Smart, angry and mercurial, Elvis Costello is one of the greatest living songwriters; for better or worse, he knows it. The man with the big spectacles (born Declan MacManus) is an exile everywhere he goes: an Englishman whose strongest work owes its greatest debts to American country and R&B; a new wave star who hated the term and the scene and has spent a lot of the latter half of his career working with classical and jazz musicians; an ungainly and adenoidal singer who built himself through sheer cussedness into a world-class vocal stylist.
Of course, Costello’s also got heavy-duty allies: His on-and-off band the Attractions are a supremely potent, versatile rock group, and he’s collaborated with everyone from Burt Bacharach to the Pogues. But his greatest virtues are his own: an encyclopedic fascination with the whole history of pop music (and a lot of other music too), an enormous and ever-growing catalogue of songs, a near-total unwillingness to repeat himself on record, and a scaldingly bitter attitude toward just about everything that covers up the heart on his sleeve like a barbed-wire armband. His 1977-86 records are still the core of his repertoire and his reputation, but nearly every album he’s made includes at least a couple of gems.
The legend goes that when the London independent label Stiff Records announced that it was open for business and accepting demo tapes, a struggling young songwriter named Declan MacManus (formerly of the not-very-successful pub-rock band Flip City) was the first to drop his off. Well, thought Stiff's owners, maybe all the tapes we get will be this good. It quickly became clear that they weren't, and MacManus — renamed "Elvis Costello" and outfitted with a huge pair of Buddy Holly glasses, in the hopes of getting some attention — was the first signing to Stiff. A handful of hasty studio sessions with a transplanted American band called Clover (minus their singer/harmonica player, Huey Lewis) yielded Costello's first album.
My Aim Is True is one of the all-time great debut albums: a statement of purpose from a very smart, very articulate, festeringly angry songwriter who's inhaled the history of rock 'n' roll and country music, and is spitting it all back out laced with hydrochloric acid. The chief source of his problems is girls — "I said 'I'm so happy I could die'/ She said 'drop dead' and left with another guy," goes one zinger — but by the end of the record he's calling down the apocalypse. Most of its songs have been in the core of his live repertoire ever since, especially "Alison," a love song to a now-married ex-girlfriend that's both bitterer and sweeter than any other song of its kind, and "Watching the Detectives," a late addition to the album that's half deep-reggae workout, half noir-movie creepout, and as smolderingly hellish as an underground coal fire.
It became Costello's best-selling studio album (going platinum in 1991); the surprising thing is that in some ways it's almost totally unlike any album he's made since. By the time My Aim Is True came out, he'd formed the Attractions, who could go toe-to-toe with him; Clover pretty much play like session guys. "Blame It On Cain" cleverly cops its arrangement from Sam Cooke's "That's It — I Quit — I'm Movin' On," but most of these performances sound like the barebones songwriters' demos they nearly were. And the wry, detached, nearly jocular Randy Newman-isms of songs like "Sneaky Feelings" and "No Dancing" is a territory Costello rarely wandered into again.
The current deluxe edition — the third time My Aim Is True has been reissued, each time with extra tracks — adds a dozen tracks to the first disc: the undiluted country tunes ("Radio Sweetheart" and "Stranger in the House") omitted from the much more new-wave album, a couple of early takes on songs later re-recorded for This Year's Model, and a handful of solo acoustic demos that sound much more like the work of a despairing country songwriter who worked at an Elizabeth Arden factory than the brash rocker of Aim proper. The second disc is a live set from August 1977, about a month after the album's release, with the newly-formed Attractions barreling through most of Aim and a bunch of material the audience had never heard before, and young Costello discovering his innate showmanship on the spot.
It takes all of five seconds for Elvis Costello's second album to kick into high gear. "I don't wanna kiss you, I don't wanna touch," he sneers. (You were expecting a love song?) Then Pete Thomas cracks his snare drum like he's trying to hurt it, a billow of noise swells up, and Costello starts ranting about how he's toxically jealous. Less than two minutes later, with one last snap of "every time I phone you, I just wanna put you down," they're done and on to the next attack. On My Aim Is True, Costello had sounded angry; with the Attractions behind him, he's genuinely dangerous.
