Arizona Republic, May 23, 2008

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Hotlist: Elvis Costello 101

by Ed Masley - May. 23, 2008 03:55 PM The Arizona Republic

Most people who aren't into Elvis Costello really don't know what they're missing. How could they? It's not like his songs have become so ingrained in the cultural fabric someone who hasn't been paying attention would know what to make of Costello's career. There's no one butchering his songs on cheesy Target ads or, worse yet, American Idol. Sure, he had a couple minor pop hits in the '80s with Veronica and Every Day I Write The Book, but to your average music fan, Costello's catalog is one vast untapped resource.

And yet, he was able to take his rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Why? Because no other artist of Costello's generation could hope to compete with the body of work he's been amassing since My Aim Is True became the first recording by a New Wave act to go Top 40 in the States.

To get the full effect, of course, you'd need at least a dozen albums and more free time than you likely have.

In the meantime, here's an introductory playlist to a catalog that just gets stronger every decade, with a limit of one song apiece from each of seven awe-inspiring masterpieces.

The Imposter - This is '60s soul on hyper-speed, a relentless explosion of pop hooks and passion with Steve Nieve doing his damnedest to upstage Costello on some of the happier organ fills ever committed to tape. It's hard to upstage Elvis, though, especially when he's leaning into put-downs of the man who got the girl who got away in lines as merciless as "He's got double vision when you want him double jointed." Lasting only 1:58, its jealous sneer and punk intensity is offset by something closer to euphoria. It could be the frantic tempo. Or the gonzo organ. Either way, it's brilliant. From Get Happy (1980)

I Want You - Only Elvis Costello could make the words "I love you" feel so much like someone's hands around your throat as they do in the opening lines of this, his darkest hour. And it just gets creepier from there. While millions tuning into Casey Kasem in the '80s somehow missed the stalking subtext of the Police's Every Breath You Take, there can be no mistaking Costello's cruel intentions here, as love turns to obsession turns to hate. A slow-burning Beatlesque ballad is framed by funereal pipe organ music, a dissonant two-note guitar lead and what feels like Elvis whispering in your ear. The song builds to a harrowing climax as he begs his former lover for the "stupid details" that his heart is breaking for. "I want to hear he pleases you more than I do," he sputters. "Did you call his name out as he held you down? Oh no, my darling, not with that clown." Amazingly, the entire performance was captured in the first take. From Blood and Chocolate (1986)

Pump It Up -- If you only had one chance to bring a non-believer to the table, there can be no better point of entry, with its stomping jungle beat, the most infectious bass hook since the Beatles kicked Revolver into gear with Taxman and the catchiest shout-a-long chorus of the New Wave era. But what really seals the deal here, with apologies to some glorious trash-rock keyboards, are the lyrics. Spitting them out like an angry young Dylan in Subterranean Homesick Blues mode, Elvis fixates on another girl he couldn't hope to score, setting the scene with a sputtering "I've been on tenterhooks, ending in dirty looks." He says he wrote it in the throes of "assisted insomnia" and it shows. From This Year's Model (1978)

(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes - Recorded before he'd assembled the mighty Attractions, this first-album highlight has a Byrds-like jangle that would soon go missing from his work. It kicks off with one of Costello's most frequently quoted lyrics: "Oh, I used to be disgusted and now I try to be amused." But the better line comes later: "I said 'I'm so happy, I could die.' She said 'Drop dead,' then left with another guy.'" There's even something of a plot. Seems the angels are trying to broker a deal where the singer won't get any older if he lets them have his cherished red shoes. And the hook is genius. Not bad for a single composed on a 10-minute train ride to Liverpool. From Costello's debut, My Aim Is True (1977)

Beyond Belief - Early in this thinking-person's drinking song, Costello sighs, "This battle with the bottle is nothing so novel." But there's certainly something novel to the way he filters his depression through a stream-of-consciousness approach as rich as Dylan's Blonde on Blonde. "So in this almost empty gin palace," he sings, "through a two-way looking glass, you see your Alice." This being Costello, not Jefferson Airplane, Alice proves a bitter pill, the one that clearly makes you smaller. And meaner. And more disillusioned. The opening track on an album that found him bringing in famed Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick to storm the gates of Pepperdom, Beyond Belief is sparse and claustrophobic, eschewing the lush baroque pop flavor that became the album's calling card, for something decidedly darker. From Imperial Bedroom (1981)

(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding - This rocker was actually written by longtime producer Nick Lowe, who'd sung it with his own band, Brinsley Schwarz. But this is how the song will be remembered, an impassioned Costello "searching for light in the darkness" of this "wicked world" as Lowe and the Attractions add a New Wave coat of paint to Spector's Wall of Sound. Costello says he's pretty sure Lowe meant it as a parody of '60s peace-rock, but there's certainly no trace of irony to Costello's delivery. As the singer wrote years later in the liner notes to the Rhino reissue of Armed Forces, he attacked it "as if it were obvious that no one knew the answer." From the U.S. issue of Armed Forces (1979)

New Lace Sleeves - A skittering hi-hat sets the tone for New Lace Sleeves, a soulful gem that makes the most of the Attractions rhythm section (bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas nailing the groove). It also finds Costello at his most direct as a lyricist in the lead-off verse's darkly comic portrait of a one-night stand. "Bad lovers face to face in the morning with shy apologies and polite regrets," the song begins. "Slow dances that left no warning of outraged glances and indiscreet yawning." Then, he hits you with the money shot: "Good manners and bad breath will get you nowhere." Yeah, that really sums it up. From Trust (1981)