Here's a little game: That's An Elvis Costello Song Isn't It? It's easy. Pounce on an everyday phrase that can adopt a hint of cynicism or a suggestion of sour sex and spit it out with a gruff New Wave sneer. Then come up with the chorus. For example: "Wind Farm!" (Chorus: "How are they blowing, down on your wind farm?"), or "Ribbed For Pleasure" (Chorus: "Tell me, have you ever been ribbed for pleasure?").
Unfortunately, once this game becomes a favourite, you'll find it hard to take any of his actual songs seriously. But then, most original fans of my acquaintance developed Costello Tolerance sooner or later. In those heady days when we mistook quantity for quality, Elvis had plenty of bile to unload — sweetened with Clever Sauce, of course — and we lapped it up. But I've not listened to This Year's Model much since it burned a hole in my turntable the week of release. That was the deal with an Elvis album: play it smooth, start to feel that all the sound and fury were signifying nothing, then wait, faintly anticipointed, for the next speedy rush. Eventually, one became immune to That Voice — the husky gulp that contorts words, sprays every emphatic "S" and "F" with an extra coating of sibilance and masticates every other consonant into a spit-ball — and That Songwriting Style, with its reliance on flash lyrical effects ("There's a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes.")
So, as a recovered Costelloholic, revisiting these records — one from each of the last three decades — was an odd prospect, but not one without pleasure. On This Year's Model, the petulant intensity strikes you first. It's all gall. With his part Dylan, part Lydon, part, ahem, Graham Parker delivery, he was so cross. And the arrangements all sound like a tantrum — that band could boil over at the drop of a Pro Plus. Unfeasibly invigorating after the languid My Aim Is True, and Nick "Basher" Lowe's impatient hand on the tiller was just right.
"I never really understood the accusations of misogyny that were levelled at the lyrics on This Year's Model," sighs EC in the new sleevenotes. "They clearly contained more sense of disappointment than disgust." Isn't "You want her broken with her mouth wide open" unequivocal enough for you, Elvis? How about "Every time I phone you I just want to put you down"? "Disappointment" was inevitable if you turned up on dates with that attitude.
After "gyuhrls," it's mostly "they" who feel the rough end of his tongue on This Year's Model — usually anyone in a uniform, and radio producers. But tucked at the end of the largely extraneous bonus disc is a storming BBC session version of Stranger In The House — a song whose country stylings felt vaguely treacherous at the height of Noo Wyve — which makes a genuine case for EC as a songwriting great.
Eight years later, 1986, and Blood & Chocolate is the same, only more so. The voice is huskier, the sound more claustrophobic, the songs longer. This was a session designed, perhaps, to alert fans who'd wandered off during his flirtations with synth-pop, Americana and crap, that EC could still nail a squirming aphorism to a big stick and wave it about purposefully. He reassembled the Attractions and Nick Lowe and they bashed out another grumpy one for old time's sake. Awesome in places, the band's diminished enthusiasm is often audible, the claustrophobia's genuinely uncomfortable, and this time much of the hatred is directed inward. The album's fame rests on its two six-minute-plus singles the ranting "Tokyo Storm Warning" and the panting "I Want You," perhaps the closest we have to the mind of a stalker in song, o torrent of unchecked lust and self-disgust. EC admits how immature he — or Napoleon Dynamite, as he was calling himself — was being when he writes of his marriage that year: "There were a lot of things I wouldn't have to do again, like messing up my life so I could write stupid little songs about it."
Brutal Youth was a half-cocked return to this place, a semi-rapprochement with the Attractions to see if there was "still a loud song worth singing". The first track refers to "flogging a dead horse all the way down Pony Street", but yes, there was still a pulse in the nag, mostly on the slow ones, ironically. The measured ruminations of EC's 2002 sleevenotes suggest that — "simmering grudge" against an Attraction or two beside — he's left the bile behind. A disappointment, maybe, for a new generation of fans; a relief, I'm sure, for Elvis himself.