Elvis Costello, My Musical Crush
(I wrote this for someone who wanted a crash course on Elvis Costello in the early 2000s. For Elvis’ 60th birthday, I thought I would publish it, warts and all.)
Most people who say they like Elvis probably don’t know more than a few of his early songs from the first two LPs, “My Aim is True” and “This Year’s Model” (the first with the Attractions). Songs from there such as “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” “Watching The Detectives,” “Alison,” “Radio, Radio” and “Pump it Up” were hot on college playlists for years, but like early Beatles songs or a diet of all okra, it loses its novelty when served all the time. I really got into Elvis in college, when I had a roommate who was a fan. His new LP was “Punch the Clock”, which produced the hit “Everyday I Write the Book” which cemented him as the literary darling of the pop-music scene in 1983.
I was initially captivated by believe it or not, his personality, as gleamed from MTV in the early 80s—a raw, angry quality as a young man. Those things still captivate today, but like the Beatles, (to whom I will make many comparisons in this screed) he was able to evolve, keeping those parts of him that were good (anger, sense of humor) but also develop as an artist. For instance, the songs on 2002′s “When I Was Cruel” are, in reality, as cruel and full of venom as anything on 1978′s “This Year’s Model,” only the tempos have slowed somewhat. Elvis has also distinguished himself from similar angry English singer-songwriters (Graham Parker, Joe Jackson) with his constant musical evolution and brilliant songwriting.
I love his voice. He was always able to play different characters in it, from the deep-throated revenge-hunter in “I’m Not Angry”, to the raspy, wistful “Boy with a Problem,” to the pleading serenade of “Taking My Life in Your Hands.” He was able to convey with his voice, anger, vengefulness, confusions, despair, heartbreak, wonder, sneering rebukes, resigned failure, winking lust, heartfelt passion, falling in love and pathetic need.
Unlike other colleagues of his, his songs are actual performances and his records are productions. Like the Beatles, he is able to infuse his records with themes of sound, vocal style and lyrical content. “Imperial Bedroom,” “Armed Forces” and “King of America” are three good examples.
An angry fan might listen to “Blood & Chocolate” while a happy one might listen to “Get Happy.” For the last year, in my effort to make fans of friends, I have produced several compilation CDs of Elvis for four different people—and they all contained different songs. That is a testimony to an artist who has a breadth and depth of work. His voice has also evolved as I have been a fan—with the greatest leap coming with his vocal training to sing the songs he wrote with the Brodsky Quartet on the “Juliet Letters.” All the singing he has done since that has been tremendously different in sound, and has lead him, I think, to write more difficult songs to sing (because he can pull them off). I would suggest that “Painted from Memory” is a direct outgrowth of this training, and it contains some of his most complex songs (on one of his records).
What I Love, Part One— The Songs & The Music
I love his non-stop desire to try everything. As an avid fan, he has challenged me to keep up with both his musical whims and challenges. Whether this means delving in to country music (“Almost Blue” and “King of America”) or Gospel (“That Day is Done” with the Fairfield Four), Classical (John Harle’s “Terror and Magnificence” and one could argue “The Juliet Letters” and “Il Sogno”), Jazz (Bill Frissell’s “Deep Dead Blue” and “The Sweetest Punch,”—Jazz Arrangements of “Painted from Memory) or any of the other things he has tried like the tribute albums he has performed on, (Mingus’ “Weird Nightmare”, Graham Parsons “The Return of the Grievous Angel, Van Morrison “No Prima Donnas” and more) I continue to try and follow. Some of the people he has been invited to pay tribute to (Arthur Alexander “Adios Amigo”) I had never even heard of, and so that was an exciting musical journey as well. Also, some of his collaborations with other artists continue to produce exciting results, such as his work with Brian Eno (a 70s wunderkind), Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, T-Bone Burnett, Roy Nathanson, Nick Lowe and The Jazz Passengers. Always I seek these records out and almost always I am rewarded.
In addition to the songs he contributes, the songs he covers on his own albums point to a ribald studying of music history. What other artist of today has covered songs by Cole Porter, Rogers & Hart, Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus, Yoko Ono and The Grateful Dead? In turn, his songs have been covered by a wide selection of serious artists across genres, such as Chet Baker, Roy Orbison, Sofie Van Otter, Paul McCartney, Ruben Blades, Johnny Cash and Diana Krall in what can only be seen as a confirmation of the power of his songwriting.
After examining the Costello musical oeuvre, you will conclude that he has chosen instrumentalists, instruments, arrangements and producers as carefully as he writes his lyrics. Whether it is the TKO horns on “Punch the Clock”, the Brodsky Quartet on “The Juliet Letters” and “I Want to Vanish”, Chet Baker’s trumpet on “Shipbuilding” or his acapella treatment of Van Morrison’s “Full Force Gale”, he finds the right sound to convey the song’s tone and message. He has also chosen engineers and producers wisely- especially Geoff Emerick for “Imperial Bedroom,” and “All This Useless Beauty”, who was previously known as man who engineered “Abbey Road” for the Beatles.
