The Word, August 2004

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The Word

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Elvis Costello

Four eyes, one vision and a bewildering variety of ways of expressing it. Where to start and where to proceed carefully

The Word

Declan MacManus aka The Impostor aka The Little Hands Of Concrete aka Elvis Costello was born in Paddington in 1954 but his formative years — secondary school, puberty, girls, exams, bad jobs — were spent in Liverpool. And some would say that you can hear Lennon and McCartney perched on either shoulder. At his best, Costello has McCartney’s effortless technical facility with a pop song, something of that easy way with a melody and middle eight. But he also has Lennon’s stinging energy curled lip and cultivated sneer. He’s a bundle of contradictions: a spiky romantic and a luscious cynic, an avenging nerd who mixes easily with the beautiful people, a sociopath who can break your heart with a well placed minor seventh. His back catalogue is vast and sometimes treacherous but, with care, navigable.

Every Home Should Have...

Imperial Bedroom

His broadest canvas, his architectural tour de force, his magnum opus; more to the point, his best long player. Imperial Bedroom (1982) was produced by Beatle engineer Geoff Emerick and you can hear the gleaming self-confidence and grand orchestral gestures of Abbey Road here plus much else besides. Bolstered by some of keyboardist Steve Nieve’s most accomplished settings, Costello seems liberated from grouchdom and his talent new-minted. These are the best songs of his career — "Man Out Of Time," "Beyond Belief," "The Loved Ones" to name but three — and refreshingly free of all misanthropy and bad punning. Serious but not dull, poppy but not silly. This is his masterpiece.

Get Happy!!

Elvis the Soul man. And the Merseybeat man. And the R&B and the Brill Building and the Ska man. Get Happy!! (1980) is on one level a kaleidoscopic homage to pop’s golden age from a man who doesn’t have to worry about his punk cred anymore. But it transcends show-band revivalism by the sheer energy and brio of the Attractions’ performances and the terrific material on offer. The long, joyous song sequence starting with "King Horse" and ending with New Amsterdam evokes side two of Abbey Road, interesting in view of what was to follow reasonably shortly with Imperial Bedroom. And let’s hear it for Nick Lowe and Roger Bechirian’s production and engineering; scratchy- boomy and thus as convincingly “period” as that coffee cup ring on the cover.

This Year's Model

Peering out from behind his camera tripod like an unsuccessful bed-sit pornographer — or possibly a dyspeptic owl — the sleeve of this 1978 album sets the tone for the angriest, cleverest, most overwrought album to emerge from the late ‘70s new wave. Costello is the creative turbine of course but the real revolutionary leap from its predecessor My Aim Is True is Costello’s new band The Attractions, Bruce and Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve. They bring the outings of the time; peppy, knowing homages to ‘6os garage pop, all reedy Farfisas, clipped guitars and finger-snapping amphetamine beats. And though Costello’s songs have none of Blondie’s girlish sense of fun, their bristling scorn and sardonic wit are just as compelling.

Fans Only

King Of America

A sober, adult collection laden with regret, this 1986 record went some way towards repairing the damage done by the awful Goodbye Cruel World and the sorely misunderstood Almost Blue. T-Bone Burnett’s production adds authentic gloss to a record that is much more Hank Williams and John Prine than Eater or Slaughter And The Dogs. In fact, this was the clearest indication yet that Costello saw himself squarely in the venerable traditions of American song rather than as a punk survivor. The cover shot was also the first of many terrible fashion decisions over the next decade.

Armed Forces

An Abba infatuation — most evident on "Oliver's Army" — resulted in this 1979 album rich in craftsmanship and melodic filigree. Except of course that Bjorn and Benny wouldn’t have considered calling it Emotional Fascism or written songs like "Goon Squad" and "Senior Service," withering attacks on every form of boys club from rugger buggers to office workers. Elsewhere there are great torch songs ("Accidents Will Happen," "Chemistry Class").

Trust

Trust (1981) is perhaps the most under-rated album in the whole Costello Canon. If it isn’t quite as sublime as Imperial Bedroom, it has the same sweeping ambition on perhaps a slightly more limited scale and budget. There’s high drama in "Shot With His Own Gun" and "New Lace Sleeves," taut workouts like "Strict Time," "Lovers Walk" and "Watch Your Step" and only a couple of clunkers like "From A Whisper To A Scream."

