Smart, snide lyrics seem out of vogue now (let's blame it on September 11 — it's taken the rap for everything else), but Costello's back catalogue proves the text of a piece of music is as crucial to its longevity as the sound. Score one to content over style, perhaps. He was the bitter bard of the punk era, with 1978's This Year's Model, his second album, articulating a generation's ire every bit as caustically as the Pistols' gigantic guitars. Others smashed things up; he sneered with a sarcasm just as damning to its targets.
That album, his first with The Attractions, boasted many of the career-breaking hits. "Pump It Up" exploited a visceral stomp, "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea" revelled in intricate, flashy word games, and "Radio, Radio" (which wasn't on the original vinyl release), a piss-take of the airwaves, naturally, given the transatlantic irony lag, brought him lots of US airplay. The subversive stabs of "Lipstick Vogue" and underlying soul colouring "Little Triggers" and "Big Tears" have also survived as spleen-venting standards. Writing in Melody Maker that year, Allan Jones recognised the record as "so comprehensive, so inspired, that it exhausts superlatives." Even if some of us couldn't at first, see past the wilfully nerdy persona, the cutting couplets were planting demon seeds.
Like all these reissues, This Year's Model appears as a double, the second set gathering live versions, demos, B-sides and so on. A "Green Shirt" demo is clammily intense, and, in the 28-page booklet, Costello documents this breakthrough period. "I never understood the accusations of misogyny. Clearly [the lyrics] contained more sense of disappointment than disgust."
Blood & Chocolate closely followed King Of America in 1986, but was more minimal and raw. It marked an overdue if prickly reunion with The Attractions and key producer Nick Lowe. In the notes, Costello slags off his singing — "gasping for breath" — but given that the stand-out songs are about "a man driven insane by love," the emotive overspill is entirely fitting. "The intimate, if not pornographic, tone was typical of my mood at this time." He has to be talking about "I Want You," though the epic rush of "Tokyo Storm Warning" is just as essential to this dark work. The bonus disc includes a cover of Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone," which the singer now feels should have made the original cut, as well as some mean (in every sense) solo acoustic performances.
Brutal Youth (1994) marked another of Costello's sporadic truces with The Attractions and Lowe, though it was co-produced by Mitchell Froom. It was a prolific time for the songwriter, who'd been hyperactively collaborating with everyone from The Brodsky Quartet to Wendy James. For the latter, he'd written "10 trashy pop songs in a weekend." For Brutal Youth, he reveals, he managed a mere six "outlines" in a day. Even then, Lowe told him there were "too many damn chords." The album leaps with consummate versatility from rasping rock ("Kinder Murder," "13 Steps Lead Down") to murky ballads ("Just About Glad," "Sulky Girl"), and is possibly the only non-heavy metal record to deploy the word 'knickers' in two different songs. Extras include "Idiophone" (the album's working title), multiple alternative versions, and "A Drunken Man's Praise."
Costello accidentally (perhaps) praises his output most accurately in writing now: "This isn't confession, this is pop music. Full of bravado and fallibility."
Music made by a human with a personality. it used to be all the rage.