Costello has never been angrier than on this little platter - you thought he was pissed on the debut, but oh no, now he's really pissed. And that's the problem - the tone is so unrelentingly harsh and nasty that it becomes pretty numbing after a while. Many folks rate this as Costello's best, but not I, for Steve Nieve's keyboards are bit too cheesy for my tastes, and the melodies aren't as strong as those on either of the records surrounding it. Costello goes straight for the gut, and sometimes it's not a pretty sight. On the positive side, Costello has never rocked this hard before or since, and most of the songs give me a pleasantly speedy buzz. The sound's punk, alright, but not punk in the Pistols/Ramones sense - it's punk hearkening back to the mid-'60s Farfisa-driven sound of bands like ? and the Mysterians. The best song is also the meanest: the title track, ripping into some vapid pretty-girl who's going to be discarded next year for some fresher face. The American and British editions have different covers and a slightly different track listing; the reissue uses the British version, with the American album track "Radio, Radio" (as relevant in today's Spiceworld as it was amidst the Rollermania of then) relegated to bonus track status, and the British album track "Chelsea" (not the song Bill and Hillary named their kid after) put in its proper place. "The Beat" and "Pump It Up" are two back-to-back songs about masturbation, because there's "No Action". Elvis postures that he doesn't want anybody to belong to, spies on his (ex?)girlfriend when she's out with another guy, tells you that if he's going down you're coming with him, and uses gunplay as a metaphor for cockteasing. Nice chap.

Armed Forces (1979) ****1/2

After the last album's driving agression, Elvis takes a turn for the more melodic on this album of lush but icy pop. This is Costello at his catchiest, if not his most substantial; I once ranked this as his best album, but it has grown a bit thinner over time. If you're new to Elvis, this is probably the best place to start, though, since it presents him at his most accessible. The two bonafide standards here are the ballad "Party Girl" and a blazing, brittle cover of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding", delivered without a trace of irony. "Oliver's Army" tackles the Northern Irish troubles and musically owes a bit to ABBA, as Costello has confessed. "Green Shirt" equates cockteasing with fascism, and along with "Senior Service" ("watch your head roll into a basket"), it's the nastiest song. Overall, however, Costello adopts a more subtle, nicer tone - though not too friendly, of course ("Goon Squad"). Supposedly "Two Little Hitlers" is an attack on his producer Nick Lowe, who stole an earlier Costello song "Little Hitler" and credited it to himself. I guess Costello didn't get as ticked off as most songwriters would in the same situation for the fact that Costello seems to write a new song everyday - what's a stolen one or two, eh? The sound is a bit too clinically cold and new-wavish for my tastes at times, but Costello's melodies have grown by leaps and bounds, and so have his hooks. The album that inched him away from his angry young man pose (only I don't think it's a pose in Costello's case. He really is a screwed-up guy). The bonus tracks are stellar, especially "Clean Money", a tune he would recycle as "Love For Tender" on the next album.

Get Happy! (1980) ****

In 1979 Costello, in a drunken argument, called Ray Charles "a blind, ignorant nigger", which led to public disgrace and a ban from many radio stations (not that they ever played his music in the first place). The facts of the case are too lengthy for me to detail here, but suffice it to say that the incident was more complicated than it first appeared. Costello later apologized, and in hindsight the regrettable incident can simply be seen as the foolish actions of a young blowhard who had one too many trying to shock an obnoxious Stephen Stills. I sincerely doubt that Costello is genuinely racist. Nevertheless, Costello must have felt the need to prove to doubters his indebtedness to African-American culture. This effort is Elvis' "white soul" album, an attempted tribute to Stax/Volt and Motown. It works surprisingly well, except for Costello's typical vocal limitations, muddy sound, and inconsistent songwriting. The heavily bonus-tracked CD reissue brings the album to 30 songs total - with that much material, Costello is sure to deliver his share of misfires. For every gem, there's another number that fails to go over. Nevertheless, the album is a delight, a big mess that's more loads of fun than some of Costello's technically better albums. Most of the best songs are stacked near the beginning; after "Hi Fidelity" (which ends the first side), a decline in quality sets in. There are way too many good songs for me to delve into, so let me list a few favorites: "Opportunity", "New Amersterdam", "Black And White World", "Riot Act", and the bonus track "Girls Talk" (a B-side covered by Dave Edmunds for a British hit). A personal favorite of mine, but newcomers should start elsewhere - it's too much of an overload.

