Q, September 2007

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Elvis Costello

His first 11 albums. Great songs, stinkers, self-loathing and all.

Garry Mulholland

My Aim Is True ★★★ This Year's Model***** Classic Armed Forces***** Classic Get Happy!! ★★★★ Recommends Trust ★★★ Almost Blue Star full.svgStar full.svg Imperial Bedroom ★★★★ Recommends Punch The Clock Star full.svgStar full.svg Goodbye Cruel World Star full.svg King Of America ★★★★ Recommends Blood & Chocolate ★★★★ Recommends

When asked in 1977 what motivated his art, Elvis Costello replied, "revenge and guilt." The former Declan MacManus, who had taken his stage name from Presley and combined it with his mothers' maiden name, already seethed with grudges by the time he exploded onto 1977's music scene.

He was a London-born, Liverpool-raised 22-year-old stick insect in NHS specs who reeked of self-loathing. The reissue of his first 11 albums, spanning the period 1977/86, recall how the most prodigiously talented songwriter of his generation vented his anger over a sound that gradually absorbed a madly eclectic range of music. Reggae, country, soul, blues and garage rock, all underpinned by a Beatles-derived pop classicism, merged with bitter lyrics, presented Costello as punk's muso intellectual.

By the time his debut, My Aim Is True was released, Costello was married with a child and had toured the toilets of Britain with ignored folk-rockers Flip City. Even though the album was noticeably produced by pub rock figurehead Nick Lowe, the aggression in Costello's voice and the sharp excellence of his best songs shone through. The ballad Alison proved particularly revealing, unveiling an obsession with male jealousy: "I don't know if you've been loving somebody/I only know it isn't mine."

Costello's Buddy Holly-on-speed appearance made him the brand leader of "new wave", the first batch of bands that surfed in after punk. Buoyed by his next-big-thing status and the recruitment of his great backing band The Attractions - the unrelated Pete and Bruce Thomas on drums and bass, keyboardist Steve Nieve - Costello made the album that defined him, '78's This Year's Model. An intense meld of lyrical eloquence and pure high energy rock'n'roll, it took Costello Top 5 in the UK and Top 30 in the States.

This Year's Model and the following year's Armed Forces - in which Costello designed a concept album about "emotional fascism" over lush pop modelled on ABBA - remain the highpoints of Costello's career. Armed Forces' lead single, Oliver's Army, smuggled a lyric about the history of working-class men as wartime cannon fodder onto 1979's prettiest daytime radio melody, narrowly missing out on the UK Number 1 spot. The artistic and commercial roll that continued with 1980's Get Happy!!, which crammed in 20 soul-influenced songs in 50 minutes. New Amsterdam and High Fidelity are the equal of his best songs, but Get Happy!! 's retro mood mean it's often overlooked.

1981 say two contrasting long-players and the beginnings of commercial decline. Trust was all over the place stylistically, veering from the pure country of Different Finger, through From A Whisper To A Scream's pub-rock to the classical experiment, Shot With His Own Gun. It was the first Costello album that smacked of self-indulgence. Then, in a year when British pop was going synthetic, Costello decamped to Nashville and made an album of country and western covers. Almost Blue now sounds too clinical to truly convince, but it introduced Gram Parsons, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline to a new generation. Produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, '82's Imperial Bedroom was a beautiful attempt to make a baroque-pop masterpiece in the tradition of Pet Sounds. But the commercial failure of singles You Little Fool and Man Out Of Time revealed that Costello had lost his pop audience.

His response was artistic confusion. '83's Punch The Clock and '84's Goodbye Cruel World saw The Attractions pushed into the background, as Costello hired Madness producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley to revive his fortunes. Punch The Clock tried horns and backing singers. Goodbye Cruel World went for guest vocals from Daryl Hall and cheesy sax. Costello sounded lost. He found himself in Los Angeles, among the great and the good of American session rock.

Here he's hit upon a prophecy of his future career. The former punk turned master craftsman, who would eventually collaborate with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, found himself teaming up with roots-rock producer T-Bone Burnett for '86's King Of America. Naming the project The Costello Show, he went for the emotional jugular with a set of songs about exile and loss, set among elegant country, blues and folk tunes.

Released seven months after King Of America, Blood & Chocolate reunited Costello with The Attractions, creating a more musically accomplished sound. Ferocious and grungy, it produced a song that summed up Costello's take on the battle of the sexes. I Want You is slow and ominous, Costello obsessing over and unfaithful partner. "Did you call his name out when he held you down?" he asked in a voice sick with impending violence.

I Want You is the reason why someone who matched the critical acclaim of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen has not had their influence on a new generation of songwriters. Costello’s viewpoint was too specific to ape convincingly. He had a gift for songwriting craft, but he also had a one-off talent for turning self-loathing into poetry or comedy, and delivering it with conviction. These 11 albums prove that no one – not even Costello – could follow his singular path.


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Q, No. 254, September 2007


Garry Mulholland recaps Elvis Costello's first 11 albums.

Images

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Page scans.

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Cover and gatefold.

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