Not long before his first album's release, Costello had advertised for a "rocking combo" to back him up. He got much more than he bargained for. Within weeks, he'd gone from a singer-songwriter with backup to the frontman of a world-class rock 'n' roll group: drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Bruce Thomas (no relation) and keyboardist Steve Nieve, a.k.a. the Attractions, became his inseparable crew for the next six years (and on and off for a decade after that), and Nieve and Pete Thomas are still playing with him more than three decades after they signed on. Their throbbing, surging ensemble playing here is emblematically new wave, but it's less because they fit in with the sound of the times than because a hundred bands heard them play and promptly followed their example.
This Year's Model is a cornerstone of Costello's career: a set of full-force rockers that update the Farfisa-driven sound of garage rock from a decade earlier with an attitude that's close to the smash-everything rage of punk but much smarter. The closest he comes to rock 'n' roll stupidity is the primal, priapic pogo "Pump It Up," but he spends most of the album dropping one bruising, hyperarticulate putdown after another: "Your eyes are absent, your mouth is silent/ Pumping like a fire hydrant."
The original British closer, "Night Rally," anticipated Armed Forces with its snarky but terrified vision of encroaching fascism. The original American version deleted it (along with "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea"), and added the spectacular post-album single "Radio Radio," in which Elvis rails against the state of the airwaves ("in the hands of such a lot of fools/ Trying to anesthetize the way that you feel"; unsurprisingly, it didn't get a lot of mainstream airplay, although the band famously played it on Saturday Night Live when they were supposed to play "Less Than Zero" instead). All three songs are now part of the album proper.
As for the bonus material on this reissue (the third expanded edition to date, all with different extras): the first disc is rounded out with contemporaneous B-sides, solo demos of a couple of songs from that era that turned up on Armed Forces (and one that didn't), early takes of "This Year's Girl" and "Chelsea," and live covers of the Damned's "Neat Neat Neat" and Ian Dury's "Roadette Song" that suggest a convivial mood around the early days of Stiff Records. The second disc is a show from Washington, D.C., recorded on Feb. 28, 1978 — less than a week before Live at the El Mocambo, in other words, which explains its very similar repertoire and vibe.
Originally released as a promotional item, then bootlegged ceaselessly until it was finally released for real, this 1978 concert features Costello and his then-newish Attractions in full-throttle garage-rock mode, rocketing through a show that's half My Aim Is True, half This Year's Model (which was still a few weeks away from release). The only real oddity here is the "Dallas version" of "Less Than Zero" since North American listeners tended to assume that the song's despicable "Mr. Oswald" was Lee Harvey Oswald rather than Oswald Mosley, Costello wrote a new set of verses about the Kennedy assassination. The band's on fire, Elvis is spitting harder than he ever has before or since (no "Alison" here; "Little Triggers" is as close as he gets to sensitivity, which is to say not very close at all), and the feral, hurtling versions of the My Aim Is True songs suggest what that album might have been like with a band as invested in making it cut deep as Costello himself was.
After a drunken quarrel on the Armed Forces tour turned into a disaster that left Costello looking like a dick at best and a racist at worst (in retrospect, it was definitely "dick"), he took solace in old soul records the deep Southern soul of Stax most of all and somehow ended up cranking out even more amazing songs than he had been over the previous few years. The album that subsequently came out of a frantic recording session in Holland speeds through 20 songs in 48 minutes, and it's the Attractions' most impressive work as a group: flexible, powerful, psychically synched-up, and above all fast. They effortlessly pull off one soul groove after another (keyboardist Steve Nieve cops licks from Booker T. and the M.G.s all over the place), as well as tear-in-my-beer country ("Motel Matches"), ska ("Human Touch") and garage rock ("Beaten to the Punch"). Those last three, by the way, all happen in a seven-minute span. If some of these songs are formal exercises, they're fantastically entertaining formal exercises: The opener "Love for Tender," for instance, is the riff from "You Can't Hurry Love" taken at bottle-of-amphetamines speed, wrapped around approximately five thousand puns about money ("I pay you a compliment/ You think I am inno-cent"), and executed in less than two minutes. The first single, oddly, was a cover Sam & Dave's downtempo soul duet "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," reworked as crazed new wave but Costello's original songs reward ungnarling their tightly-knotted wordplay, especially "New Amsterdam," a little waltz about portable exile that he recorded on his own. The big lyrical picture of Get Happy!! is a bitter young man measuring himself against the guys that the girls he likes seem to be more interested in, and figuring out reasons to despise them all; by the end, though, he's figured out that he's kind of a dick, too.
