Recording of January 1994: Elvis Costello: 2½ Years
Richard Lehnert, January, 1994
ELVIS COSTELLO: 2½ Years
Including: My Aim Is True (RCD 90271. Bazza, eng. TT: 60:22), This Year's Model (RCD 90272. TT: 52:46), Armed Forces (RCD 90273. TT: 63:29), all available separately, and Live at El Mocambo
Rykodisc RCD 90271/74 (4 CDs). TT: 3:45:33
All above (except as noted): CD only. Nick Lowe, prod.; Roger Bechirian, eng. & re-mastering. AAD.
Every once in a great while a rock musician comes along who not only sums up everything that has come before him, but who sounds so new his appeal is irresistible. Elvis Costello didn't just "burst" upon the moribund rock scene in 1977 with My Aim Is True—he went supernova, leaving behind not one atom of ash. How one little guy could all at once be so angry, so smart, so literate, so musical, so rockin'—so necessary—was, and is, beyond me. The man's fury burned brilliant and clean, and immediately distanced him from a punk movement of whose it's-only-rock'n'roll-and-anybody-can-do-it ethos he was never truly a part. There's nothing democratic about Costello's talent.
I remember playing that first album for the first time. The resultant Instantaneous Attitude Adjustment gave me cognitive whiplash, half of it just from trying to dodge this insane ex-computer slave with the Buddy Holly spectacles and the ridiculous name (he's kidding, right?) who sounded as if he was about to jump right through my KLH 22A speaker grilles, grab me by my effete post-hippy ponytail, stick his nerdy face into my nerdy face, and cover my glasses in sour spittle as he shouted "What are you DOING?! Get a LIFE!! You're pissed off and powerless you DON'T EVEN KNOW IT!!" He did the same on his next four albums, too—but harderlouderfasterbetter.
Costello's musical appetite is omnivorous. But unlike the work of another rock scavenger, Frank Zappa—the very point of whose music is its disjointedness, its stylistic cubism—Costello's final product is perfectly digested, entirely seamless. You can hear all of American and English pop music in his records, and all of it is all Costello. He's also one of the most distinctively passionate vocal stylists of our time. Listening to him then, now, and in between, sometimes I've almost felt just like a human being.
2½ Years comprises Costello's first three albums—two of which Rolling Stone named to their "100 Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years" list (#507, August 27, 1987)—in much-expanded and re-mastered versions, plus a live date that only bootleg collectors have known about until now. Rykodisc has once again followed their own tradition, established with their exhaustive re-releases of the Zappa and David Bowie back catalogs, of reissues guaranteed to satisfy all but the most fanatical completist. Here is all the original cover art; revealing, disarmingly self-critical notes by Costello himself; reinstatement of the original UK albums' running orders; the addition to each disc of at least 20 minutes of material not included on either the original US or UK versions of each album; and, last but not least, the much-bootlegged Live at El Mocambo bonus disc, recorded in Toronto in March 1978 with the Attractions but never officially released until now.
With the exception of Taking Liberties, Ryko will eventually reissue all of EC's Columbia albums, up through Blood and Chocolate. (Get Happy!! and Trust are slated for April release.) The 20 singles, B-sides, and outtakes compiled on Liberties will all eventually appear, appended to the chronologically appropriate albums (12 of the Liberties tracks are already accounted for on 2½ Years). The original UK version of This Year's Model, for example, didn't include "Radio, Radio," but did include "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "Night Rally"—which the US version did not. Ryko's disc contains them all.
Also included are three songs recorded live at Hollywood High and originally included as an EP with the first edition of Armed Forces; plus, on My Aim Is True, seven songs from EC's Declan Patrick MacManus days. These early tracks, mostly just EC and his acoustic guitar, are fascinating. You hear MacManus, barely 20 years old, apprenticing himself to his favorite singers—in his notes, EC lists Randy Newman, The Band, Hoagy Carmichael, Lowell George, and John Prine (I'd add Tom Waits). He sounds like each of these in turn, but throughout also manages to sound like the once and future Elvis Costello. Included are an early version of "Mystery Dance" with a whole new verse, the superficially funny but disturbingly violent "Wave a White Flag," and "Poison Moon," which—to turn the anachronistic table—sounds like John Wesley Harding.
This Year's Model has "Running Out of Angels," a fast-paced, early-'60s-style acoustic rhumba with classic EC lyrics about men victimized by their own addictions to women. There are also self-sufficient acoustic demos of "Green Shirt" (with an extra verse) and "Big Boys" which make their final versions on Armed Forces sound overproduced.
Armed Forces (original title: Emotional Fascism) itself remains as fresh as the day it was recorded. Here Costello gave the language of romantic love a tonguelashing from which, thank God, it has yet to recover. (One careful listening to "Two Little Hitlers" is worth all the codependency books ever written.) Not only that, each song's arrangement, wound up so tight its ribs squeak, sounds as if reveling in its own glory. One of the most self-confident records ever made.
The live-at-Hollywood-High "Accidents Will Happen" showcases Costello's ballad singing, at that point in his career an unknown quantity. The live "Alison" and "Detectives" meander a bit but are excellent concert recordings. One good thing about the original LP was that its final track, Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?," was mastered at about twice the level of the rest of the album—hearing that desperately funny plea for compassion blast out at the end always lifted Armed Forces above itself. It's followed on this new CD by the solo "My Funny Valentine," mastered at exactly the same volume. Anyone ever heard of dynamic range?
Live at El Mocambo is 14 songs in 48 minutes played by rock's tightest quartet at its in-concert prime: EC & the Attractions. The tunes are all from the first two albums, the sound is punchy, and the band sounds as if it can do anything—which it then went on to do with Get Happy!!, Trust, and Imperial Bedroom. The concert is what record companies call "high-energy" (read: loud), and reveals just how well the Attractions could deliver EC's often difficult song structures and stop-on-a-dime rhythmic reversals. The only drawback (and probably why this record was never released) is some stage-hugging Toronto cowboy who, at 38-second intervals throughout the entire concert, screams "YEEEEEE-HAAAWWWWWWW!!!!!" at the top of his tireless pipes. This disc is available only with the 2½ Years box, but if you buy the other three separately, send Ryko the enclosed coupons: they'll send you El Mocambo free.
Columbia's CD reissues of My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, and Armed Forces have gone down in audio history as the Worst CD Remasterings Ever Made. (The original US LPs weren't all that great to begin with.) The reputation is well-deserved: two-dimensional walls of boxy, bassless, undifferentiated hash, Costello's words fighting their way through a scrim of white noise and not always making it. Comparing those botches with this mostly wonderful remastering job by Roger Bechirian—who twiddled dials for Costello as early as 1978—reveals differences that are anything but subtle. For one thing, there's bass. For another, the instruments sound like real instruments with dimensions of depth and roundness, instead of grainy sonic newspaper photos of themselves. Plus, you can hear a number of instruments that simply went missing on the Columbia CDs. For instance, on the second verse of "Big Tears," there's a soaring lead guitar figure that I'd never heard before. Throughout 2½ Years, the layers of background vocals, organ sustains, and rhythm guitars—not to mention the now-luscious kick-drum and bass of Attractions Pete and Bruce Thomas, respectively—make many of these songs sound entirely new. My Aim Is True is a bit harsh, but the original CD and LP sounded downright smothered.
This is the first time Stereophile has named a reissue our "Recording of the Month." That's how good this set is. I can't wait to hear what Ryko and Bechirian do for Imperial Bedroom and Blood and Chocolate.—Richard Lehnert