Lastly, he never takes his audience’s intelligence for granted (except, occasionally in his stage show). In response to reissues via CD technology, many artists have made alternate versions and out-takes of their famous songs available. However, Elvis has always released alternate versions of his songs for his public to hear. In most cases, there is a tempo change, but I’m amazed at how often the two versions of the same song (even when they feature identical lyrics) seem completely different. With these songs, it was as if Elvis was making a concerted effort to emulate what The Beatles did with “Revolution” and “Revolution No. 1″ (from the White Album). Excellent examples are “Blue Chair”, “Clowntime is Over” and “American without Tears.” On his most recent pop album “When I Was Cruel,” he actually features two version of the song “Dust”—in both a laid-back country skiffle and hard-core rock and roll version.
His unpredictable and prolific output, in fact, was at the root of his recent label change, from Warner Brothers to Polygram Records. This was his second American label change. He changed from Columbia to Warners before “Spike.” One of the reasons, it was reported that he was unhappy with Warners is that they didn’t know—or didn’t care—how to market him. Polygram on the other hand, promised that they would offer him the run of their labels—Mercury for his pop releases and everything else on Verve, Deutsche Grammophon, London, Decca, and Philips. True to their word, they have not shied away from either promoting his distinct works properly (the success of North, on the Jazz charts in is proof of that) or releasing multiple records simultaneously. In fact, PolyGram will be releasing both “Il Sogno” and his new pop LP, “The Delivery Man” in September.
In further examples of his prolificness (prolificocity?), Rhino Records (a Warner imprint) has been and this fall will continue releasing remastered Elvis discs from his entire career. What’s so amazing isthat this has already been done by Rykodisc in the late 90s. But there was such a glut of excellent material that Rhino has taken it upon themselves to re-reissue all of the CDs, with not just extra songs, but a full bonus disk of songs, often longer than the original disc it is packaged with. In addition, Elvis himself has furnished the liner notes.
Paul McCartney was reported to have criticized Elvis for his habit of, to quote Tom Lehrer “putting a couple of extra syllables into a line.” That is, Paul was a stickler for the classic pop song structure—while Elvis was known to break it. In fact, just as Elvis’ singing noticeably improved following The Juliet Letters, his writing also underwent a transformation after working closely with Sir Paul. In an interview, he noted that Paul believe in making a statement at the end of the stanza, a la “Let it Be,” or “That Day is Done” (a song they wrote together). Elvis noted that that was obvious, but yet something he never consciously did. The best songs they wrote together— “Veronica,” “My Brave Face,” “That Day is Done”, “Pads, Paws and Claws,” “You Want Her, Too” and “So Like Candy,” all contain this device, and they can mostly be considered as interesting highlights for both writers. Certainly Paul has not had such a successful collaboration since John Lennon, though Elvis has gone on to work with Burt Bacharach, with even more successful results—a Grammy award for “I Still Have that Other Girl.”
Elvis seems to take great pleasure in playing with his song structures. He often breaks the lines structure on purpose, or ‘piles it on’ at the end, such as in “The Other Side of Summer” or “The Other End of the Telescope” (hmm, there’s a pattern there). Even when he’s not doing that, he appears to be doing it, forcing as many syllables as possible into some lines of song, creating the aural illusion that the song is falling over itself, forward, such as in “The Greatest Thing” or “Human Hands.”
The album layout: Elvis is very consistent. Though by his own account, he has not been able to stop arranging his songs for two-sided LPs, his records generally follow a basic layout, including the big, fast and loud opening number, and the somber, thoughtful closing number. You will notice this and other patterns on his records and especially, like the Beatles, if you know the albums well, you can actually start hearing why a certain song should come after another one and why. In fact, in one interview he was regretting his placement of “Hurry Down Doomsday” after “The Other Side of Summer” on Mighty Like a Rose, because he thought their dual placement subtracted from each other.
Overall, I think his music and his records are so great because he is such a big fan of music.
What I Love, Part Two— The Lyrics
This will take a while.
His lyrics, often are poetry, disguised as pop music rants. He knows the word “evocative” —in that, from even his titles, you can understand what the song is about. One could make educated guesses of the content of songs with such titles as “Indoor Fireworks”, “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs are Taking Over)” “Boy with a Problem” and “This is Hell,” while be totally clueless about obfuscationary song titles such as “Secondary Modern”, “Tokyo Storm Warning,” “King Horse,” or “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4.” Elvis is also clever enough to pay homage to the classics with titles like “Black Sails in the Sunset” or “Sour-Milk Cow Blues.” His other trick is a misleading title, such as “I’m Not Angry,” possibly the angriest song ever written, or “I Hope You’re Happy Now” which is not quite as finger-pointing as one would expect. Likewise, he is able to use fierce sarcasm without blinking, calling into question all of today’s modern foibles, by celebrating them in the voice of people who don’t know how bad they really are, such as marriage in “The Greatest Thing”, the outbreak of mass media in “Satellite”, the presence of high-paying, but dangerous jobs in “Shipbuilding” or the English media control on “Radio, Radio.”
