Hot Press, September 1, 1999

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The Very Best Of Elvis Costello

Stuart Moorhouse

Rating: 10 / 12

This forty-two song, two CD compilation follows Costello's career from his 1977 debut album My Aim Is True, to his most recent solo hit, "She" from the Notting Hill soundtrack.

One of the most striking elements of Costello's songs has always been the scathing, precise social commentary of his lyrics. Never one to shirk away from issues, the early period of Costello's work sees him addressing topics from mercenary warfare ("Oliver's Army") to wife-beating ("Watching The Detectives").

It is a mark of his talent that these songs still sound strikingly relevant today. Check out "Clubland" for a cynical sussing of club-culture 15 years before Jarvis became "Sorted (For Es and Whizz)" or 1978's "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," a depiction of exploitative Warhol-style production of fashion models.

Musically as well as lyrically, Costello's considerable ability was quickly in evidence. From his debut My Aim Is True, "Watching The Detectives," with its dubby bass, fragmented guitar figures and skittering percussion, created a White reggae sound much imitated by The Police.

In 1978, with collaborator and producer Steve Nieve, Costello formed The Attractions (Steve Nieve - keyboards, Bruce Thomas - bass, and Pete Thomas - drums) for This Year's Model. In the process, a unique sound was created that was both restrained and innovative.

On the spunky pop of "Pump it Up," for example, The Attractions provide a dumb-ass punk three-chord riff and a Doors-esque organ sound as backdrop to Costello's rapid fire "Subterranean Homesick Blues" lyrics. Elsewhere The Attractions create accompaniments that are both beautiful and subtle ("Shipbuilding"), and swirly, frantic and poppy ("Lipstick Vogue").

Viewing this collection as a whole Costello's musical diversity is apparent. From the snarly, spiky pop on Armed Forces to the more laid-back calypso soul on tracks such as "Everyday I Write The Book" from 1983's Punch The Clock, Costello's music managed to evolve while staying true to a deeply rooted artistic vision.

Costello's work away from The Attractions, such as the critically overlooked but intriguing 1996 album with the Brodsky Quartet, All This Useless Beauty, displayed an imagination and taste much lacking during the time. Away from the security of The Attractions, Costello still created some excellent material, including "Brilliant Mistake," the track featured here from his 1986 album with T Bone Burnett, the superb King Of America.

While his solo outing from 1991, Mighty Like A Rose, was somewhat less than impressive, 1994 saw him reunited with The Attractions for Brutal Youth, a well received return to form. Costello manages to consistently sound contemporary while resisting the remix-one-stop-career-fix option, in favour of the discipline of hard work and strong songwriting.

While such "Best Of" collections can always be criticised for missing certain favourites ("Less Than Zero" is particularly conspicuous by its absence), this CD contains a vast array of classic tracks. It is an essential purchase.

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Hot Press, September 1, 1999

Stuart Moorhouse reviews The Very Best Of Elvis Costello.


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