The most furious record Costello has ever made in a career that's not short of fury, Blood & Chocolate is the sound of everything exploding. The band the Attractions, augmented by returned producer Nick Lowe plays like they want to kill each other (which they pretty much did): The opener, "Uncomplicated," is basically a cross between Howlin' Wolf and a brutal beating. Elvis sings like he wants to drown somebody in spittle, one drop at a time. And the songs are emotionally vicious: Their lyrics are generally the kind of thing you say to somebody that you not only never want to see again, but who you wish would curl up and die somewhere. (The archetypal E.C. and the A's song title: "I Hope You're Happy Now." Sample couplet from it: "He's acting innocent and proud, still you know what he's after/ Like a matador with his pork sword, while we all die of laughter." Ouch.) Naturally, Costello wrote some of his catchiest melodies to soak up all that venom: "Next Time 'Round," "Blue Chair" and "Crimes of Paris" would all be genuinely pretty, if not for the bright-blue veins popping out of their performances' forehead. Only "Poor Napoleon" gets lost in the murk of its own rage (bonus: This is the album that the name "Napoleon Dynamite" came from.) And the album's two central tracks, both more than six minutes long, are where everything comes spilling out. "Tokyo Storm Warning" is Costello's own "Desolation Row," a Boschian catalogue of pan-cultural chaos that adds up to one mother of a kiss-off; "I Want You," which was still closing a lot of his encores many years later, is a crawlingly paced, devastating litany about the moment when lust, jealousy and utter loathing become the same thing. It's not for the faint of heart, but there's no more enthusiastic breakup record.
Older, Wiser, Sadder Rocker
After the classicist move of The Juliet Letters, Costello banged out a set of quick, dirty and sarcastic songs for Wendy James (which she released as Now Ain't the Time for Your Tears), then set out to make a rock record of his own, tentatively entitled Idiophone. Over the course of a series of sessions, the band that came together one by one turned out to be none other than the Attractions — although its full lineup only plays on five songs here. (Former Costello producer Nick Lowe played bass on another seven before Bruce Thomas rejoined the fold.)
At its best, Brutal Youth is a return to both the territory and the virtues of This Year's Model: emotional violence and savage, sneering garage rock, this time with the extra contempt that comes with middle age. The opening salvo of "Pony St.," "Kinder Murder" and "13 Steps Lead Down" is as ferocious as any Costello's come up with, and "Just About Glad" invents a particularly unusual strain of pop cruelty — the "I'm so happy we never did it" song. Unfortunately, the middle of the album mostly succumbs to the fussy arrangements and oversinging that drag down a lot of Costello's '90s work. Still, there are a couple of hidden gems that take a while to reveal themselves, especially "Still Too Soon to Know," effectively an answer song to the Orioles' 1948 ballad "It's Too Soon to Know."
The songs on Elvis Costello's first rock album in six years had been piling up for a while — "45" (a quadruple-entendre about World War II, vinyl singles, gun calibers and middle age) had first been performed shortly after his 45th birthday three years earlier, and "Daddy Can I Turn This?" had turned up on the All This Useless Beauty tour. He hadn't had a full-force rock band to play them with since the Attractions had dissolved in 1996, though. So the most aggressive tracks on When I Was Cruel feature his "new" band, the Imposters — none other than the Attractions with bassist Bruce Thomas replaced by Davey Faragher.