Elvis plays with expectations in his songs. This can be hard to remember when you’re familiar with his songs, but most people don’t know “Watching the Detectives” is about watching a TV show until the end, that “Pills and Soap” recommends, Swift-like, to “melt down” children and animals into pills and soap. Further that, “Different Finger” refers to an adulterous couple, or that, in “Tears Before Bedtime,” the husband is having an affair with her best friend.
Often one listening to his songs has to ask “what’s going on here?” Where are these characters and what are they doing? Continued listening, and cues from the tempo and arrangement, provide some clues, but not much information. “When he sings “A butterfly drinks a turtle’s tears, but how do you know he really needs it?” in “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” you may be left stroking your chin, and wondering how that connects to the rest of the song. Elvis uses his international flair (missing from most US writers) to improve the colors of his songs, citing the streets of London as easily as the “Window on the Reeperbahn” or Palestine (overrun by the Chinese line).
As to song titles and concepts, songs like “Love Field” and “God’s Comic, ” “Clown Strike” “Complicated Shadows,” “Kinder Murder” and “The Sweetest Punch” ask us to recognize unlike concepts as they are melded together successfully.
For his characters, he has repeatedly chosen to populate his songs with people who were never before seen in popular songs. Other artists have expanded the previous parameters of the pop song: Dylan expanded what constitutes content in pop songs; Lennon what emotional material can be mined; Springsteen made a career about using the same characters people and places over and over again, presenting simple people in common situations (lonely, lost, broke and broken down). Elvis goes where most pop music lovers never knew you could go—and probably didn’t want any one to go. Aside from the depths of self-hatred (“I Want You”) and loneliness (“The Comedians”), Elvis brings nuance to the pop song, wherein a character in one of his songs both loves AND hates something— where he is both sure of himself and wrapped in self-doubt and recrimination. When he is not the first-person singer of the songs, his characters are the gamut of sad, sexually and emotionally unhealthy women (“Shabby Doll”, “Alison,” “Georgie and Her Rival”), small, greedy, power-hungry men (“This Town”, “Harpies Bizarre”). The last category is his describing, from a God’s-eye view, the lost, broken people of his world (“You Tripped at Every Step”, “Veronica”, “Poor Fractured Atlas”). He also ventures between these, when it suits the message. Also, he is one of the only songwriters I know that will write in a woman’s voice (“Sleep of the Just,” “All this Useless Beauty”).
Aside from the emotional state of his characters, are they are often people who are never represented in other pop songs, such as Kings, Thieves, Failures, Corporate CEOs, Judges, Pop Stars and in “That Day is the Done”, the dead. He also has written about the famous (Margaret Thatcher in “Tramp the Dirt Down”, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller in “After the Fall”), the infamous (Chris Craig and Derek Bentley from England’s most famous miscarriage of justice in “Let ‘em Dangle”) and the not-so-famous (his ex-bassist, Bruce Thomas in “How to Be Dumb”).
Aside from the actual situations and shades of grey with which he paints his characters, his tools set to do so seems unlimited. He not only has an unsurpassed vocabulary, but he seems to know about every aspect of society, both high and low, from the Brahmins who flaunt their “after dinner overtures” to factory workers who say “where’s the action?”
In his lyrics, he is able to both use words to serve his message, and play tricks on the listener, going a different way than you might expect (“I wish you luck with a capital F”—from “Love Went Mad”). Deliberate wordplay, such as in the title of songs like “All the Rage,” or in the lyrics to “Shot with his Own Gun” where he sings “Now Dad is Keeping Mum” are example of his taking advantage of all the English language has to offer. In “Kid About It,” he sings “I’ve waited all my life for just a little death,” both a clever use of life and death, but a wink to those who know that “little death” is the French translation of the word for orgasm. Aside from his clever word play, he is able to make very clear, concise statements about the situations he’s singing about that recall the standards. Especially in the Hoagy Carmichael-inspired “Put Your Big Toe in the Milk of Human Kindness” where he sings:
We’re so always so capricious
in the face of wonder, we’re suspicious.
A line like “I could give you anything but time” from “Party Girl” is a good example or, from “Shipbuilding” —”Diving for dear life, when we should be diving for pearls.” He also has used his lyrics to pose damming questions, such as in “The Other Side of Summer,” where he asks “Was it a millionaire who said ‘imagine no possessions?’”
He has often used metaphor to great effect, such as in his songs “Everyday I Write the Book”:
You said you’d stand by me
in the middle of chapter three
but you were up to your old tricks
in chapters four, five and six
and in “So Like Candy, ” and “The Only Flame in Town”:
Thought I saw your face in the fire, but it’s so hard to remember
even an inferno can cool down to an ember.
