The most inspired artist of a most inspired generation, the computer geek who would be King emerged at the height of the punk revolution as the thinking-person's miscreant, a newer-than-average Dylan insisting "I'm not angry anymore" in an intensely angry song that found him listening to his former lover making love to someone new.
The image worked so well that to the casual music fan, Elvis Costello will always be frozen in time as the pigeon-toed geek in Buddy Holly glasses on the cover of My Aim Is True — unless you count the fluke success of Everyday I Write the Book," his U.S. breakthrough, or "Veronica," an even bigger hit he wrote with Paul McCartney.
But as the casual listener grew increasingly indifferent and the critics learned to approach him with open hostility — to the extent that a review of his latest release in Village Voice began with "Elvis Costello is such an [expletive]" — Elvis quietly amassed a catalog of classic albums fit to hold its own against the greatest artists in the history of rock 'n' roll, a catalog of urgency, ambition, depth and caustic humor, with an attitude as punk as Johnny Rotten on a bad day.
And he did it all while constantly evolving, from the punk assault of This Year's Model through the soul revival of Get Happy to loftier projects that found him working with a string quartet, an opera singer, jazz guitarist Bill Frissell, Burt Bacharach and the Mingus Big Band.
It's hard to imagine a rock 'n' roll artist more willing to change, to try new sounds. And Elvis rarely found a sound he couldn't make his own.
He's never turned his back on rock 'n' roll for long, though. Earlier this year, When I Was Cruel was released to the clamor of ads that shouted "FIRST LOUD ALBUM SINCE 199?" And while that may be true, it could be argued that it oversimplifies the pleasures of his most exciting album in nearly a decade.
From the sigh of "It was so much easier when I was cruel" to other lines that make you think it still comes pretty easily, his latest effort is essential Elvis, only strengthening his claim on what The Trouser Press Guide hails as "modern pop's greatest single-artist oeuvre, second only to Bob Dylan's."
If you don't believe the hype, then chances are, you haven't heard these albums.
1.) Get Happy (1980): With New Wave getting old, Costello looks to '60s soul for inspiration on a single album packed with 20 songs in a head-on collision of brevity, soul and wit. How punk is that? "Temptation" takes its cue from "Time Is Tight" while "Love For Tender" proves you can too hurry love as the Attractions rhythm section — bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas — makes the most of every stolen groove. Despite the upbeat party feel and all that happy organ Steve Nieve insists on bringing to the soul-revival tent, Costello hasn't really gotten happy. As he sings on "The Imposter" (while the band runs away with the groove), "It's only gonna end in tears." And it does on such heartbreaking ballads as "Riot Act," "Clowntime is Over" and the country-flavored "Motel Matches." Every song is a classic, including the covers (hopped-up Sam & Dave and a tune by those titans of soul, the Merseybeats).
2.) Blood & Chocolate (1986): "I Want You" is his finest hour — as a lyricist, a vocalist, a really creepy date. It's a sinister ballad in which he essentially stalks the girl who broke his heart, his anger growing more intense with each new sordid detail until finally, he explodes in a menacing two-note guitar solo — tortured genius in its purest form. The other songs are nearly every bit as brilliant and/or hurtful, from the raucous stomp with which he kicks the album into gear ("Uncomplicated") to the poppier moments that can't mask the pain or the anger. In "I Hope You're Happy Now," he ridicules her with "He's got all the things you need and some that you will never/But you make him sound like frozen food/His love will last forever."
3.) This Year's Model (1978): From the Who-like bombast of "No Action" to the vitriolic charm of "This Year's Girl" (a tune that lifts its beat from Ringo Starr) to "Pump It Up" and "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea," "This Year's Model" rocks with the intensity of all the greatest punk. Pete Thomas nails the beat with style and force, Bruce Thomas picks up where McCartney left off in the Beatles and there are no words but genius to describe what Steve Nieve is doing to those trash-rock keyboards. Even with the greatest band a guy could hope for at his back, though, it's the lyrics here that ultimately separate Costello from the pack. He does for love what the Sex Pistols did for the Queen in valentines as barbed as "No, don't ask me to apologize/I won't ask you to forgive me/If I'm gonna go down/You're gonna come with me."
4.) My Aim is True (1977): The album that threatened to make him a star, it's got his saddest love song, "Alison," and some of his funnier lyrics, from the sexual fumbling of "Mystery Dance" to the part in "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" where the man who never met a phrase he couldn't turn disarms you with the punchline, "I said, 'I'm so happy I could die'/She said, 'Drop dead,' then left with another guy." The playing got a whole lot better on the second record, once he'd signed on the Attractions, but there's no mistaking what it was that had the critics foaming at the mouth when this one hit the streets.
