On First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
I used to hate Elvis Costello. Everyone has their cast of musical heroes and villains, and somewhere around my tenth or eleventh time listening to My Aim Is True, I decided Elvis Costello belonged permanently in my black-hat category. Years spent reading about him in Rolling Stone had prepared me for a hyper-articulate, endlessly scornful agent provocateur brandishing pop hooks. What I found was a singer with a spectacularly unpleasant voice who proffered arch-sounding aphorisms in place of actual insights: “You never asked me what I wanted, you only asked me why / I never thought that so much trouble was restin' on my reply” sounds great, but strangely incomplete—what does it mean? It seemed as if I was missing the second half of what was probably a scintillating conversation.
The music left me similarly cold. Instead of gut-level pub rock, I heard a tidy, fussy band with the peculiarly British fetish for precision and dry, formalist reproduction. “No Dancing,” for instance, sounds more like a compendium of Brill Building songwriting techniques than a pop song. I tried multiple times to gain purchase on the record, but I kept sliding off its immaculate surfaces. Finally, frustrated, I called it off. I decided, based on this limited experience, that Elvis Costello fans were too in love with cleverness for its own sake.
Imbibing the fundamentalist punk-rock propaganda of Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me a few years later didn’t dispel this impression. In the febrile early days of the 1970s punk scene, Costello and David Bowie just came across like late-period interlopers that crashed the party and transformed all the wild behavior raging around them into little do’s-and-don’ts guidebooks. Costello’s ascension, it seemed to me, was the beginning of rock music’s last stage of creative codification by the intellectuals; thanks in part to him and those Buddy Holly-aping glasses, rock music was slowly becoming the province of the same kind of people who have kept jazz locked away in a dusty attic for the last thirty years.
I recently repeated this hyperventilating denunciation among friends, and it occurred to me that I literally didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about. Not being the kind of guy who likes to remain an ignorant blowhard, I decided to amass a beginner’s Elvis catalogue and give the man his fair listen. I started with This Year’s Model, progressing through Armed Forces, Get Happy!!, and Blood and Chocolate. For good measure, I threw in some later-period albums like The Delivery Man and When I Was Cruel plus some curiosities, like his My Flame Burns Blue album with the Budapest Metropole Orkest and The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet. Then I sat down and tried to absorb as much as I could.
The opening notes of This Year's Model show me what a difference the Attractions make. Pete Thomas’s tumbling and cascading drum fills, the omnipresent blare of the organ, and the perpetual-motion guitar conjure the image of a twitchy, paranoid, hyper-intelligent misanthrope spouting conspiracy theories a mile a minute—someone a lot like Elvis, in other words. Still, the band’s fanatical devotion to tidiness grows wearying over the course of a whole album. No slipped notes, guitar squeaks, or even lagging hi-hats: does the room have to be so airless? The cold efficiency of Armed Forces’s “Senior Service,” with its clipped rhythms, calls to my mind rows of marching, jackbooted troops.
The same goes for Costello; he sounds so...pinched. Even when he’s on an angry roll, such as on “Lipstick Vogue, his anger feels rigid, suppressed, delivered through tight lips. There is no catharsis in Elvis Costello’s music, only tension.
And then there’s that adenoidal bleat of his. This curious instrument, which calls to mind a haranguing Woody Allen monologue as often it does any rock and roll song, is best deployed as a cudgel against a larger enemy. “This Year’s Model,” for example, is a fine, sneering pisstake on the media’s objectification of starlets: “You’re hoping that she’s well-spoken cuz she’s this year’s girl / You want her broken with her eyes wide open cuz she’s this year’s girl.” Here, and elsewhere—the brutally frank breakup song “Hand In Hand,” the withering “Big Tears”—I can finally hear some of the thrilling, articulate anger that so many aging rock writers have rhapsodized about.
When he ventures beyond pent-up frustration and powerless anger, though, he simply sounds limited. “Alison,” perhaps his most emotionally open, honest tune, comes bearing so many distracting vocal tics that the song’s rising melody, which a straightforward reading by someone like, say, Stevie Wonder could fill with swelling warmth, just feels like more carping.
My favorite album of the several I collected is the slightly off-the-beaten-path Blood and Chocolate. I think it’s because the old goat loosens up, and allows himself to explore the nooks and crannies of his peculiar voice. He seems to have gained some emotional depth with age; his barbs have become sharper as they aim more for emotional honesty and become less elliptical. On “I Want You,” six riveting minutes of slow-burn guitar over which Costello explores the darker side of devotion, he seethes : “I want you / I want to hear that he pleases you more than I do / I want you / I might as well be useless for all it means to you.” Later, in the same song: “I want you / The truth can't hurt you, it’s just like the dark / It scares you witless / But in time you see things clear and stark.” That was the first Costello lyric to actually give me shivers. On “Battered Old Bird,” he sounds as emotionally open as I’ve ever heard him: singing about “a bottle of sweet sherry that everything redeems,” he sounds almost abandoned.
I will never love Elvis Costello; his music feels peculiarly joyless to me, the product of a prodigious intellect rather than the outpouring of a heart. I also recognize that this is completely subjective, and that others hear a world of passion and wisdom in his words. They are not wrong, and I am not right; I just don’t find any of my particular musical itches scratched when I listen to him. I respect his roving mind and his melodic gifts, and if I don’t see myself spending much time with this music past this assignment, I will at least stop making sweeping denouncements about his place in rock history at parties. That’s certainly good news for somebody.