Then, later in the song:
You blew hot and cold, turned my heart to a cinder
but with each passing day, you’re less tender and more tinder
now you’re not the only flame in town
One reason I remain a huge fan of Elvis, is because, on almost every record, there is an “A-ha” moment.” A line or couplet where you don’t just learn something about the songwriter, but about the world. A songwriter who can do this repeatedly is worth listening to, but when he can create music that’s exciting and use his voice to support both, it is I think, an unparalleled experience. Also, the fact that he has and continues to write multiple sets of song lyrics for songs like “Less than Zero”, “The Comedians” and “American without Tears.”
Though I can’t quote from all his most amazing lyrics, I do keep a few near me at all times:
“Does the extinguished candle care about the darkness?”
— “In the Darkest Place,” Painted from Memory
“So don’t try to touch my heart, it’s darker than you think, And don’t try to read my mind because it’s full of disappearing ink”
— “All the Rage”, Brutal Youth
” Nonsense prevails, modesty fails, Grace and virtue turn into stupidity
While the calendar fades almost all barricades to a pale compromise”
— “All This Useless Beauty”, All This Useless Beauty
How can I tell you I’m rarer than most, I’m certain as a lost dog, Pondering a
— “I Want to Vanish”, All This Useless Beauty
“I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.”
— “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”, My Aim is True
“Please don’t let me fear anything I can’t explain.”
— “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4.”, Mighty Like a Rose.
“He’s got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge. He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege.”
—”Man Out of Time”, Imperial Bedroom.
“It’s a dog’s life in a rope leash or a diamond collar.”
—“Suit of Lights”, King of America
“The sky was just a purple bruise, the ground was iron. And you fell all around the town until you looked the same.”
— “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” Spike.
1996’s “All This Useless Beauty” seems to be a watermark for Elvis. After this record, he started treating his albums differently,from content to album titles. Starting with ATUB, every record is named after a song on the album, including “Painted from Memory” and “When I Was Cruel.” “North” is more like old Elvis, named after a song that he wrote and performed during the sessions, but was ultimately left off the album. Of course this happened once before on the “Imperial Bedroom” record. (The song “Imperial Bedroom” can be found on the Rhino bonus CD). Aside from that, Elvis, unlike other artists who either lack imagination or were under the spell of record company executives— never named his records after a song found on the album—favoring instead enigmatic in-jokes that the record buying pubic were mostly immune to, such as “Spike,” “Mighty Like a Rose” (taken from a poem featured on the cover art) or “Kojak Variety” (named for the small convenience store in the Bahamas that he past every day on the way to the recording studio). His other album titles fall into two categories. One, to name the album descriptively or evocatively not based on any songs, but the records content, such as “Trust,” “Get Happy,” “Armed Forces” or “The Juliet Letters.” Two, is to extract a few words from one of the songs to do the same, such as on “My Aim is True” (Alison), “Blood and Chocolate,” “King of America” (Brilliant Mistake) or “Brutal Youth” (Favorite Hour).
Elvis on Love and Hit Singles
I’m fairly certain that people who have multiple hit songs are either writing great dance songs, or writing about love. While Elvis is capable of doing both, he has never really written a “traditional” love song. Even now, 20 years after the 80s, some of the most out-there groups have songs that are being played at weddings and soft rock stations. But not our Elvis. With the exception of “Veronica” and “Everyday I Write the Book,” you will not hear a peep out of the radio stations. Why is that? I think it’s because he has never written a traditional love song. Even a sneering, paranoid delusion like “Every Breath You Take” can work if the instrumentation and vocal delivery is right. Why, I’m almost certain that Billy Joel’s “Just the Way you Are” is meant to be a piece of sarcasm, that was wildly misinterpreted (listen to it, and you’ll see what I mean). It’s almost a 70s updated version of “My Funny Valentine.”
The Final Song: Men on the Edge
If there is one constant in Elvis’ output, it is the show-stopping closing number. In every case (except compliations and “North”—his first reverse concept LP—where the singer goes from sadness at track one to happiness at its finale) the characters who populate these songs are his most desperate bunch.