Taking Liberties (1980) ***

As if Get Happy wasn't enough of a testament to Costello's prolific nature, this 20-track collection of B-sides and obscurities came out later the same year. It's out of print now, with all of the songs scattered among his albums as bonus tracks on the CD reissues. Nevertheless, this contains some quite good music, and hangs together as a sustained longplayer. The discards include such stunners as the country-ish "Radio Sweetheart", the Penny Lane-ish "Talking In The Dark", the anti-neo-Nazi "Night Rally", the powerfully affecting and seemingly written/performed in 10 minutes tossoff "Hoover Factory", as well as "Girls Talk" and "Clean Money" which I discussed earlier. It's not all that consistent and non-fans won't care, but some of these songs are Elvis' finest. It's kind of useless these days, but I still treasure my old copy.

Trust (1981) ***1/2

The first real disappointment from Costello, it has a great, assured sound - the Attractions combine the driving punch of This Year's Model with the smoother pop of Armed Forces - but the songwriting doesn't measure up, despite some fine songs. Don't let me mislead you - this is a really good album, but it's a minor work in the Costello canon. Nevertheless, there are some real strides here: Costello's songwriting continues to grow, as he displays a wider range of emotions - not just anger anymore, he begins to show some substantial compassion and understanding for people other than himself. The Attractions, too, have grown more sophisticated, tackling a wider variety of styles, from the clicking country of "Different Finger", the overblown "Clubland", the Bo Diddley-ish "Lover's Walk", etc. Unfortunately, those three songs are subpar efforts from Costello's pen, which sums up this album's main flaw. Some of the more racous numbers - the awful "Luxembourg", for example - simply aren't that memorable. The ballads, however, show tremendous growth - "New Lace Sleeves", "You'll Never Be A Man", "Big Sister's Clothes", and "Watch Your Step" are among Costello's best. The bonus tracks on the reissue are perhaps the best of the batch, sometimes outshining the material on the album proper: a brilliant version of the Cole Porter standard "Love For Sale" and Steve Nieve's "Sad About Girls" (could be Elvis' theme song) are standouts.

Almost Blue (1982)

A collection of country covers. I don't own it, and have never been interested, mainly because a) I don't care a whole lot for country music, and b)I don't care for Elvis' treatments of other people's material. When you've got Elvis' vocal limitations, a covers album is probably not the wisest idea.

Imperial Bedroom (1982) *****

After the tentative explorations of Trust into non-rock, Costello dipped completely into the Tin Pan Alley style, and wound up delivering his masterpiece. Abandoning Nick Lowe (who had produced all of his previous albums) for ex-Beatles engineer Geoffrey Emerick, the sound Costello essays here is a rich, lush, densely packed marvel of sonic craft and detail. His most sedate set of songs, this isn't his most accessible album for newcomers - sometimes the music's a bit too dense, with Costello packing in the syllables and melodies like clothes in a suitcase. This was a breakthrough of sorts for Costello in that it gained respect from a lot of musicians who ordinarily didn't care much rock and roll - "Almost Blue" has become a jazz standard in the more knowledgable circles. Costello divorced his first wife around this time, and the lyrics are some of his most wounded and bitter - though it's not a concept album per se, the cumulative effect is the story of a failed marriage ("Long Honeymoon", "Tears Before Bedtime"). In "Boy With A Problem"(co-written with Chris Difford of Squeeze), a young husband comes home drunk, gets in a fight with his wife, feels miserable when she forgives him, and spends the rest of his nights drinking trying to remember the happy, early days of the marriage. The moody, yet catchy and often upbeat pop puts one in mind of a hungover post-Pepper Beatles recording an album of Gershwin standards. Costello has never written finer lyrics, and this highly personal album contains his most intricately crafted and accomplished music. Among the pretty good but not great bonus tracks is a stunning cover of Pomus/Shuman's "World Of Broken Hearts".

Punch The Clock (1983) ***1/2

Superficially this album doesn't sound all that different from Imperial Bedroom, but it isn't nearly as good due to more inconsistent songwriting and the glossy production of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. Costello takes a more commercial, big-pop approach, which resulted in his first American hit, "Everyday I Write The Book" (a really good song, even though Elvis claims to have written it as a Top 40 parody). It's a pretty soulful little ditty, and a better attempt at a Motown number than anything on Get Happy. "Shipbuilding" is another classic, a brooding torch ballad inspired by the Falklands War. There are a few more worthy entries into the Costello canon, and the melodies are fairly strong throughout. There are a number of duds, however - just what was his point with "TKO (Boxing Day)" - and the sound is much less involving and innovative than on the previous album: it's overproduced in proper '80s fashion. The lyrics, "Shipbuilding" excepted, are a step down in quality, also. The reissue adds, among other bonus tracks, a Yoko Ono cover (!) and some live versions.

