On Second Thought
Elvis Costello - Trust
For better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Trust is the most underrated of Elvis Costello's albums. It is certainly a stylistic mess and not a self-indulgent one (like Spike or Mighty Like A Rose ) but one that, as Tony Clayton-Lea notes, "highlighted his growing concern with being pigeonholed". Trust finds Elvis embracing the various styles he had only previously hinted at. The inside sleeve even pictures Costello and The Attractions as a big band.
"Clubland" is a natural progression from Get Happy!!, a soul-pop song with typically biting Costello lyrics. "Lovers Walk" the second song, is where Costello surprises his audience. The song features a Bo Diddly-drumbeat and some of Costello's more honest, personal lyrics. In fact, most of these songs, while still relying on wordplay, are more direct lyrically, than any other songs Costello had written. He still manages to pull out all the stops musically, with the rockabilly of "Watch Your Step", the country-pop of "Different Finger" and the new wave rock and roll of "From A Whisper To a Scream" (which features Squeeze). Interestingly enough, Costello wrote a number of these songs when he was 17, and as he notes in the My Aim is True liner notes (regarding the bonus material on that album) at that time he was taking a number of heavy cues from American songwriters. These songs are not Costello's most original, the aforementioned Bo Diddlyisms of "Lovers Walk" and "Different Finger" sound a bit too much like an old Hank Cochran countrypolitan composition. However, this does not hinder the arresting likability of the record. Because Costello is less vitriolic and more playful musically, the album can be viewed as the first fun, light album he made. Even though, at times, the mood can get heavy (he ventures into almost Brecht/Weillian levels of melodrama on "Shot With His Own Gun"), it is impossible to take him too seriously. That is not to say that Costello is joking around, but just that this is the first Costello album I would reach for after a good date or on a Sunday afternoon.
With Get Happy!! and Trust Costello made the two biggest steps in his career. He stepped out of new wave and defined himself as a singer/songwriter. He showed his audience that he could work in almost every genre there is and still craft personal, meaningful lyrical vignettes. Trust was the end of the beginning of Costello's career.
Elvis Costello - King of America
After the dreadful, hopeless Goodbye Cruel World, many people expected Elvis Costello’s next effort to be a pained, ultra-personal affair. But King of America is precisely the opposite. Here, Costello sounds genuinely joyful. There is not an album in his catalog in which EC sounds as jubilant as he does on this record.
Like with all his other releases, the first song, this time “Brilliant Mistake”, perfectly sets the tone and eases (or, in some cases, shocks) the listener into Costello’s stylistic choice for that release. On this one, we are introduced to the straight-forward, gentle Costello. Almost like “Simple Twist of Fate”, the song switches from third-person character study to first-person narrative in the last third.
“Loveable” could be maudlin and sappy (“They say they’re gonna bury you/because you’re so loveable” ), but coming from Costello, it’s a nice change-of-pace. Elvis and Cait O’Riordan (his then-fiance and the song’s co-writer) manage to communicate their happiness with their relationship, as well as Elvis own communication of his dissatisfaction in the past.
Costello missteps with his boring version of “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, which was, perhaps, a pointed message to journalists and fans who got caught up in the drama of the Elvis Costello image that he was so desperately trying to shed. The album’s other cover, “Eisenhower Blues”, is also a disappointment.
“Our Little Angel”, “Glitter Gulch”, “Indoor Fireworks” and “Little Palaces” are all pleasant songs but not very memorable. With each song on the album soaked in a different kind of Americana, the record feels like a kinder, more laid-back Trust.
“I’ll Wear It Proudly” is a bit too self-righteous and silly (“If they had a King of Fools then I could wear the crown/And you can all die laughing/’Cos I’ll wear it proudly”). The song trades in the insight and awareness of his earlier tirades for a self-absorbed, whiny lash at his detractors.
The accordian-based “American Without Tears” is the albums final highlight. The song is a perfect example of Costello’s more compassionate musical and lyrical style. Unfortunately, the rest of the second side falls into the nice-but-uninteresting camp.
While it was an important step in Costello’s career, like Punch The Clock, King of America is a fun album that is packed with filler. As a Costello fan, it’s nice to hear him enjoying himself and fully fleshing-out his taste for early-American music, but for the uninitiated, it’s not an album to seek out.