What’s So Funny Bout Peace Love & Understanding, Armed Forces
Sleep of the Just, King of America
Town Cryer, Imperial Bedroom
Last Boat Leaving, Spike
Peace in Our Time, Goodbye Cruel World
Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4, Mighty Like a Rose
Favorite Hour, Brutal Youth
The Birds Will Be Singing, The Juliet Letters
I Want To Vanish, All This Useless Beauty
Radio Silence, When I Was Cruel
More often than not, they are men who have pushed to the edge, who, facing the inevitable—make declarative statements in anger (“I’m never gonna cry again” from Town Cryer) or resignation (“If I’m lost or unforgiven, the birds will still be singing.”). They have come to grips with the end—either of their own innocence, their relationship to a person, to their God, their belief system. These are heartbreaking songs, whose questions and provocative imagery and lyrical content are more disturbing for what they don’t convey than for what they do. It is never clear why the character in Last Boat Leaving is “going away” or why the singer would tell his son “you still have a choice.” Nor is it clear what would make the singer of “Couldn’t Call it” to note the litany of ends of innocence in our collective world—including the ‘sudden chill when lovers doubt their immortality’ or ‘the shadow of regret across a young mother’s face.’ In fact, “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4” is Elvis’ most “un” song. Aside from the title, which is neither descriptive nor unique (there is another song with that title on the album, an instrumental), it is highly unusual for Elvis. For starters, the title does not refer to anything in the song, or get repeated in the song, which is something Elvis never does. The song itself has no chorus—except for musically, where it does follow a kind of A,B pattern. But the stanzas are different lengths—giving a listener the impression the song is being hurried up—and then later, extended. The music has competing elements—a regal, almost funerial set of horns are the background, while an actual toy piano—an instrument most identified with creepy, scary movies—is in the foreground. The mixture creates a palpable dissonance that eventually gives way to a swirling, circus-like bar dirge, that Elvis spotlights in his concerts by forcing the audience to sing ‘bah-bah-bum” along with the outro, his longest on any non-Brodsky Quartet record.
In terms of must-have albums, I am no one to say, since they are all must haves to me. The best way I know to discuss their merits is to discuss the history, and you can extrapolate important information from there.
“My Aim is True” 1977
This first album for Stiff records featured the recently re-named Elvis Costello (formerly a computer programmer named Declan Patrick McManus) standing pidgeon-toed in front of little boxes that read “Elvis is King.” Though he would attempt to doff his pseudonym several times in his career, he would always return to it. This album, featuring the backup group Clover (later the band would comprise the News part of Huey Lewis & the News) is surprisingly tight and the songs are short, powerful and well-written. Three of his most popular songs, “Red Shoes,” “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives” are on it, as well as other hallmarks, like “No Dancing” and “Welcome to the Working Week.” This album, with his next one, would be called the “Guilt & Revenge” LPs by his fans.
“This Year’s Model” 1978
Most fans and critics agree that Elvis avoided the common sophomore slump in his second work for Stiff records. Backed by his band the Attractions (most of whom played for Graham Parker under the title of the Rumor), he added an organ, turned up the bass, drums and anger in songs like “No Action,” “Living in Paradise” and “Pump it Up.” The latter plus “Radio, Radio” bringing him untold radio play that continues to this day. This album is dark, brooding, filled with bile and possibly one his best works. If you like “My Aim is True,” you should buy this record.
“Armed Forces” 1979
This LP is the first “Elvis meets the Beatles” LP, employing more harmonies, more instruments, and double-tracks than any previous effort. Also, songs criticizing the English and their military force take center stage, like “Oliver’s Army,” “Goon Squad” and of course, Nick Lowe’s “(What’s so Funny) ‘Bout Peace, Love & Understanding.” This was his biggest hit record until 1983′s “Punch the Clock.” A lyrical and musical achievement. A Must-have.
“Get Happy” 1980
Famous not only its homage to the Stax R&B sound, but also for its quantity. Elvis fit 20 songs on this LP (though some clock in at under 2:00), a volume unheard of at the time. Though originally this was thought of a hit-or-miss collection, the Rhino reissue is a must have. The songs, like “Clowntime is Over,” “Riot Act,” “Temptation,” and “High Fidelity” are better than most performers dream of having in a career, but the songs on the bonus disk, like “Hoover Factory,” “Just a Memory” “Girls Talk” and “Black & White World” are essential.
A deeper, darker Elvis, if “Imperial Bedroom” is his “Revolver,” than “Trust” is his “Rubber Soul.” Featuring his band at “an all-time low,” this record was a failure, but not for quality reasons. While Elvis had refined his songwriting on “Armed Forces” and “Get Happy” he is clearly taking the next step here, with darker, funnier and less political songs. From a Web review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
(that says it better than I can):
Trust, is Elvis’ most ambitious and eclectic album to date. As if he was proving his stylistic diversity and his sophistication after the concentrated genre experiment of Get Happy!!, Costello assembled Trust as a stylistic tour-de-force, packing the record with a wild array of material. Clubland has jazzy flourishes, Lovers’ Walk rolls to a Bo Diddley beat, Luxembourg is rockabilly-redux, Watch Your Step is soul-pop, From a Whisper To A Scream rocks as hard as anything since This Year’s Model, Shot With His Own Gun is Tin Pan Alley pop, Different Finger is the first country song he put on an official album. And that’s not even counting highlights like New Lace Sleeves and White Knuckles, which essentially stick to Costello’s signature pop but offer more complex arrangements and musicianship than before. In fact, both “complexity” and “sophistication” are keywords to the success of Trust — without delving into the minutely textured arrangements that would dominate his next pop album, Imperial Bedroom — Costello & The Attractions demonstrate their musical skill and savvy by essentially sticking to their direct sound of their four-piece band. In the process, they recorded arguably their most impressive album, one that demonstrates all sides of Costello’s songwriting and performing personality without succumbing to pretentiousness.
