I watched on television recently as Elvis Costello and the Imposters, with Emmylou Harris, performed Costello's "Heart Shaped Bruise" in a small, sweaty club in Memphis, and it confirmed what I believe, that "Heart Shaped Bruise" — from 2004's The Delivery Man — is one of the best songs Costello's written in years. It got me to thinking: what are Elvis Costello's greatest songs?
He's written many songs, re-recorded many of them, in many styles with many different musicians utilizing many different producers across three decades. His catalogue is overwhelming, and uneven, and its size can distract from his greatest material. Because he writes so many songs, he writes many average songs. He is undeniably one of the great contemporary songwriters, and I wanted to see if I can narrow down to his purest moments. At first, I tried to come up with his ten greatest songs, but that proved impossible; too many legitimate contenders stood on the outside looking in. I expanded the list to fifteen; twenty seemed too generous, even given Costello's prolific nature, what with the possibility that near-misses, sensing that my sentimentality and nostalgia were up, my critical guard down, might bum-rush the list. I'll get this out of the way: all objective thinking originates in subjective response; this list, like any best-of list, is subjective. But I like to think that I brought my critical thinking to bear here as stringently as I could. Costello's greatest songs bear out his greatest strengths: his wit; his incisive essaying of the follies in which grown men and women find themselves helplessly entwined; his gift for melody (often under appreciated); his skepticism of sentimentality; his seriousness. If there's any subjective bent to this list, it issues from my belief that Costello's at his best when he's writing about the politics behind closed bedroom doors, especially if such domestic politics (read, "emotional fascism") might be extrapolated to the world at large. There's a Great Commentator at the heart of Costello's best songs, unflinchingly celebrating, lamenting, and parodying the human condition and the pride, silliness, ego, self-interest, and malice that inform it.
I established some ground rules in terms of criteria for inclusion. I chose from among:
1) originals (regrettably eliminating a lot of great covers like "[What's So Funny 'Bout] Peace, Love, and Understanding?," "Psycho," "Get Yourself Another Fool," "Brilliant Disguise," "Changing Partners," et al); I made a co-writing exception with number 14;
2) songs that are career-spanning though not necessarily style-spanning, while keeping my selection process as rigorous as I could;
3) songs that strike the balance too often precarious in Costello's songs, between lyrical intelligence and excess cleverness, between clarity and vagueness; between incisiveness and laziness; between evocation and cloudy abstraction;
4) music that purposefully and naturally reinforces, complements, or subverts the lyrics, and vice versa.
The list, in order of release:
1) No Dancing (My Aim Is True, 1977)
2) Alison (My Aim Is True, 1977)
3) Watching The Detectives (single, 1977)
4) This Year's Girl (This Year's Model, 1978)
5) Lipstick Vogue (This Year's Model, 1978)
6) Radio, Radio (single, 1978)
7) Accidents Will Happen (Armed Forces, 1979)
8) Riot Act (Get Happy!!!, 1980)
9) You Little Fool (Imperial Bedroom, 1982)
10) Indoor Fireworks (King Of America, 1986)
11) I Want You (Blood & Chocolate, 1986)
12) Kinder Murder (Brutal Youth, 1994)
13) Poor Fractured Atlas (All This Useless Beauty, 1996)
14) God Give Me Strength (Painted From Memory, with Burt Bacharach, 1998)
15) Heart Shaped Bruise (The Delivery Man, 2004)
The easy part? The no-brainers at the top of the list, although choosing from Costello's first several albums was tough, as his run from 1977 to 1980 was remarkable, the number of strong, memorable, novel songs staggering. More interesting (and unsettling) to me is the eight-year gap between 1986 and 1994 and the the six-year gap between 1998 and 2004. In part created by my tyrannically capped list, those gaps also reveal Costello's inconsistency, given my objective-challenged criteria, anyway. Between Blood & Chocolate (in my estimation his last consistently gripping album, although All This Useless Beauty comes close) and Brutal Youth Costello grew his beard, dropped out of the industry briefly, ditched the Attractions for semi-good, and experimented widely with genres and production approaches; as a result, his music in that era is sometimes difficult to listen to and enjoy. A similar wandering period occurred between his Bacharach collaboration and The Delivery Man: big-band experiments, film scores, divorce, new love, remarriage, torch songs, some good music scattered among it all, but a sense of trying on musical coats until finding the one that felt that he'd been wearing it for years. As any gifted artist's career grows — especially an artist as restlessly curious as Costello, a native aspect to his character and personality that is often, puzzlingly, cited as a weakness — there will be ever-widening valleys among creative peaks. How many great songs does Costello have in him?
I made certain that I trusted my critical instinct while choosing; if more than half of the songs on the list ended up being ballads, or rock & roll songs, then so be it (it turns out that the list is top-heavy with rock & roll, and that Costello's maturing strengths as a songwriter might lie in ballads and slower-tempo songs, which is not that surprising). This is not necessarily a list of my favorite Costello songs. If that were the case, I'd have to find room for, among other lesser but really good tracks, "Big Tears," "Busy Bodies," "Hoover Factory," "Heathen Town," "The Big Light," "Blue Chair," "I Had A Weakness," etc. (and, yes, "Party Party"). I tried, instead, to gather songs that individually and collectively reflect Costello's passionate interest in the foibles, seductions, and heartbreaks of the human condition — songs where his nastiness, churlish compassion, skepticism, intelligence, wit, and gift for telling narrative and characterizing details find native home in his obvious love of popular music and skill in writing well-crafted, organic songs.
Of course, I reserve the right to change the list next week, or tomorrow. "Red Shoes"? "No Action"? "Clubland"? "Man Out Of Time"? "Brilliant Mistake"? "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head"? "I Want You"? "God's Comic"?...
UPDATE: after consideration, I replaced "Poor Napoleon" with "I Want You."