In other words, Costello was back to the idiom he's always pulled off most dependably, and a couple of the rockers here are fantastic, especially "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)," which ended up as the title track of the next Bangles album, and "Dissolve," a flying neckbreaker directed at humanity en masse. There's a slightly off-putting smugness about a few of the lyrics, a kind of eye-rolling hint of expertise. But the album's best song is the one where he tears off his own head: "When I Was Cruel No. 2," a seven-minute fever-dream, built around an off-kilter sample by Italian pop singer Mina, that sounds like nothing else in his catalog.
Costello's longstanding fascination with the music of the American South paid off on this raw, lively album, recorded in Mississippi with the Imposters. Originally intended as a linked sequence of narrative songs, it ended up ditching that plan — probably a wise idea — and incorporating some other material that was kicking around Costello's repertoire. ("The Judgment," in fact, had surfaced a couple of years earlier on a Solomon Burke album; "The Scarlet Tide" had first appeared sung by Alison Krauss on the Cold Mountain soundtrack.)
The result is the loosest, most playful record Costello had made in a dog's age. The songs respond to soul music in a distinctly different way from Get Happy!! — "Monkey to Man" is an answer song to Dave Bartholomew's "The Monkey" (which Costello recorded around the same time), and "Either Side of the Same Town," a "Dark End of the Street"-style heart-tugger originally written for Howard Tate, is blessed with one of Elvis's finest latter-day vocals. It's great to hear Costello's collaborators getting some latitude, too. The galvanizing beat of "Bedlam" is a welcome reminder of what drummer Pete Thomas can do when he feels like showing off. Lucinda Williams takes over for a couple of boozy-sounding verses on "There's a Story In Your Voice." And you can tell how thrilled Costello is to be singing with Emmylou Harris on a few tracks.
Recorded in a hurry (with the Imposters and a few guests, most notably Jenny Lewis) and released with little fanfare, Momofuku was particularly unexpected, because it followed Costello's announcement that he'd had it with recording. It's a trifle of a record — "My Three Sons," in particular, is the kind of sentimental sticker valentine Costello once promised to forswear, and the songs co-written with Rosanne Cash and Loretta Lynn would've made fun B-sides. But there's something to be said for its "what the hell, let's get some studio time" rock 'n' roll attitude. Aside from one solidly great song ("American Gangster Time," a burly rocker in the early Attractions mode), its pleasures are little but genuine ones: Mr. Revenge-and-Guilt himself snapping back at anonymous haters in "No Hiding Place" ("Let's see how brave you are/When I'm about this far"), the clenched stomp of "Stella Hurt," and maybe most of all Costello and Lewis cheerfully snapping at each other on "Go Away."
Big Glasses and a Skinny Tie
From the utterly perfect opening line of "Accidents Will Happen" on down, this is Costello and the Attractions' big new wave record, and the first of many albums he's made with a conceptual framework: the working title was Emotional Fascism, and song after song conflates the language of romantic frustration and the language of political oppression. (It mostly works, although "Chemistry Class" pushes its luck by ending its chorus with "Are you ready for the final solution?") If that sounds like a downer in theory, it's a blast in practice; where Costello's first two albums had raged, this one rollicks and sparkles. He puns nonstop — "the matinee was idle" rhymes with "a wave of her right hand could seem so tidal" — and sweetens everything with huge neon-lit melodies. "Party Girl" cheekily quotes Abbey Road, although the album's concept raises the question of whether the party in question might be political.
In the U.K., Armed Forces is "the one with 'Oliver's Army'" — a song originally destined for a B-side until keyboardist Steve Nieve nicked a riff from ABBA's "Dancing Queen" and turned it into their biggest-ever British hit. (It's an open question how many listeners delighted by the gloriously catchy chorus noticed that it's about militaries recruiting poor people as cannon fodder.) Weirdly enough, the album's best-remembered song in America was neither on the British version of the album nor on the original British LP: the rampaging, only slightly tongue-in-cheek "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" was written by producer Nick Lowe, and Costello's version first appeared on a single credited to "Nick Lowe and His Sound."
