Mojo, January 1998

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The Best Thing I've Heard All Year

Elvis Costello

I really liked the U2 record, not so much for the overall effect as for individual songs. "Please" might be the best song I've heard all year. I very nearly did it as a cover. I don't like the songs on the Verve record so much as some of their pictures: Drugs Don't Work is good but I can guess where it's going, but I can't guess where "Neon Wilderness" is going — I really like that one. The Radiohead record's great, and some of the later tracks on the Portishead record like "Western Eyes" knock me out.

I'd have to say Ron Sexsmith's understatement is almost a fault, calling his new album Other Songs. He should have called it Child Star — I love that song and with his face that title would have been such a funny picture. It certainly contained the most beautifully, tightly composed songs. Also, check out Elliott Smith on the Kill Rock Stars label: a very quiet, very sweetly voiced guy like John Sebastian, but the lyrics are really dark. Very beautiful melodies, nice guitar playing — it's a great trick.

I don't have anything to say about Oasis. I've no disrespect, it just didn't move me at all. I've got a problem with Mancunians in general. The Bee Gees walk off Clive Anderson — you see what happens? You can't joke with them, they've got no sense of humor... I'm only kidding. The Bee Gees are fucking great. Think of all the songs they've written. Noel Gallagher has written a few good songs, but he's got a long way to go until he's written "Massachusetts," "Saved By The Bell," "How Do You Mend a Broken Heart." Al Green singing "How Do You Mend A Broken Heart" — that's hip...

Reissues: not everybody's gonna share your interest in some Art Farmer record that came out on Verve, or a classical record of viol music, which is truthfully what I'm listening to. The Stanley Brothers record, just reissued on Columbia, is fantastic. A lot of their songs would be easy to mock — mothers die, babies die — but then they're probably singing to people whose babies and mothers died on a horribly regular basis.

But do you know what my favourite is? It's Dylan. I actually think it's the best record he's made — how about that? He's stayed and thought about it for however long it took and he had the guts to do that. On Oh Mervy, I thought that the Lanois production was too effete, too at odds with the songs. But this time the production's very discreet. The recording of the voice is absolutely magnificent. His phrasing is absolutely unbelievable — you're not listening to him to hear sweet-voiced singing, you're listening to him to get the feeling he's singing about.

I'm really delighted that he made a record that's so unafraid to say something as unfashionable as, "We're all gonna die." For somebody who's had all these fantastic images pouring out of his head most of his career, to say, "Nothing means anything. Life is hollow. We're gonna die" — it's such a bleak thing to say that you've got to say that there's some solace in saying it. It can't scare you anymore. And the more I listen to it, the more humour and uplift I draw from it.

You know the record I think is behind the new Dylan? It's the Harry Smith archive [The Anthology of American Folk Music] It's six CDs, an awful lot to get through, and wherever you start you come across something the like of which you've never heard before. It's obvious that at some stage a lot of the folk revivalists in America, of which Dylan is one, listened to this collection avidly. The weird thing is you listen to it casually and you'll suddenly go, What's this line? "Railroad men drink up your wine." It'll be from Memphis Blues but he pay-off will be different — Dylan has quoted lines over the years, and he's certainly not stolen from it, he's just actually referring to it.

If I was asked to pick a live concert, I've seen this woman Toshi Reagon in clubs in New York with a fantastic band called Big Lovely. She's the daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon from Sweet Honey In The Rock and she's got a half-folk, half-R&B voice with a kind of gospel tint to it but she sings secular material. Her record is on Smithsonian.

Otherwise, a Springsteen concert I saw on holiday in Nice: he was right at the end of a couple of years of developing that Tom Joad material and he could play songs from 10, 15, nearly 20 years ago, and they seamlessly sat in a narrative flow with the brand new songs. He played with such power — very delicate at one moment, very powerful the next — it was extremely impressive, something I can learn from.

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Mojo, No. 50, January 1998

Elvis Costello writes about the Best Things He Heard in 1997.


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