Goodbye Cruel World (1984) ***

The liner notes (by Costello) begin thusly: "Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album." In retrospect, that seems like an overly harsh judgement - Costello recorded worse albums later in his career (in fact, his next album, King of America, wasn't quite as good). But up to that point in his career, Costello had never made a boring album - some flawed ones, yes, but no mediocrities. There are a handful of quite good songs found herein: a quietly powerful protest song in his "Shipbuilding," mode, "Peace In Our Time"; a revisit to the Imperial Bedroom, "Home Truth"; a soul cover, "I Wanna Be Loved" that I probably wouldn't care for if I were familiar with the original; "Worthless Thing," that seems to recycle one of his old melodies that I can't quite pinpoint. Between those highlights are a few more passable items and a few boring numbers; nothing truly terrible but nothing terribly involving, either. The main flaw is the smothering '80s overproduction, particularly the use of mechanical drums (stupid, cheap, pointless fad - sounds like shit, JUST GET A REAL, LIVE DRUMMER - THEY SOUND SO MUCH BETTER). A duet with Daryl Hall, "The Only Flame In Town," was the hit, and all I can say is that at least it's livelier than "Love Field". Oddly (and embarrassingly) enough, the live material and outtakes added on to the reissue outshine most of the album proper: in their stripped down arrangements (usually just Elvis and guitar), "Deportee" and the likes are revealed as actually strong tunes botched by poor production/arrangements. In addition, the bonus tracks include a winning duet with Nick Lowe on "Baby It's You." In other words, don't purchase this album unless it is the 1995 Rykodisc reissue with the ten bonus tracks, since most of the good songs are found there.

King Of America (1986) ***

A lot of people rate this one very highly, but I've never really gotten into it. Ditching the Attractions for the first time, Costello recorded this album with a bunch of country session men (including T-Bone Burnett and James Burnett, who played guitar with the other Elvis), for a roots rocking extravaganza. His take on country music is admirable and occassionally memorable - his lyrics are among his sharpest, and he's never sung better. In fact, for once his singing is excellent, soulful as usual but effectively understated in contrast to his more typical overemoting. However, I miss the brighter melodies of the poppier Costello I've come to know and love, not to mention the hooks. I suppose country music is supposed to be hookless and shorter on melody than pop by the musical definitions of the genre, but that's the reason I prefer pop to country. Plus there's a bit too much rockabilly for my tastes, which has never been Costello's forte. The best songs are the final three: "Jack Of Parades", "Suit Of Lights", and "Sleep Of The Just". "I'll Wear It Proudly" is also very good, a defiant celebration of finding true love and not caring whether or not he looks like a fool. Costello found his soulmate and married her, ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan, that year, which accounts for Elvis' somewhat cheerier lyrical outlook. Not that he's too cheery, mind you, but at least he doesn't sound like a psychopath and/or potential suicide anymore.

Blood And Chocolate (1986) ***

Costello reconvenes with the Attractions again for a straightforward rock and roll album that follows in the style of This Year's Model. Costello has called this the sound of an angry 32-year-old man, and that's precisely the problem: compared to his work a decade previous, it sounds more cynical than righteously indignant. The Attractions rock, but it sounds a bit tired back to back with This Year's Model, and overall this album has a lot of bark but little bite. To make matters worse, several of these tracks are tuneless, abrasive vamps - "Uncomplicated" and "Tokyo Storm Warning" are pretty hard to get through without cringing. However, this does contain some quite pleasant tunes like "Blue Chair" and "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head". It also contains one song of true brilliance: "I Want You", an obsessive seven-minute ballad that's very repetitive and very hypnotic, and one of Costello's very, very best songs.

Out Of Our Idiot (1987)

Taking Liberties, Part II. More outtakes, hopefully most of which will eventually wind up as bonus tracks on Costello's late-period albums. I don't own a copy, and I haven't heard it, so I can't really review it, can I?

Spike (1989) **1/2

Curiously dull. Costello obviously put a lot of effort into this album, and it's highly accomplished: rarely has he indulged in so much eclectic musical territory, his lyrics are typically excellent, his singing keeps improving, and he knows how to write a song. So what's the problem? Perhaps it's because it's all too accomplished and professional - for the first time, Costello sounds like he's simply churning out product. It doesn't help that the songs all go on too long - aha! That's it! When you're doing pop, it helps to keep things concise; otherwise, you wind up bloated. Also, the music is a bit too - how should I put it? - genteel. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the former angry young man delivers music fit for a yuppie. And that's not a positive development. It contains Costello's second and biggest American hit, "Veronica", a collaboration with Paul McCartney that sounds very Kinksy - go figure. It's the catchiest number here, and the most melodic, if not the most substantial lyric-wise. However, it's also the only song that I really get excited about - most of the rest makes me yawn.