Elvis Costello's always recorded more material than there's room for on his albums, and for the first few years of his career, he was really cranking 'em out. Shortly after his fourth record, the 20-song Get Happy!!, he released another 20-song album, consisting of miscellaneous B-sides and oddities. (Taking Liberties was the American version; the British equivalent was Ten Bloody Marys and Ten How's Your Fathers.) It's essentially Get Happy!!'s twin, right down to its original side-openers: "Clean Money," the original take of the song later rewritten as "Love for Tender," and a cover of Betty Everett's Northern-soul fave "Getting Mighty Crowded."
It is, as you might expect, a mixed bag, but it's fascinating as a document of paths not quite taken. "Radio Sweetheart" and "Stranger in the House" are undiluted country music — the latter was written with George Jones, who eventually covered it, in mind. Covering "My Funny Valentine" was an intensely uncool thing for a new wave star to do in 1979, so of course Costello stuck it on the B-side of "Oliver's Army," and followed it up with his own earnest, slightly twisted torch song, "Just a Memory." And "Big Tears" (featuring extra guitar from the Clash's Mick Jones) and its sister song "Tiny Steps" extend the This Year's Model aesthetic further into punk rock.
By the time Costello recorded his fifth studio album, he'd been on the music-biz treadmill for four years — apparently, a lot of its songs were reworked from fragments that had been sitting around for a while, and it's the first record he'd made that had blatant filler on it. If there's a lyrical theme, it's his old standby of lovers stabbing each other in the back. The highlights, as far as the frontman's contributions are concerned, are the two most understated songs: "Watch Your Step," on which he hisses at stupid kids who "think you're young and original," and an acerbic commentary on too-good manners, "New Lace Sleeves."
But the Attractions were a formidable unit, and where Costello broke stride, they took over. "Strict Time," for instance, isn't much of a song, but Steve Nieve's relentless, salsafied piano part and Pete Thomas's drumming levitate it. Nieve's also the hero of "Clubland," pulling off a style that's part grand rock 'n' roll, part cabaret sleaze. And Costello was on such a roll that even his throwaways were often delightful: don't miss "Different Finger," another of his stabs at '50s-style country, and "From a Whisper to a Scream," a spirited duet with Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, whose East Side Story Costello produced around the same time.
After the rococo extravagance of Imperial Bedroom and the country detour of Almost Blue, Costello and the Attractions shifted gears again, working with hit producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley in an attempt to work up a more mainstream record. It worked in some ways: the pop-soul trifle "Everyday I Write the Book" became Costello's first American Top 40 hit, and "Let Them All Talk" (with its prominent horn section) got a bunch of early MTV play too. Naturally, Costello sometimes undermines his own attempts to make a good-time party record, but it's fun to hear his innate cynicism colliding with pep.
The enduring highlights of Punch the Clock, though, aren't quite new wave moments: They're a pair of songs that marked a shift in the target of Costello's acid tongue from romantic frustration to political malice. "Pills and Soap," an "instant single" released under the name The Imposter, was loosely inspired by Grandmaster Flash's "The Message," of all things; it's not a rap record, but it's spare, cruel and cutting. And "Shipbuilding," originally written for Robert Wyatt (with music written by Langer, and a gorgeous trumpet solo by Chet Baker), is a brilliantly understated song about the Falklands War and the way that, more generally, war disguises itself as normalcy.
"Masterpiece?" read the ads that Elvis Costello's record label took out for Imperial Bedroom. The question mark was apt. It wasn't entirely clear what they had on their hands: a difficult, densely layered album, to be sure, but also a hugely ambitious project. Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick produced the record, and it was by far the most ornate, sculpted, sonically rich album Costello and the Attractions had made (a handful of songs even feature brass, woodwinds and strings, arranged by Steve Nieve). It was very much an attempt to promote Costello from "smart punk rocker" to "Significant Pop Figure," and he was definitely... sort of ready for the leap.