“Almost Blue” 1981
An album of Country Western covers, that largely ignored and confused his fan base. Looking back (especially through a lens of King of America and his work with country greats George Jones,) it all makes sense. There is a lot to recommend on this record, but you really have to be in the mood. Elvis wasn’t the first Englishman to go to Nashville to make a record—Ringo Starr did it in 1970 with “Beaucups of Blues,” also not a big seller.
“Imperial Bedroom” 1982
Ranked as the #1 favorite by his fans, a best-seller, a critical “masterpiece” and by all accounts, a major milestone is his career. Of course, in retrospect, one can lose the magnitude of the achievement when compared to his more finely featured records and performances of the past few years. This was the first record of his to feature a full orchestra, and it’s also his most Beatlesque. Again, engineered by Geoff Emerick and featuring the Attractions, it contained some of his best, mature songwriting to date including “Almost Blue” (one of his most-covered songs), “Shabby Doll” and “Man Out of Time.” He later referred to some of the songs as “underwritten”, such as “The Loved Ones” and “…And in Every Home” (which is true, in my opinion). Almost every other song except “Little Savage” on “Imperial Bedroom” probably ranks up there with his best songs, It is also features a host of Beatlesque tricks, from false starts and stops, songs with no space in between them (still a neat trick in the pre-digital age). For me, Imperial Bedroom was the first Elvis album I purchased that I didn’t know any songs from. I knew a few hits that I liked from other records, but for IM, I just put on the turntable on the first song and listened. I remember a moment listening with slack-jawed awe when I heard him sing “that’s problem and here’s the hook” in “Tears Before Bedtime.” That a musician would break the so-called “fourth wall” (as it’s called in cinema) by addressing the audience with a double entendre was just mind boggling. I was hooked. On all the other songs I was amazed at the lyrics, at the obvious homage to the Beatles, and to the productions. I was surprised by the depth of emotions of the songs. I listened to the record over and over again. I wore it out. I have purchased it about three times since then.
“Punch The Clock” 1983
In stark contrast to Imperial Bedroom, “Punch the Clock” is a lively R&B romp produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. The orchestra has given way to the TKO Horns, who dominate most of the tracks. Also new for Elvis is the presence of a group of three female backup singers, featured on “Boxing Day,” “Every Day I Write the Book,” and others. Elvis made the move because he’d essentially had three failed records in a row and Langer & Winstanley were on a roll, having produced Madness’ “Our House” and Dexy’s “Come on Eileen.” It was the first Elvis LP to have backing tracks, over-dubs and no live vocals. It produced a big hit in “Everyday I Write the Book.” Lyrically, I thought it was quite clever, and amazing upbeat for such cynical lyrics. “Shipbuilding” and “Pills and Soap” are political standouts, from an otherwise very poppy record. You should own this one.
“Goodbye Cruel World” 1984
Going through a divorce, miserable, and threatening to quit the music business, Elvis took his followup to “Punch the Clock” to his producers Langer & Winstanley. He had envisioned it as folk record, but when they were done it sounded like “Punch the Clock II,” somehow a poorer, weaker, bleaker version of that album. Fans stayed away in droves, but it did produce a modest hit “The Only Flame in Town,” with singer Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates). For die-hards only.
“King of America” 1986
After two years away from the limelight, Elvis returned with not one, but two LPs (most likely trying to finish out his Columbia records contract). The first one, a fine piece of American roots, country and western musicana was called “King of America,” and for the first time he recorded the album without the Attractions (you can follow the bitter story in any of several books)—the album is billed to “The Costello Show”. The album is wonderful, and is a return to ‘live’ recording. There are quite a number of instrumentalists, but nothing like the TKO horns or full orchestration of “Imperial Bedroom.” The commitment to musical excellence and songwriting is evident, as is his joy from being free from the Attractions. Outstanding cuts include “Brilliant Mistake”, “Suit of Lights” , “Lovable” and his cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” A must-buy.
“Blood & Chocolate” 1986
Later that year, he did finish up his contract with a final reunion (as it was billed at the time) of The Attractions. The album is a return to Rock N Roll, that his critics thought he had abandoned with his last albums. It rocks hard, mean, and angry, and contains some brilliant songs, tight harmonies, and the single most painful song recorded on vinyl, “I Want You” since John Lennon recorded “Mother” in 1970. Other great pop numbers include “Crimes of Paris” “Next Time Around” and the slow version of “Blue Chair.” An album worth having, but not at the expense of say “King of America”, “Armed Forces” or “This Year’s Model.”