Mighty Like A Rose (1991) **1/2

What does it say about Costello's declining creativity that for the second album in a row the single and catchiest song sounds like a tribute to a classic '60s band? This time round it's the Beach Boys Elvis bows to on "The Other Side Of Summer", a tidal wave of a single, for sure - he even throws in pointed jibes at John Lennon, David Bowie, and Roger Waters for good measure. But then right after that opener you get "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Coming)", a clattering mess of a rythm track trying to masquerade as a song. "How To Be Dumb", an attack on Attractions bass player Bruce Thomas' tell-all trash-bio, has a catchy chorus for sure, and "All Grown Up" makes misery feel pleasurable, always a neat trick. But the rest is cluttered and aimless, with overproduction trying to cover up a noticable shortage of melodies. Plus the lyrics don't make sense. Costello's least appealing album; all but fanatics can easily do without it.

The Juliet Letters (1993) **

I gave this album a grade of two stars, but I don't really feel qualified to rate it, since it's in a style of music I don't care for: classical. Elvis teams up with some smokin' young string quartet and sets poems inspired by Shakespeare to music. If I knew beans about pre-rock chamber music, I could say whether or not if this is a good example. It probably is; as usual, Elvis' lyrics are sharp, his melodies have punch, and his vocals are, well, his vocals. I never listen to this myself, and if you're a rock fan who doesn't like chamber music, then you won't ever listen to it either. I feel pretty useless right now. Anybody out there who knows what they're talking about ready to review this sucker? 'Cause I sure can't do a decent job.

2 1/2 Years (1993) *****

A box set containing the heavily bonus-tracked reissues of Costello's first three albums, with a live disc, Live At The El Macombo, tacked on as an added treat. If you've got the cash and are missing Costello's early albums, go out and treat yourself - this contains his inarguably best work. The music on these albums is timeless, and fully justifies his standing as one of the greats.

G.B.H. (1994)

Another classical piece. Some vocal tracks, some instrumentals. This was a collaboration with Richard Harvey for some British TV show. Never heard it, and not really that interested, 'cause it's not my type of thing. Maybe it's yours, but it's not rock and roll - it's a small orchestra.

Brutal Youth (1994) ***

A minor comeback, this contains some of Elvis' best work in years. Reuniting with the Attractions, Costello returns to his "classic" sound, circa Trust. Unfortunately, it's not as good as his earlier work, and he's repeating himself all too much: the main pleasure I get out of this is a mild nostalgia for his younger days. "Kinder Murder" is a stunning song with an unforgettable guitar hook, and probably the strongest cut, though the Kinks tribute "London's Brilliant Parade" tickles my fancy just as well. The single "13 Steps Lead Down" is catchy, but the main hook is the chorus, and it gets annoying after a while; the four ballads separating it and "20% Amnesia" sound all too similar. "Sulky Girl" and "My Science Fiction Twin" are fine numbers in Costello's patented "fuck off and die, bastard" mode, even if they're a bit bloated by length. To bring it all back home, Nick Lowe produced. If you haven't heard Elvis before, this is a really good album and you should check it out. However, if like me you are already familiar with his older stuff, this contains nothing you haven't heard before and it doesn't hold a candle to his earlier work. Pleasant but irrelevant, irrelevant but pleasant: is the glass half empty or full?

Kojak Variety (1995)

A covers album. Most of these songs are pretty obscure, and apparently old R'n'B chestnuts from the likes of Little Richard and Willie Dixon. The most familiar cuts to you will probably be Dylan's "I Threw It All Away", and Ray Davies' "Days". I've heard "Days", and it's awful - Costello slaughters a wonderful old Kinks klassik. The rest I haven't heard, but I wouldn't get my hopes up because like a lot of great songwriters, Costello is not that great of an interpreter.

All This Useless Beauty (1996)

Elvis' latest studio album. I haven't gotten my hands on it yet, and given the quality of his recent work I'm not going out of my way to get it. The odd conceit behind this album is that Elvis is doing his versions of songs that he wrote for other performers. I haven't heard any of these songs except for Aimee Mann's wistfully melancholy "The Other End Of The Telescope". Supposedly the circumstances of the songs' origins made for a substantially better album than Costello has made in several years, but I'll pass judgement when I've actually heard it.

Post Your Comments

You're Already Looking For Another Fool Like Me....