David Lee Roth once said that the reason why critics love Elvis Costello so much is because they look like him. Well, first off, let's point out that Dave's famous quip is well done, on a level with Dorothy Parker. Which by association would make Dave an intellectual and, thus, by further extension, Elvis Costello. And while it is true that Elvis Costello was, and at times, still is highly regarded by critics, he did endure many a willful and self-courted wound by them.
I might add that no artist will enjoy much of a lifestyle or career selling music and giving concerts exclusively to critics. Keep in mind many critics do not even buy the music they review. So what does Elvis offer to us that might have a wider appeal? Let's take a look…
1.) "Less Than Zero" — My Aim Is True: Easily one of the most stunning debuts by any rock artist despite its flaws. What flaws, you might ask? I am referring to the odd use of a backing band that was not wholly familiar with Elvis or his style. This would prove to be producer Nick Lowe's one and only "mistake" working with Elvis and it was easily understandable.
Nick was famously know as The Basher in the studio. As in, bash it out and fix it latter. So Elvis and he went into a British studio with an American band that was stylistically different from Elvis to do some bashing. Incidentally, the band, Clover, would eventually evolve into Huey Lewis and the News. Which means that on the plus side these were good musicians but the captured sound was unpolished and perhaps underrehearsed.
What I think happened was that Nick and Elvis listened to the rough playbacks and realized that any polish might dull the cold sharp steel of these songs as initially recorded.
All of them, even the most "tender" of them, are angry and bitter. How he managed to clearly deliver those wordy lyrics through clenched teeth is a wonder. The tune named here is easily one of the most biting tracks on the album, second only to "Waiting For The End of The World." What sets this one apart was the political immediacy of the lyric. This was the streets of England in 1977.
2.) "Lipstick Vogue" — This Year's Model: Back to back essential albums. Not a weak track in the lot. Most importantly, this album introduced his stellar backing band the Attractions. These guys could play to any mood Elvis might demand.
Here is another angry one, given an appropriate read. The boys in the band stretch out and double the intensity of the lyric. And speaking of the lyrics, the politics of the street are replaced by the politics of the bedroom but the stakes are clearly the same in Elvis' mind. This is also the album with "Pump It Up." As I said, essential.
3.) "Oliver's Army " — Armed Forces: After back to back rage-filled albums the reasonable question might be, what next? The answer? Armed Forces, not exactly a title that implies surrender or compromise.
In fact, Elvis and Nick mostly abandoned the stripped down high energy arrangements of the two previous albums for some more elaborately constructed tracks and a variation in paces and tones. Here a grand piano drives the melody but the lyrics remain politically charged. This is what the Beatles would have sounded like if Sgt. Peppers had come out in 1979 and not 1967.
4.) "Black and White World " — Get Happy: The novelty of this album is that it was comprised of 20 songs, 10 songs a side. Obviously, that technical aspect of the release has long been rendered irrelevant but the artistry remains impressive.
20 distinct songs that have to get to the point pretty quick. Mind you, there are no fragments here. These are songs and all are good and some are great. This is a great one.
5.) "Pills and Soap" — Punch The Clock: In the early 1980's Elvis parted ways with Nick Lowe albeit apparently on friendly terms. He then released several sophisticated pop albums with a variety of producers that were almost baroque in tone. This approach was often described and in practice, indeed was, called non-rock. With interludes, he would delve in and out of this style into the present.
Elvis was attempting, I suppose, to forge a new pop standard and, again, I mean that to refer to the music of the early 1940's. It is not to my rock music tastes but if you enjoy it you are likely in good company particularly with its creator.
On the other hand, Punch The Clock is quite excellent. It is marred a bit by overproduction and some of his always sharp lyrics are a bit soft here but "Shipbuilding," "Everyday I Write The Book" and this dark number are up to his usual standards and shows what he could do with a more pop-oriented rock style.
6.) "Lovable " — King Of America: So here was an Englishman closely associated with New Wave and, of late at that time, trying to emulate the more experimental style of The Beatles, proclaiming himself King of America and adopting a retro rock sound. It's got to be a mess right? In fact, it probably is his best album of the 1980's.
First off, his adopting of a distinct American style is nothing new. He had already done a country album, Almost Blue.
Second, he enlisted the help of T Bone Burnett, who, in turn, helped bring in players like James Burton. The sound is authentic and this is especially true of this track and overall. And, keep in mind, this was the 1980's. So credit all around for keeping the sound real. That said, the lyrics are anything but retro. They are his usual brilliant mix of sophisticated wry observations.
7.) "Tokyo Storm Warning " — Blood & Chocolate: Elvis and the Attractions and Nick Lowe all return with a hard hitting rock album. This would be, for me, his best and most consistent album for a generation. Which is to say, until he began working with the Imposters. This is Elvis' "Subterranean Homesick Blues," long and wordy but never boring and the whole band goes the distance.
8.) "Monkey To Man " — The Delivery Man: A concept album according to Elvis and that is fine. As always it is the music that matters and this track is a hot one.
This is the kind of rocker only Elvis can deliver and I mean that in every literal way. His lyrics alone make him a Hall of Famer but he knows how to compose music and on the rockers, as here, he delivers a great guitar.
To be sure, Elvis is no Clapton but then again, Clapton could have never delivered the signature riff to "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding." And to think Elvis still puts in this level of effort 40 years in. The raw anger may be gone but the passion still burns.