5.) Imperial Bedroom (1982): Elvis goes baroque in this, his most Beatlesque masterpiece. George Martin's shop assistant, Geoff Emerick, is in for Nick Lowe as producer, but it's Steve Nieve who ends up charting all those "Sgt. Pepper"-worthy orchestrations, every detail just the thing to underscore the most successfully sophisticated set of songs in the Costello canon. "Human Hands" is as close to romantic as Elvis had gotten at that point; "Almost Blue" is the best of his early attempts at recasting himself as the last of the great white Tin Pin Alley torch-song writers; with "Tears Before Bedtime" and "Kid About It," he soulfully bridges the gap between this album and "Get Happy;" and "Beyond Belief" is just that as a set of lyrics, spilling down the stream of consciousness like Dylan in his prime. The overall effect is Elvis at his most emotionally tortured — and surprisingly direct.
6.) Armed Forces (1979): Rising to the New Wave challenge with some of the quirkiest songs he'd ever written ("Moods For Moderns," "Senior Service"), Elvis delivers his catchiest, most accessible album yet, from the opening splendor of "Accidents Will Happen" to the album-closing definitive treatment of producer Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" With "Oliver's Army," he writes the most inflammatory ABBA hit you've ever heard, while "Party Girl" finds Elvis in an oddly empathetic mood for an artist who famously claimed his only motivations were revenge and guilt. A number of the songs use military images, including Hitler, as a metaphor for love gone wrong (while others are merely political). It should sound dated, what with all the quirky New Wave touches, but it doesn't.
7.) Trust (1981): The least cohesive of his early records, "Trust" abandons the genre-specific approach of "Get Happy" in favor of opening up the possibilities of sound to everything from screaming psycho-billy ("Luxembourg") to hardcore country ("Different Finger"), from the Johnny Otis Show approach of "Lover's Walk" to the detective-watching drama of "Shot With His Own Gun." Glenn Tilbrook takes a holiday from Squeeze to share a vocal, and it ends with a spooky Jamaican dub vibe (and the backward accordion that entails — if you're Costello, anyway). Most numbers, though, find Elvis well along the road to "Imperial Bedroom," but rocking you through the sophistication, from the cocktail-pop of "Clubland" to the sparse and soulful "New Lace Sleeves," which features the immortal line, "Good manners and bad breath will get you nowhere."
8.) When I Was Cruel (2002): This album rocks, with two Attractions — the two you'd imagine, not Bruce Thomas — joining Elvis in a bid to recapture the rage and glory of a misspent, brutal youth while resigning himself to the fact that it was "so much easier when I was cruel." Costello's guitar rages almost as much as his vocals on cuts as explosive as "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" and "Dissolve." And even when he pumps it down on "Tart" and "Alibi" to show you what a master of the modern ballad he's become, his voice is fueled by an intensity he hasn't shown in years. But just when you're feeling nostalgic, this year's model works a modern street, from "Spooky Girlfriend," with its jazz-noir ambience, to a title cut that loops a sampled Italian pop recording from the '60s only to sound, in the end, like a cross between the tried-and-true spaghetti western vibe of "Watching the Detectives" and "I Want You."
9.) King of America (1986): Elvis joins the roots-rock revolution with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos chiming in on "Loveable" and some ringers whose previous gigs included working with another Elvis (Jerry Scheff, James Burton) at his back. Produced by the man who eventually gave you American Music for Dummies — also known as "O Brother Where Art Thou" — you could say it rocks in places ("Glitter Gulch," in particular), but this is Elvis at his most adult-alternative. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Not always, anyway.
10.) Brutal Youth (1994): In writing the liner notes to the recent reissue on Rhino, Elvis goes to great lengths to dismiss the Attractions reunion hype that surrounded the album's release. But I say trust the art. With Nick Lowe's presence adding to the back-to-basics hype, it sounds like an Attractions album, fueled by what was easily the most inspired playing to have graced a Costello recording in years, from cuts that rock with the infectious charge of "Pony St." or "13 Steps Lead Down" to tender turns that wouldn't even think of rocking. That's what made it so exciting at the time. Well, that and the writing, of course, from the baroque-pop charms of "This is Hell" to the out-of-nowhere soul falsetto that lifts the bridge of "Clown Strike."
11.) Almost Blue (1981): Elvis as a Nashville karaoke fiend, produced by Billy Sherrill and leaving his mark on songs made famous by the likes of Patsy Cline, George Jones and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The Attractions kick it off in raucous fashion with a rockabilly treatment of Hank Williams' great "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)" and take a detour through the swamp with the Rock and Roll Trio's "Honey Hush," but there are far more ballads here than rockers, and Costello does them all with style and passion.
12.) Live at the El Mocambo (1978): Captured live with the Attractions at their hungriest, this widely-bootlegged, promotional-only Canadian album with horrible sound was recorded for radio broadcast at a packed club in Toronto shortly before the release of This Year's Model. A ferocious explosion of sound, it features impassioned if trashy performances of "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," "You Belong to Me" and other This Year's Model classics while offering fans a taste of what the first one would have sounded like with the Attractions in for Clover.