Elvis’ Warner debut again featured “The Beloved Entertainer” on the cover in black and white face. There were no Attractions on the record (Drummer Pete Thomas played on one track)—and Elvis was free. He had some of the cream of American music’s session folk, including Jim Keltner (who played with John Lennon & George Harrison) as well as T-Bone Wolk, Marc Ribot, Christy Moore, Alan Toussaint, and the backing, on most tracks, of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Spike introduced a different sounding Elvis and included his collaboration with Paul McCartney—which yielded his biggest hit, “Veronica.” Elvis claimed he had five different concept LPs in his head when making “Spike”—and he jammed them all together. Elvis IS the great entertainer on this record—each song is like its own island of sound, instrumentalists and atmosphere. He reportedly achieved his backup vocals on “God’s Comic” by shouting “I’m Dead” as loud as he could, and then mixing it down until he got it right. The use of more classical instruments of all kinds like the harp on “Any King’s Shilling” and even a snow-bell on “This Town” is indicative of his desire to create this new, very different sound. There were also other guest stars— The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn (who he would later write a song for, All This Useless Beauty’s “You Bowed Down”) and Chrissy Hynde—from the Pretenders, with whom he duets on “Satellite” (which he thought was Burt Bacharach sounding until he worked with him).
“Mighty Like a Rose” 1991
Using some of the same backup folks from Spike, he produced a more conventional Elvis LP—with some bizarre consequences. Some of the songs are way, way out there “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs are Taking Over)” lyrically and musically, while some utilize unheard of new imagery, such as “How to be Dumb” where he claims that being is dumb is like “a building thrown up overnight in one of those reverse earthquakes.” Or in “Invasion Hit Parade” where he sings “I can tell the time by the color of my skin.” Most printed material seems to claim fans are divided on this album, though prior to his Mercury contract, it was his second biggest selling LP (and the first one I ever purchased on CD instead of vinyl). From the “Other Side of Summer” (Brian Wilson meets the “foaming breakers of the poisonous surf”) to “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4,” this is an album of deeply felt, wildly conceived and passionately performed records. The songs are alternatively menacing and disturbing. You may be wondering, for instance what event would have made the singer would conclude “I can’t believe I’ll never believe in anything again,” the closing line of the last song on the album. A must have.
“The Juliet Letters” 1993
By any standards, and unbelievable feat—creating an “Elvis Costello” record without using any rock and roll instruments. This album, song for song, is as good—if not better—than anything Elvis has ever done. Without the wall of rock and roll sound to hide behind, this record highlights his voice, his music and his lyrics. The playing by the Brodsky quarter is flawless. Alternating between the heartbreakingly sad, and defiantly uplifting, the music and subjects—ruminations on the Romeo and Juliet story—are in my opinion, the ingredients of the most successful concept album since The Who’s “Tommy” or Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and lot more fun to listen to.
“Brutal Youth” 1994
Following his critically acclaimed, but as always, commercially disappointing foray into yet another dark corner of the music world, Elvis returned to the Attractions to give it a final shot, as he believed that Blood & Chocolate didn’t get the hearing it should have (that is meant to be a double-entendre). This record features songs as thoughtfully conceived and devilishly inspired as those on Spike and Mighty Like a Rose—yet in the familiar, Elvis & The Attractions setting. The result is pastiche of the familiar, which on the whole works fairly well. There are standouts, such as “This is Hell”, “All the Rage” “Rocking Horse Road” and “Favorite Hour.” There is at least one clunker—”My Science Fiction Twin.” From the opening cut “Pony Street”— Elvis & Co seem to be alluding to This Year’s Model. Overall, a must-buy.
“Kojack Variety” 1995
In 1991, between Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, Elvis flew to the Caribbean to record an album full of covers, paying for it with the budget WB gave him to record a B-side. Unlike his previous cover LP, “Almost Blue,” this one would not be all-country. In fact, it wouldn’t be all-anything categorizable. There are standards like “The Very Thought of You”, Motown covers such as “Remove this Doubt” and a cover of a Ray Davies song, “Days,” which is one of his finest, where a squealing guitar is meant to imitate the squinty arrival and departure of the sun. These share space with a whole host of other obscure but familiar sounding tunes. Elvis called this a “relaxed” album, and refused to explain its quixotic title. Elvis did add that it should be called “Volume I”, clearing the way for future volumes. Take a long at the song collection. If you like them, this is a must have.
“All This Useless Beauty” 1996
This album was the “mirror” of Kojak Variety; an album of songs Elvis had written for other people, who either sang them (like June Tabor and Roger McGuinn) or didn’t (like Johnny Cash for “Complicated Shadows”). It reunited not only Elvis with his attractions, but the Brodsky Quartet (on “I Want to Vanish”) and producer Geoff Emerick again. Though far from the critical or chart-topping success that was Imperial Bedroom, this album is chock full of great songs and atmospheric production (especially on “Distorted Angel,” “Complicated Shadows” and “I Want to Vanish”). Mostly these are great songs, well performed. They have a little more lasting quality than those on Brutal Youth, and they certainly show what a mature singer Elvis had become.
