My Aim is True came out when I was about six weeks old, and Elvis Costello has enjoyed a pretty good run ever since as a popular and critical favorite. Hence, for all my life, I've been hearing how great Elvis Costello is, and yet have never quite managed to be convinced. He is one the few artists to feature heavily in my father's record collection that did not eventually trickle down to becoming a favorite of mine. I think he's a talented guy, and a real booster (in various senses) of a diverse spectrum of American music that largely corresponds with my own interests. I don't hate the man, nor his music. I just haven't yet found much cause to actually listen to him.
In my entry for Armed Forces lower down on the list, I indulged in a lengthy digression about how much better I like Nick Lowe, who helped establish Costello's career by producing his first five albums, but whose own music has never garnered the same general esteem. I'll try not to fall back into rehashing that argument here, although Lowe factors somewhat unavoidably into the story of these two albums, since he produced My Aim is True, while Imperial Bedroom is among the first albums where Costello decided to seek production assistance elsewhere.
My Aim is True is a product of its time and place, so that while it couldn't be mistaken for punk music, it shares with it a leanness of tone and a directness of attack. Nick Lowe's production style on this album is so minimal as to hardly exist, as though hitting start on the tape recorder was his primary task. There's also an undercurrent of anger that this music shares with punk rock, but none of the theatrical sneeringness of, say The Sex Pistols. Costello's rage is of the taut, thinly suppressed variety, and it is this subsurface tension that gives the album a lot of its spark.
The songs are solid too — the well polished first crop of an ambitious songwriter. I think "Alison" is the only one I would consider a truly great song. But a lot of the other songs on here, particularly the better known ones like "Watching the Detectives," "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes," and "Less Than Zero," have an undeniable snap to them. They are nicely constructed, uncommonly articulate, and reveal a nice ratio of quirkiness to catchiness. It may well be that these songs or others on the album would reveal themselves to be truly "great" upon further study. But none reach out and grabbed me like "Alison," which seems to me the only song on here with a complex and compelling emotional undercurrent sufficient to balance out the surfeit of cleverness he tirelessly displays.
Imperial Bedroom sounds almost as though it could have been made by a completely different artist, with the ever-mounting density of Costello's lyrical constructions providing the strongest link between the two. The musical styles are a good deal more diverse (or diversely derivative), but in the virtuosic panoply of shifting genres, one loses a sense of the artist as a coherent (and therefore emotionally reliable) creator of art. It's to Costello's credit, I suppose, that he managed to break out of the angry young nerd persona of his first few albums, and yet there's an unsettling ambitiousness on display here — a self-importance in his demonstrations of emphatic artistry that erode my faith in the urgent emotional underpinnings of his art. I was frequently impressed when listening to this record, but never once moved by it.
In contrast with the earlier record, the sound of the album is more obviously compelling than the songs themselves. Costello brought on Geoff Emerick, who engineered The Beatles' most celebrated records, as producer. It would be hard to find a steeper contrast to Lowe's straight ahead style, and Costello goes a bit hog wild with the array of sonic textures at his disposal. There is hardly a song on the album that isn't positively drenched in strings, horns, melodic percussion instruments, or subtle electronics, often in concert with each other. It's a style of arrangement I have historically enjoyed, and it was my easiest point of entry in finding something to relate to on this record.
And yet I found it went a bit too far in this case. Had the songs themselves been less cluttered with musical and verbal ideas, the style of arrangement that predominates might have elevated and enriched them. But too often, the songs alone are conceptually laden enough that a ridiculously elaborative flourish of rococo strings only serves to muddy the waters. There were good songs, or partially good songs, on both sides of this record, and yet my patience for it lasted only about the length of the first side. As the initial novelty of how the record sounded subsided, the density of presentation became downright fatiguing. Lowe's production style on My Aim is True, while more blunt and utilitarian, gives Costello's verbiage a cleaner canvas to work on. Imperial Bedroom sounds much richer and more titillating, but ultimately exacerbates the underlying excesses of Costello's style, rather than leavening them.
Here too, it's entirely possible that a course of studious repeat listenings would gradually reveal more profound and lasting qualities to this music than an initial listening could hope to capture. I am all for the idea of music that grows on you rather than coming on strong initially, but there has to be enough at the outset to entice the listener into the belief that such a process is worth the effort. I found very little to hang my hat on in this respect. If a song came on as catchy, it had worn out its welcome by the end. For example, I never want to hear the phrase "Shabby Doll" again. But more frequently, there was no kind of hook or memorable part to hold onto against the torrent of words and sounds. "Almost Blue" is both the exception and the album's obvious standout. And yet it's such an unflinching genre exercise — a modern stab at creating a jazz standard — that there's a cold sort of calculatedness at its heart. It's a great formal success, but that doesn't make it a great song.
The other aspect of Costello's overweening ambition I feel compelled to chime in on is his singing style. On My Aim is True, his croaking, almost suffocated sounding voice serves the general tone of suppressed fury quite well. The spazziness of his voice fits the music and his persona to a tee. But somewhere between the two albums, he seems to have made the perverse decision that he was a real singer. Just before Imperial Bedroom, he recorded an entire album of country music covers, his first album without Lowe producing. I have never heard it, and I don't ever want to. Just looking at the track list makes me furious. Somehow, he concluded that he was qualified to reinterpret songs by Merle Haggard, Charlie Rich and (for fucks sake) George Jones — among the greatest and most emotionally direct singers of the 20th century. That he felt he had something to offer these songs seems to me a species of almost unforgivable vanity. And while there was a merciful absence of such nonsense on Imperial Bedroom (it's only his own songs he's ruining) his weirdly deliberate efforts to sound soulful — that haggard sort of bellowing he indulges in — did little to incline me a more generous assessment of this album.
In the end, though, my conceptual antipathy toward Costello was somewhat frustrated by the fact that I didn't actually hate either of these records. I had heard My Aim is True before, and so knew going in that, while its driving style is not up my typical alley, it is a worthy and ultimately likable piece of work. Imperial Bedroom was new to me, and while the sum of its thickly textured grandiosity proved a bit too much for me, I also had to concede that a lot of individual moments were quite compelling — enough so that I almost certainly will give it another try in future. Still, it seems unlikely on the basis of this evidence that I'll ever quite manage to become a real fan of Elvis Costello.
Source: LP in both cases. For some reason I have a Portuguese pressing of My Aim is True, and a German pressing of Imperial Bedroom. The Portuguese pressing follows the original British track listing, which eliminates "Watching the Detectives." Since the list doesn't specify the American or British release, I listened to that track in its proper place via MOG, figuring what the hell. There was no such trickery required for the later album. And as always in such cases, I listened to the Metallica album in its proper place between these two entries.