Uncut, January 2003

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Armed Forces / Imperial Bedroom / Mighty Like A Rose

Nick Hasted

The pop one, the baroque one, and the maligned one: third batch of themed reissues, each with a CD's worth of extras

Two ideas seem to connect these albums: production and fascism, emotional or otherwise. Armed Forces (1979) was Costello's commercial peak, the home of "Accidents Will Happen" and "Oliver's Army," the latter still sounding like a natural anthem for "the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne", despite or because of the Northern Irish unease that inspired it. Costello's sleevenotes reveal the tour infidelities and numb celebrity that fuelled the (self-)disgust in his work at this time, as much as the violence and creeping fascism of late-'70s Britain. He's right, though, to now note his "mistake" in equating the two too heavily (the lyrics mention "lampshades" and "final solutions"), and first attempts at sonic sophistication don't disguise Costello's most simplistic yet superficially enjoyable early album.

The Geoff Emerick-produced Imperial Bedroom (1982) is the one where musical ambition and emotional force combined. It was hailed as his best to date; today, starved of such Sgt Pepper-style richness, its baroque majesty still thrills. "Man Out Of Time" sums up a shabby kind of British political disgrace — it was also, Costello reveals, about his collapsing, deception-riddled marriage. Elegant, expansive, knotted with concealed emotional conflict, exciting, beautiful — more like this, please. Mighty Like A Rose (1991) is Imperial Bedroom's even more ambitious sequel, the quasi-classical arrangements and most of the Attractions giving weight to songs now divided between those addressing disappointed love and those criticising our obsession with celebrity and consumer culture. You might not be able to tell, but this is Costello's angriest record. You also get some fascinating chamber-synth demos and an excellent unreleased track.

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Uncut, No. 68, January 2003

Nick Hasted reviews reissues of Armed Forces, Imperial Bedroom and Mighty Like A Rose.

Reader Stuart Bishop applauds featuring Mighty Like A Rose in the Nov. "All Time Classics."


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EC does it

Stuart Bishop, via email

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I'm writing to say thank you, thank you, thank you for November's "All Time Classics" on Costello's Mighty Like A Rose. This was the first album since my teens that I played to the point of wearing out, and it was a joy to finally see someone break with the apparently universal view among music journalists that EC is either playing' with The Attractions and he's great, or he's not playing with The Attractions and he's crap.

It seems almost unique to Elvis Costello that, where any other musician would be criticised for rehashing the same material over and over again, that is exactly what the critics want him to do. Yes, the early stuff is good, but Mighty seemed to mark the point where he said "sod it" and started to explore everything that interested him.

Unfortunately, Nick Hasted still used the article to have a go at the Brodsky/von Otter/ Bacharach collaborations. These all have their merits, and even when Costello over-reaches himself there is much to admire in the way he follows his muse. Get Happy!! was a long time ago — his early albums are a superb part of his body of work, but let's applaud one of those few brave souls who refuses to trade on his reputation, and instead makes the music that he wants to.

Photo by Keith Morris.
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