Uncut, November 2001

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Brilliant mistakes

Peter Doggett

My Aim Is True*****
SpikeStar full.svgStar full.svg
All This Useless Beauty★★★★

Three reissues from Beloved Entertainer with extra tracks and copious sleeve-notes The golden rule of rock archaeology is that no-one is worse equipped to handle their catalogue than the artist. Allow a musician to control his history and he'll either fake it (McCartney), misread it (Springsteen) or bury it (Young). Most can't explain how they do what they do, and wouldn't want to if they could.

The exception is Elvis Costello, rock's most articulate chronicler of his own creativity. In the Nineties, he subjected his pre-1986 catalogue to ordeal by self-analysis, unearthing painful memories and embarrassing outtakes for each of his first 12 albums. Now the flagellation begins again, only this time the whip cuts deeper — longer sleeve-notes (more space for self-mocking anecdotes), a bonus disc of outtakes for each album (more exhibitions of creativity stalled or misdirected). He's become a snake consuming his own tail: soon he won't be able to write a song without penning an explanatory note to disembowel it.

Yet the benefits to his own psyche aside, this process is a boon to admirers and ambulance-chasers, accentuating both the strengths and weaknesses of his oeuvre. My Aim Is True — which adds vastly extended annotation to the previous reissue plus four extra tracks, among them a beautifully chaotic first shot at "No Action" — remains as classic a pop album as A Hard Day's Night or Parade. Costello's debt to his heroes, from Spector to The Band, may be easier to recognise than in 1977; so, too, is the self-confidence of his loser persona.

None of the virtues of that debut — brevity, precision, directness — survived on 1989's Spike. It was over-written (check the demo version of "Miss Macbeth" against the finished master), over-arranged (so filled with subtle touches that it was like being trapped in a wind-chimes store during a hurricane), over-sung, over-felt and over-long (the anti-Thatcher rant "Tramp The Dirt Down" seems to last longer than the Evil Empire itself). My Aim Is True created a new universe in 30 minutes; Spike drowned you in excruciating detail for an hour. For once, the bonus material is less a pleasure than a penance.

Almost wilfully uncommercial, Spike sabotaged Costello as a commercial force. Since then, it's taken hype to remind the world of his existence — an Attractions reunion, or the Bacharach collaboration. Ironically, both those projects pale alongside 1996's unheralded All This Useless Beauty, now extended to epic status with an extra disc of experiments as intriguing as the album itself. Costello unveiled the best singing of his career here, purring and insinuating where he'd once hectored and rasped. And though his songs lacked the cultural significance he'd assumed by right in the Eighties, they carried an internal truth that was more affecting. The final track, "I Want To Vanish", echoed "Riot Act" on Get Happy 16 years earlier as an artistic suicide note. Costello hasn't made an orthodox 'solo' album since, yet All This Useless Beauty proved that his aim could still be true. As Joni Mitchell once wrote: "The times you impress me most are the times when you don't try."

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Uncut, No. 54, November 2001

Peter Doggett reviews the Rhino re-issues of My Aim Is True, Spike and All This Useless Beauty.


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Photo by Pennie Smith.
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