“Painted From Memory” 1998
Many fans aware that the collaboration between the old master behind Dionne Warwick and Elvis (that had produced “God Give Me Strength” for the “Grace of My Heart” soundtrack (about a Carol King type songwriter in NYC) was happening, and they were afraid. What would this new sound sound like? Fortunately, most of it did not sound like the rather hyperbolic “God Give Me Strength” but instead the wonderful, streamlined, and nearly flawless record that is Painted From Memory. These are both clever-to-winking songwriters (“Do the people living in Toledo know that their name hasn’t traveled very well?”, he says, mocking Ohioans by alluding to the namesake town in Spain. “And does anyone in Ohio dream of that Spanish citadel?”) who love nothing more than to add layers and layers of complexity of all kinds onto a simple pop framework. At first listen, there are great challenges: the musical path to “I Still Have that Other Girl” or the lyrical content of “My Thief.” But after a few listens, the album melts together like a symphony, and it is a promise that it is better and more satisfying than any Dionne Warwick record. Here is Elvis working as hard as he can, especially on the singing. A testament to how hard these songs are to sing is to watch him try to sing them in concert—he can barely make it. This is almost a wall-of-sound production, and it is so different from any of his previous sounds. It features Burt on piano and a 24 piece ‘pop orchestra.’ The only thing missing from the complete experience is Elvis cover, that he recorded two years later of Burt Bacharach’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”, which appeared on the soundtrack for the second Austin Powers movie, and is priceless. A must for any serious Elvis fan.
“When I Was Cruel” 2002
Are you seeing a pattern yet? Following his superb collaboration with Burt Bacharach (and hundreds of side projects and movie soundtrack songs) he returns with two-thirds of the Attractions for another “rock record.” The lead track, “45,” is a nice little track about his age and the little records he listens to (where he breaks the song structure again). Again, there are challenging songs, like “When I Was Cruel No. 2″ which uses an oblique old Italian song as a “sample.” It is hypnotic, and like “Alibi” and “Dust” nearly drives you and your speakers into the ground with heavy bass lines. The song “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll’s Revolution)” is a great song—when you hear it sung by The Bangles, but Elvis’ doesn’t do much justice to it. The album concludes with three of his poppier number, “My Little Blue Window”, “Episode of Blonde” (a samba) and “Radio Silence.”
“Cruel Smile” 2003
Just because PolyGram will release all the Elvis records doesn’t mean they should. This is not really an Elvis album, but a collection of b-sides and live performances that is worth having only if you are a serious collector. The real standout is his cover of “Smile” (yes, that one, “Smile when your heart is breaking…). Apparently it was a big hit in Japan. Go figure.
Like Painted From Memory and The Juliet Letters, “North” is an album that asks to be listened to a number of times before seriously settling in. Reuniting with producer Kevin Killen, Steve Naïve and The Brodsky Quartet, Elvis, in his apparent attempt to please his new wife, created a jazzier record conscious of placing less pop structures and fewer “poppy” hooks (Though the record company tried to push “Still” anyway). Its release on Deutsche Grammaphon records was the tip-off: This is serious music. However, true to form, he left off the title track “North” and served it up as a ‘digital download only.’ It’s a shame, because it is a lovely song.
The above LPs represent nearly all, but not all of Elvis’ output. There are at least four greatest hits albums (of which “Girls Girls Girls” is the best) and a few other odd collections. Records that he worked on with other artists like “Elvis Meets Sophie Van Otter” and John Harle’s “Terror and Magnificence” are great records that feature Elvis, but they are not Elvis records. Records like “Fire at Keaton’s Bar and Grill” or his work with the Chieftans, or Wendy James (he wrote the entire album) deserve to be sought out by those hard-core fans, but again, are not Elvis records. Elvis has also been busy throughout his career creating instrumental music (“The Courier” and “Il Sogno”) as well as contributing to movie soundtracks (“Party Party”, and recently contributed an Academy-Award nominated song, “Scarlet Tide” for the soundtrack of Cold Mountain) and playing as a musician on other people’s tracks. It is a full-time job to keep track of him, and that’s why no one can do it. There are at least five or six great Elvis Web sites that are worth wasting a few hours with, if you’re in the mood, and if you are, I’ll send them along. A google search will do nicely, though.
His own site, maintained by Island Records (http://www.islandrecords.com/elviscostello/home.las) is worth a visit, if only to read the hundreds of questions asked of him by his fans (which he answers). Best question: Windows or Mac? Answer: As you might expect, a Mac Man.
Q: What have you learned about Elvis Costello since this project began?
A: I’ve learned that he’s as passionate, literate, and articulate in his conversation and speech as he is in his music. The very literate, densely verbal, intelligent quality of the lyrics, and the complexity of the music is not an accident. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. Also, he has an incredibly sharp memory; a keen, articulate mind; and good knowledge of his work and perspective on it.—Gary Stewart, Head of A&R at Rhino Records, from “I Was so Impressed, I Bought the Catalogue.“ (http://www.rhino.com/news/articles/gstewart.lasso)