Elvis Costello - Mighty Like A Rose
It’s strange to be reviewing Mighty Like A Rose; the album was reviled by critics upon its release. In response, Costello directed his anger towards the rock press. He questioned whether or not critics knew what they were doing: and explained that the album was just misunderstood. Misunderstood or not, the album is dreadful- a sorry, decadent affair created by an old man out of ideas.
“The Other Side of Summer” opens the album; a musical and lyrical satire of the Beach Boys, with parody on par with Cracked magazine at its finest. Costello enlightens the listener that, yes, the summer is not pure. Along the way he shines a light on suburbia, taking aim at hypocrites with his poison blow darts of wit, penning such lines as: “Was it a millionaire who said ‘imagine no possessions’?” “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)” brings the album to it’s lowest low. Easily the worst EC ever recorded, “Hurry Down...” is a stain on Costello’s career. Even the tremolo guitar, “the bad guitar player’s best friend” as Elvis describes it, cannot save the clunky, irritating music and offensively stupid apocalyptic lyrics.
After these first two atrocities, the album takes a turn toward the bland. The remaining songs blend together as one boring fifty-minute composition. While on Spike, Costello’s over-arrangement and the over-production marred once-good songs, on Mighty Like A Rose, the production and arrangement attempt to cover-up songs that were never any good. As on its predecessor, the album’s highlights are the two songs co-written by Paul McCartney. Both “So Like Candy” and “Playboy To A Man” are reminiscences of a once-lush life and both garner the most emotive vocal performances on an album filled with monotone delivery.
Mighty Like A Rose haunts the used-CD section of many American record shops (it was received much more favorably in Britain) and few fans speak favorably of the album. Costello himself ranks the album on the shortlist of his greatest works and blames its failure on the inability of fans to cope with his image change. At the time of the album’s release, Elvis sported a pseudo-late 60s, “serious artist” look- long scraggly hair and rather unappealing facial hair. Also, as on many of his late-80s albums, the lyrics were happier, less bitter, marking what NME called the change from “Mr. Horribly Marred to Mr. Happily Married.” Truly, what fans had trouble accepting was the change from brilliant lyricist and melody-writer to self-righteous, pretentious, MOR “composer.” Any Elvis Costello collection is complete without Mighty Like A Rose.
Elvis Costello - Kojak Variety
At the end of every year, The Onion publishes a list of the least essential records of the year. Kojak Variety would have fit nicely on the 1995 edition of the list. On Almost Blue Elvis attempted twelve country covers, while here he presents a set of fifteen interpretations in a variety of genres.
It is disconcerting to hear Elvis sing the first two songs on the record, “Strange” and “Hidden Charms”, which, in their original forms, were sung by scratchy-voiced black men, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Willie Dixon respectively. “Strange” is one of the strongest on the record. Many of the album’s vocal performances lack emotion, Costello fares best with the fun, raucous songs and of these, “Strange” is the best. “Hidden Charms”, however, represents one of the worst aspects of the record. Many of the songs just sound too slick. While the idea of the record is Elvis-as-crooner, and many of the songs are supposed to sound slick, the sound just doesn’t take on “Hidden Charms.” Part of the, uh, charm of the original and Howlin’ Wolf version is the gritty vocal. Another song that suffers due to Elvis’s unemotional vocal performance is Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away.” The song just doesn’t cut it as light blues-pop.
Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” is one of the few sad songs wherein Elvis captures the true emotion. The version, of course, doesn’t stand up to Allison’s or, even, James Brown’s. This is the album’s biggest problem. There is not one song that comes even close to the quality of the originals, and while, at least, Costello arranges the songs in a new way, he doesn’t make it interesting enough to keep you listening. Listening to his “Running Out Of Fools”, which is one of his better interpretations, just makes me want to pull out the Aretha Franklin or the Neko Case versions.
The second half of the album ventures into clean contained blues-rock, which doesn’t stay very interesting. His “Pouring Water On A Drowning Man” is one-tenth as emotional as the James Carr original. Little Richard’s “Bama Lama Bama Loo” just sounds silly coming from Elvis.
A cover of the Kinks’ Village Green-era single “Days” provides a satisfactory closing. The arrangement is more inventive than any of the others on the album, and the song is one of the few in Costello’s range.
What can be said for the record is that it genuinely showcases Elvis love of music. He makes it clear that he adores each of these songs. But like Almost Blue his interpretations are ill advised. If nothing else, the album is a nice artifact for the rabid Costello fan. It offers insight into his influences and will open the listener to the superior versions of the songs.