Whatever his musical proclivity of the moment. Elvis Costello has always been unthinkable without the late '70's punk movement which originally spawned him. After the creative breakdown of Mighty Like A Rose and most recently his inane collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, one wishes to remind him of his 1977 vow to die beforn he gets old: "I'd rather kill myself. ...I'm not going to be around to witness my artistic decline." Personally, I don't care if Costello ever releases another album, and the recent news of his reforming the Attractions for an upcoming disc has increased my cynicism tenfold. Which made this box set a perfect and timely X-mas present for me. for I rediscovered why I initially fell in love with the nerdy little British guy in the first place.
Rykodisc has digitally remastered Costello's first three albums, added out-takes and studio oddities to each, and thrown in the marvelous Live At El Mocambo recording, previously only available on bootleg, for good measure. 2½ Years is a wonderful collector's item, and it's a lot better than listening to I989's Spike, or anything the guy's done since I986's double whammy of Blood And Chocolate and King Of America.
In 1977 Costello told Nick Kent of New Musical Express that his songs are motivated solely by "revenge and guilt," the only emotions he understands. That year's debut album. My Aim Is True is a brilliant effort that combines wordplay genius ("I said I'm so happy I could die / She said drop dead and left with another guy"), a bitter rockabilly sound. and a punk point of view reduced to an evil, ice-cold stare. It's all there: the hard directness of "Alison" and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes;" the doomstruck phrasing of the anti-fascist "Less Than Zero" the rhythmic punch of his psychotic guitar-organ-bass-drums arrangements.
Like his punk forefathers, Costello permeates his songs with a sense of repression. perversity, and raw fury. But while he draws on punk's spirit, he escapes its label. With his tuneful drunken wordplay he lashes out at love's broken promises and a culture's apathy and banality with the nerve of a playground loser who's been kicked one too many times. And you know the best part? You can dance to it.
This Year's Model is even better, with the music of his newfound permanent backing band, the Attractions (Bruce Thomas on bass, Pete Thomas on drums and Steve Nieve on piano and organ), ferociously pushing Costello, who has to keep up or be left behind in the dust Driving classics like "No Action," "Lipstick Vogue" and the Dylanesque "Pump It Up" are catchy yet scabrous; Elvis so weird and menacing he comes off as more awe-inspiring than lovable. The disc centers around the wonderous bounce of "Radio, Radio." Costello's scathing attack of the airwave's powers-that-be.
I979's Armed Forces is nowhere near as open as the two previous efforts, its suppressed, twitching claustrophobia Elvis' effort to define the times. Often there are two, sometimes three vocal tracks that compete with the Attractions' onslaught, and when the singer isn't overwhelmed, he offers a stark. insightful vision of sexual conflict and recrimination.
Despite critical attempts to paint the album as an attack on creeping European fascism, Armed Forces isn't so political as it is a twisted handbook on how to live in the political landscape of the times. "Oliver's Army" is a harsh criticism of British imperialism that you can't help but hum along to. But rather than being a body of work that simply outlines the cruelty and shamelessness of politics, the album is more a testimony of personal failure and unsatisfied passion.
Is *Two Little Hiders" a political statement or a portrait of a marital struggle ("Two little Hitlers will fight it out until / One little Hitler does the other one's will")? Is "Green Shirt" just another love song or some obscure reference to the green shins worn by Romania's fascist Iron Guard? The singer is lashing back against his lover's latest accusation when sinister questions emerge from the lurching melody: "Better cut off all identifying labels / Before they put you on the torture table / Because somewhere in the Quisling clinic / There's a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes / She's listening in to the Venus line / She's picking out names / I hope none of them are mine." Eerily, Costello sounds more like Orwell here than Dylan.
Costello-heads will be discussing these questions forever, but one thing's for sure: there's definitely a merging of private affairs with the political darkness of the times on Armed Forces. The reward at the end of all the murk and gloom is the closing track, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," where you can finally just turn up the stereo and enjoy.
Live At El Mocambo perfectly captures the explosive intensity of the Attractions' live power, circa 1978. No party is complete without this recording, now that it's been released on digital format.
2½ Years allows us to relive, or experience for the first time, the explosion of this British phenom into the music scene, earning yet sneering at every shred of hype thrust upon him. For those of you with beat-up vinyl copies of these masterpieces, here's your chance to replace them with recordings so clear that if you're like me. you'll discover things you've never heard before (that eerie refrain at the end of "Chemistry Class" on Armed Forces is "Are you ready for the final solution?") And for those of you who are uninitiated to the land of Elvis Costello, what better way to start?