Elvis Costello, like few others who have worked in pop-rock music. is an Innovator, a musical synthesizer, an inspired stylist.
There is no sense in comparing him with anyone but himself and his own work. Labels don't work on Costello.
Such statements may sound a bit grandiose. But in the stream of trend-hoppers, compose-by-number song-writers, mindless macho men and performers better suited to business than music, Costello stands out as creative, striving, mature and one of the few currently recording musi-cians who deserve the term "artist."
Sure, you're thinking, you've read these superlatives before. Costello is a critic's favorite. Everyone with access to a pen since 1977 has praised the guy.
But Costello's reputation does not result from a network of mutually reinforcing critics. The proof of Costello's work lies where it belongs — in his albums — all nine of them recorded and released over a six-year period.
Go back and listen to his first, My Aim Is True. The 1977 LP cost a mere $2,000 to record, yet most of the songs, offered without benefit of the usual production embellishments, still stand up as smartly written and provocative. The album draws on country influences, apocalyptic Bob Dylan-inspired lyrics and a Beatles' sense of song structure.
We also hear an observant mind at work. The opening line of the song "Red Shoes" — "Well, I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused" — still holds as the most cogent musical appraisal of '70s' political and social apathy.
The second album, This Year's Model, with songs such as the enraged "Pump It Up" and the quickening urgency of "Lipstick Vogue," established a new standard for pop music. The pop form as recast by Costello — who made much of the Farfisa organ's cheap, thin sound — could be passionate, exciting, intense and even angry. On "Night Rally" he even launched a political attack on England's racist National Front.
His third LP, and probably his most commercially successful, Armed Forces, despite weaknesses, brought phase one of Costello's career to fruition.
It included the brilliant "Oliver's Army," a tirade against imperialism enlivened by its perky pace, cheery piano riff (by Steve Nieve, the keyboardist In the Attractions, Costello's backup band) and the kind of bright production that had been absent on Costello's earlier albums.
Album four, Get Happy, began another segment of his career, with Costello writing some of his best songs ever In a '60s soul style. Unlike Billy Joel's An Innocent Man, an attempt along similar lines, Get Happy did not so much mimic as redesign and personalize the form. Taking Liberties, a compilation of Costello leftovers, followed.
Trust was the transitional LP, the haunting album that thrust Costello's Involvement with pre-rock 'n' roll forms — jazz, '40s pop, Afro-Cuban and country music — to the foreground.
On Almost Blue, Costello's all-country-covers album, he laid his cards on the table face up. There was no stopping this guy. He would follow his own musical mind and emotional heart, whether his audience bought It or not.
Imperial Bedroom is considered Costello's masterpiece, a perfect blend of musical influences, fully realized production values, mind-engaging lyrics, a voice that had improved and a perfectly synchronized band.
Keep in mind that all these albums sound as good now as when they first came out — better in most cases. Costello's albums acquire character with age.
So it's from this perspective that I criticize his latest album, Punch the Clock. The lyrics sometimes stumble in their cleverness or prolixity. Costello has written better songs, and the horns used on several cuts are brassy In the manner of the worst big-bands. But the album is not without its arresting moments, including "Let Them All Talk" and "Love Went Mad." For Is it without clever lyrics, as in the single, "Every Day I Write the Book."
The album's two most gripping compositions are "Shipbuilding" and "Pills and Soap." The latter focuses on the media's trivializing of tragedy and its tendency to distract from real issues with fanciful filler.
But It is "Shipbuilding" that is likely to become one of my favorite Costello songs. With Its spare production, winding melody remarkably succinct verbal images and an emotionally disquieting trumpet solo by the great Chet Baker, Costello etches a complex view of war and everyday life. Shipbuilding jobs will become plentiful, but only at the cost of human lives, he says.
Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards,
And notifying the next of kin.
Once again, It's all we're skilled in.
Punch the Clock, produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, may be the beginning of the next push forward for Costello. Exactly where he'll land we don't know, and neither may Costello.
But after nine albums that rise high above the norm, It's almost guaranteed to be worth our attention.