Bowling Green BG News, March 25, 1999

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Elvis Costello: King of rock 'n' roll

Erik Pepple

In Nick Homby's razor-sharp treatise on love, music, male guilt and list-making, a character wonders "What came first — the music or the misery?"

It is an interesting notion, because if anything, pop music exists (that is real pop music, not stuff like N'Sync or Celine Dion) to serve as catharsis. We listen to what we listen to because we need to experience a release of emotion and rage. We need to have these feelings ripped from our bodies and tossed into the air where they can dissipate like the wisps of emotionally crippling smoke they are.

Whether it's a bad relationship or bad day, or good relationship and a good day, we all have the appropriate songs or albums we turn to that either confirm or deny our emotional states.

Critics of Elvis Costello would offer that with him the misery always came before the music. Costello sings like a man possessed. He shoots his mouth off (occasionally shooting himself in the foot), rides through torrents of words and images all because if he did not he would simply bottle everything up and explode.

Costello has been called many things throughout his long and varied career (mostly by folks who rely of adjective ejaculations of critics and don't actually listen to the music themselves) — misanthrope, misogynist, sex obsessed and most over-used of all, "an angry young man." While elements of each exist in his canon, most people overlook the underlying humanity throughout his songs.

Certainly the man has written some of the greatest raging rock songs in the history of pop music. Much of Costello's work is riddled with the stray bullets of adolescent angst.

Targets are as disparate as fascists ("Night Rally"), rapists ("Kinder Murder"), night clubs ("Clubland"), the military ("Oliver's Army"), himself (virtually anything off of This Year's Model), a girlfriend's new hairstyle ("Baby's Got a Brand New Hairdo") and the awkward sexual fumblings of youth ("The Beat"). On the surface the sheer sonic assault of these tunes are enough to make the listener pound their fists and nod their heads in agreement with a musician who has somehow found a way to communicate emotions most folks could never hope to put into words.

It's music to listen to while alone in your car, blazing down a highway and screaming with impunity. It's for times when the only things existing at that moment are your emotions and the tumultuous confusion of things like life, politics, love and regret.

Even at his most ferocious, Costello has always demonstrated a noticeable sympathy. His most visceral recording is the 1978 masterpiece This Year's Model. This Year's Model is the sound of insecurity and emotional scabs being flayed open and rubbed raw by the gradual realization that idealism is good, but doesn't always work.

Firing off verbal mortar blasts like "I don't wanna be your lover / just wanna be your victim," Costello embodies what could best be described as the Costelloian idealist — a man for whom life should be fair, but is persistently undermined by the ignorance and shallowness of things like the media, school, government, peers, etc. In the face of women being objectified and distilled to images of cheap, tawdry sexuality ("This Year's Girl") or dealing with sexual relationships that are both demeaning and fulfilling, Costello somehow finds a way to tit through the swaths of uncertainty and contradiction.

He reaches the point where he places the flurry of worry and disgust within a realistic context, and the only way to not let everything wear away one's resistance is to simply, para-phrase a line from kis first release, My Aim is True, no longer he disgusted, but amused.

After This Year's Model, Costello's work continued along one of the most unpredictable tracks in the history of popular music. From the lush Sgt. Pepperesque chamber pop of Imperial Bedroom to dabbling in classical composition with The Juliet Letters to the rootsy rockabilly and R&B of King of America, Costello is the rare artist whose work demonstrates a breadth and intelligence that permeates from every word and every note he has recorded. It bleeds from the CD or vinyl (with the exception of his one recorded atrocity, Good-Bye Cruel World).

Elvis Costello didn't write the songs that made the whole world sing, he just wrote the songs that made those lucky enough to hear them think about their life and serve as an outlet for fear, worry, regret and helpless idealism.


The BG News, August 3, 1983

Erik Pepple profiles Elvis Costello and reviews the Rykodisc reissues.


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Essential Elvis

Erik Pepple

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This Year's Model

Costello's most unified, streamlined piece of work. It's also his sharpest and most brilliant recording. This Year's Model is nothing less than erudite sonic fury being committed to shellac. Every song on this recording is perfect, every note, every word, every sound. Costello caught lightning in a bottle with this album. This is the sound of a wallflower observing life at a distance, picking apart its flaws all the while hoping that at some point he will find understanding amidst hypocrisy and sorrow. A genuine masterpiece and one of the finest rock records ever made.

Get Happy!!

After experimenting with the Abba meets Kraftwerk sounds of Armed Forces Costello dabbled in Motown and Stax infused soul on Get Happy!!, an early career masterwork. Tearing through 30 songs in just over an hour Costello has compiled a buffet of verbal punning, spoonerisms, caustic couplets and brilliantly channeled rage. Featuring some of his best bits of wordplay and most insightful writing ("Black & White World" is a small marvel about living through the movies and sex), Get Happy!! is the sound of a major artist at the top of his form.


Released between the fire of Get Happy!! and critically acclaimed Imperial Bedroom, Trust is Costello's underrated masterpiece. The liner notes assume the appearance of a 1940's film noir, and the record reflects this mood. Trust is a world populated with beautiful losers who live their lives between the false promise of joy through night clubbing ("Clubland"), corrupt news organizations ("Fish and Chip Paper"), and the "courting cold wars" ("Strict Time"). Trust is music from the world of gin and cigarettes, a shadowy cabaret for cynics.

King of America / Blood & Chocolate

One of Costello's finest recordings, King of America was a major turning point in his career. Opening with one of his greatest songs, "Brilliant Mistake," the album also marks the first time that Costello has written happy love songs. After a battle with alcoholism, Costello emerges on King of America with a new voice — one that is still worried about the world, but has found solace in love.

A mere five months after the midtempo groove of King of America, Costello released another raucous rock record, Blood & Chocolate. A surreal melange of nasty rock and bizarre ballads, Blood & Chocolate would be essential if the only song it contained was the greatest angry break-up song ever written, "I Hope You're Happy Now."

Mighty Like a Rose

Much maligned by critics and fans alike, Mighty Like a Rose is a lost dog in Costello's body of work. Granted his first Warner Bros. release, Spike, was much more streamlined and more listenable, but Mighty is such an odd bird it deserves some distinction.

Mighty Like a Rose is the sound of a brilliant artist whose mind thinks faster than his mouth. Crammed with Tom Waitsian percussion and caterwauling, phantasamagoric LSD — laced imagery and obtuse melodies, this is the kind of album that depending on mood sounds alternately brilliant or pretentious. Boasting two of his most gorgeous ballads (the fragile as Faberge "After the Fall" and carnival stomp of "Couldn't Call it Unexpected #4,") Mighty is the sound of artist with more ideas than he knows what to do with.

Brutal Youth

A bracing return to Costello's signature sound, Brutal Youth is a glorious relearning of Elvis and his superb backing band, The Attractions. Bouncing from song to song like a gibbon on crack, Brutal Youth is jam-packed with minor masterpieces of rock, pop and soul. From the harrowing' tale of rape "Kinder Murder" to the death penalty lament "Favorite Hour," Brutal Youth is a terrifically entertaining album.

And how can you not love an artist whose idea of fun is reading Das Kapital while watching Home Shopping Club and whose idea of hell is no John Coltrane and only Julie Andrews?

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