It only took me about a decade to give Elvis Costello a fair hearing. The bow-legged specky prefect nerd that invigorated pseudo-punk peers from 1977 to 1980 (the era this four-CD boxed set represents) was anathema to me. I would get hostile and defensive and spout about illusion and glamour and fantasy, for I was but a boy.
While the prototype Costello did leave a drastically unfortunate legacy, which can still be traced in such petty professors of the prosaic as Beautiful South, Blur, Frank And Walters, The Manics when they show their grubby yellow underpants, etc, his insistence on language as a more vicious weapon than style (if looks could kill, words could inspire genocide) has ultimately proven a more durable mortar. One fine body of work later, he's established as laureate of the lottery (which is not to say that Blondie and others didn't do me proud).
When Costello harnessed his greedy intellect on these early albums, he pulled big triggers. My Aim Is True saw him ensconced as "the punk Dylan." This was generous, but then not too many people could string two words together back then, as opposed to 1993, when not many people can string one word together. Lydon was the physical embodiment of spite, Shelley was the leading romantic, but Costello gave the impression of Commenting On Society Society As A Whole even when he was sticking non sequiturs together with scissors and pasting over crap vaudeville music.
Everything Costello expectorates rhymes, often without reason. "Alison," "Red Shoes" and "Less Than Zero" have become "classics" with just cause.
This monolithic box gives you plenty of additional tracks, My Aim is True boasting several bizarre "apprenticeship" demos. Aficionados will swallow the sky with glee. This Year's Model, arguably the best album, follows the arresting flurry of songs such as "Lip Service," "Chelsea," the brilliant "Lipstick Vogue" ("Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being"), and "Night Rally," with the monumental "Big Tears," some hilarious first takes, "Radio Radio," and a hypnotic "Green Shirt" demo. There are times on This Year's Model where he gets so wound up and husky it's sexy. He snarls "You wouldn't even like me if you'd never had a drink" like a bitter bad-assed wolf. Would you credit it?
Armed Forces does the trick for many. If he'd retained the original title, Emotional Fascism, I'd go for it more. The Attractions are frustrated Beatles by now, but you can't argue with the coda of "Party Girl" or the sinister "Green Shirt" (far and away his best song, and again, surprisingly intimate and erotic). Inversely, "Sunday's Best" is hideously parochial (wisely, it was dumped for the American release) and you can stuff "Oliver's Army" somewhere up the Goombay Dance Band. There's a river of great couplets though, too many to quote, and you get "My Funny Valentine" among the liberal spring of extras.
Live At El Mocambo, is the band's Toronto debut of 1978. One Canadian reviewer, I can't help but notice, spends eight lines analysing the syllable "o" in Costello's rendition of the word "lover." What a very fine man. He was probably but a boy. Costello does well too, rasping and raging against all things stylised and advertised. He's pumped up and pugilistic, as if to say poetry is about scars, not daffodils.
Much water (and blood, chocolate, trust, roses, kings, etc) under the bridge since then, but his early grandiloquent emotion — "not just another mouth" — crocks like a whip. Another 15 years and I'll forgive Shaun Ryder for being a fat ugly pig. Maybe not.