Punch The Clock

Praised to the skies on its release in 1983, this has never been as good as some critics like to think. Indeed, the grafting on of the horn section and Muscle Shoals swagger are no more convincing than Spandau Ballet’s contemporaneous attempts at the same. But if you can ignore the Dexys posturing and lines about “two weeks holiday in Taramasalata” and dwell instead on "Shipbuilding," "Every Day l Write The Book" and their ilk, this is a sturdy, if dated, set.

Almost Blue

Costello goes country and a generation learns to stop worrying and love Merle Haggard. In 1981, in the era of eyeliner and Korg keyboards, prejudices against country were so entrenched that Costello, or more likely the record company, actually whacked a sticker on this covers album warning “this album contains country and western music and may cause extreme reaction in narrow-minded people”. They needn’t have worried. Costello’s take on the genre is delightful and this is one of his easiest records to like with its rollicking good humour and tender ballads and by far the best of his many covers projects.

My Aim Is True

Costello’s 1977 debut collection isn’t his best work. The stale whiff of pub rock clings to the arrangements like the aroma of best bitter on a bar towel and the work of pick-up band Clover is anonymously competent. But the overall effect is still electrifying by sheer force of vinegary personality Costello emerges from the ferment of punk like a barbed Dylan (or more accurately like a raging, talented, embittered computer operator) with a quiver of songs about jealousy, fascists, the nine to five and sexual dysfunction. If it had only contained "Alison" and "Watching The Detectives," its fame would be assured.

Collectors Only

Blood And Chocolate

Coming within a year of the mature weight of King Of America, B&C (1986) was seen as something of a return to the acidic vigour of his punk laureate phase. Reunited with the Attractions and Nick Lowe, there’s certainly a bitter and steely rage about performances like "Tokyo Storm Warning" and "I Hope You’re Happy Now."

Brutal Youth

Seemingly wearying of his status as pan-musical statesman and perhaps aware that he might be taxing his fanbase’s patience, Costello decided in 1994 to patch things up with the Attractions and record a power pop album produced by Mitchell Froom. Brutal Youth felt like a bracing swig of sourly fizzy pop after the posh plonk that had become his vintage.

Juliet Letters

Yes, it’s a collection of tricksy story songs from 1993, written for and with a string quartet without a lick, riff or paradiddle in earshot. But don’t let that put you off. Commercial suicide has rarely sounded so sweet. Costello over-emotes and showboats like Mariah Carey but that’s a tendency that’s dogged most of his post-1985 work. At least here the over-ripe delivery is leavened by charming musical settings. You’d be mad to start here. But it’s a good place to end.

Painted From Memory

EC clearly has an address book to die for. He’s sung with most of them too. This 1999 venture with Burt Bacharach is the best of his many collaborative ventures. It’s built around the glorious torch song "God Give Me Strength" that the pair of them wrote for Alison Anders’s movie Grace Of My Heart. Like the film, the record drips with nostalgia and reverence for the Brill Building era, for Carole King and Dionne Warwick and a lost Camelot of pop.

Completists

Like Prince, Costello is one of those performers who remind you that prolific is not necessarily a compliment. For one thing, and to be fair this may not be his fault, there are far too many compilations so that the good like Taking Liberties are obscured by the dreary like The Man and Girls Girls Girls. As far as “proper” endeavours go, Goodbye Cruel World was his first real false move and Spike and Mighty Like A Rose should he avoided by anyone not doing a PhD in cussedness. His two most recent works When I Was Cruel and North are similarly problematic though for different reasons, the first is ragged, the second one-dimensional, an extended padded-heart valentine to new partner Diana Krall that will have you checking your watch frequently. All This Useless Beauty is EC’s score-settling stab at the songs he has written for others whilst Kojak Variety is a pointless covers album.

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The Word, No 18, August 2004


Word magazine's guide to Elvis Costello recordings.

Images

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Page scans.

2004-08-00 Word cover.jpg
Cover.

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