Those of you who have ever picked up an anthology of "rare releases and B-sides" of a favourite artist are probably quite familiar with the limited appeal of a lot of these records. It's usually a tell-tale sign that a record company has exhausted their supply of new music from the artist and are attempting to squeeze a couple more bucks from the public. To make matters worse these records usually consist of nothing more than musical flatulence punctuated by a catchy hook or two and feature the sound recording quality of a good bootleg. So when one of these suckers comes along which sets the toes a-tappin' and raises some eyebrows, those of us with an interest in the artist can snare an entertaining little curio to further adorn our record collections. However, when an anthology of work comes along which defines the rules by which an artist plays and then challenges us as listeners, we then have something of a musical milestone. Elvis Costello's Out Of Our Idiot is such a milestone.
Costello arrived on the international music scene in the late seventies riding the crest of what is liberally referred to as New Wave.
Clutching a battered guitar and resembling an anemic Buddy Holly, Costello poured forth a stinging post-punk commentary on sexual politics on his debut album My Aim Is True. The music on that disc was spirited and driven, with his back up band, The Attractions, proving themselves to be formidable foils for their leaders' verbose excursions into his emotional heart of darkness. But it was Costello's talent as a wordsmith which had the critics and fans talking. His images of romantic disharmony and cruel, hidden secrets quickly earned him a reputation as England's Angry Young Man in residence.
Over the past decade, Costello has undergone a staggering evolution as a musician; while his themes have remained constant, he has proven himself an incredibly prolific writer and a master of many styles. Out Of Our Idiot offers a sampling of all those styles, recorded while in the midst of that exploration and with those artists who were there with him. The albums' earliest song, "So Young," was recorded (at gunpoint, say the liner notes) in 1979, while an updated version of "Big Chair," from the ultra-raw Blood And Chocolate of 1987, was recorded just last September. With the accompanying fifteen songs falling chronologically between the two, we are treated to a veritable smorgasbord of tunes, as varied and as numerous as Costello's adopted aliases.
The first track on the record is also probably the best known: "Seven Day Weekend" is the bouncy yet definitely repetitive theme song to the ill-fated film Club Paradise. Reggae star Jimmy Cliff offers some nice harmonies in the chorus but Cliff's voice, more accustomed to the upper registers of reggae, is no match for Costello's full throttled vocal assault. Not a bad song really, just not up to par for the rest of this album.
Numbers like "Turning The Town Red" and "Heathen Town" left me wondering how these songs were passed over for appearances on albums. "Heathen Town" in particular is chock full of the melodic hooks and lyrical dexterity prevalent in Costello's best work. The song sounds as if it was lifted directly from 1984's Goodbye Cruel World with its muted tones and strings accompaniment.
"Peoples Limousine" is a country thumper reminiscent of a couple of numbers on King Of America. Costello's flirtation with country has provided some surprising results; utilizing stock country riffs, he has imposed his intricate wordplay on the music, resulting in an interesting hybrid.
"So Young" features a bass line straight from the Specials to propel the song forward. Recorded around the time of Armed Forces, Costello sounds a little like his vocals are the product of a sort of verbal constipation; you can almost hear him sneer as he tries to let the lyrics escape. Unlike other numbers on Out Of Our Idiot which have appeared on various B-sides, "So Young" is previously unreleased and gives us a glimpse of Costello operating in one of the few genres he has not explored extensively: reggae. The result is an engaging little number which, by means of its relatively light lyricism, represents a bit of a departure for a gentleman infrequently billed as Little Hands of Concrete.
The album also features an array of cover versions ranging from a quirky version of Yoko Ono's "Walking On Thin Ice" to the country ballad, "Find Yourself Another Fool." The sentimental favourite, however, is a terrific version of "Baby It's You" which is lovingly faithful to the Beatles rendition in its beauty and restraint. Longtime friend and boozehound incarnate, Nick Lowe, provides a reedy vocal counterpoint to Costello's unusually tender singing. When Costello reaches the chorus and lets out the line "Can't help myself...'cause Baby It's You" we can catch a glimpse of Costello expressing a little unabated sincerity.
If Costello treats the songs of other writers with a certain amount of reverence, it is in direct contrast to the irreverence he displays towards his own compositions. "American Without Tears No. 2" is a gritty sequel to its warmly lit, charming precursor which appeared on King Of America. The harmonica imposes itself ruthlessly on a disturbing ballad rife with images of disenchantment and alienation. Costello has never balked at the idea of completely overhauling a number stylistically in his search for greater musical thrills. "Blue Chair" is an interesting but harsh treatment of one of my personal favourites. The song works best as a smug, melodic monologue not as a contrived shout and answer number.
Side Two's "Imperial Bedroom" is a fantastic little number that belies the cluttered classicism of Costello's work when recording the album of the same name in 1982. The song was most likely intended to appear on the Imperial Bedroom album but was perhaps thought a little trite given the blistering cynicism prevalent on that record.
Out Of Our Idiot is available only as an import and is incredibly difficult to get hold of but for anyone remotely interested in the man, I not only recommend, but insist that you grab a copy. Costello is too important an artist to allow this album to pass you by. I tell you what: come on up to the Cord offices and I'll lend you my copy!