A few of these recordings collapse into rococo excess: "Man Out of Time" went on to become a standard in Costello's repertoire, but its bombastic arrangement here (bookended by fragments of howling punk rock) does it no favors. Still, the grandness of Imperial Bedroom's textures worked out beautifully for other songs, like "You Little Fool," a cruelly pointed song about miserable teenage sex made terrifying by its wild production tricks. Costello's singing is more adventurous than it had ever been before, built around his subdued baritone and falsetto more than the pained, high, hard range he usually sticks to. And the best songs on Imperial Bedroom are the ones where he reaches back into the history of Tin Pan Alley-style popular song — the desperate torch songs "Kid About It" and "The Long Honeymoon," and especially "Almost Blue," his most plainspoken, touching and corrosive ballad.
By the early '90s, Elvis Costello was growing restless with rock, and Juliet was waiting with a safety net: a news item about people writing letters addressed to Juliet Capulet inspired this cycle of epistolary songs, written (both lyrics and music) and performed in collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet. It was his first big step toward positioning himself as a genre-defying musical polymath, and some of the results are splendid: "The Birds Will Still Be Singing" is one of his deepest plaints, and "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" is a witty, barbed novelty song. Costello learned to read and write musical notation in the course of the project, and it extended his songwriting in important ways (it's hard to imagine Painted from Memory having happened without it, for instance). Still, most of Costello's best songs have ended up transformed for the other contexts in which he's performed them; these are pretty much strictly voice-and-string-quartet compositions.
In some sense, one of the grand old voices of the British New Wave collaborating on an album with easy-listening master Burt Bacharach should have proved conclusively that punk never happened. But Bacharach was always a cannier melodist than he got credit for, and Costello had been a huge fan from the get-go: he'd been covering "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" onstage in 1977, back when that was the least cool thing a punk rock guy could possibly do. In the mid-'90s, they co-wrote a gorgeous song called "God Give Me Strength" for the movie Grace of My Heart, very much along the lines of Bacharach's '60s collaborations with Hal David; they reconvened a couple of years later to write an album's worth of songs in the same vein together.
The result was easily Bacharach's best work in decades — a return to the power and complexity of his early hits — and his presence seems to have reined in Costello's verbal and vocal excesses, too. Instead of wisecracks or cryptic wordplay, he offers sad, straightforward aphorisms: "Did somebody say 'can we still be friends'?" Costello's lyrics circle the idea of nostalgia for an old relationship ("This House Is Empty Now," in fact, is a sequel to Dionne Warwick's Bacharach/David-written "A House Is Not a Home"), without the anger he might have evinced even a few years earlier. And unlike many of Costello's one-off collaborations, Painted from Memory yielded some songs that have stayed in his repertoire — "God Give Me Strength" and the title track are as elegantly wrought as anything he's ever sung.
Guitarist Bill Frisell has collaborated with Costello a few times (their duo EP Deep Dead Blue is worth hunting down), and when Costello and Burt Bacharach finished writing the songs that would become Painted from Memory, they sent demos to Frisell to record the same material with a jazz septet. The result is a curio, but a likeable one. Costello and Cassandra Wilson turn up to sing one number apiece, and duet on "I Still Have That Other Girl." Mostly, though, this is Frisell's show, and he finds some unexpected dimensions in the songs — transforming "Such Unlikely Lovers" into queasy metal, tenderly tracing the contours of "Painted from Memory," and turning over the melody of "My Thief" to clarinetist Don Byron in a spare duo performance.
King Of Americana
Costello's always had a thick strain of "don't you tell me what to do!" running through him, and perhaps the quickest possible way to convince his new wave audience that he wasn't interested in toeing the party line was making an album of by-the-book country covers in Nashville with ultra-slick countrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill. The Attractions, to their credit, get right into the spirit of things (augmented by pedal steel guitarist John McFee, returning from My Aim Is True), even though the only real chance they get to cut loose is the opening 95-second dash through Hank Williams's "Why Don't You Love Me."
The repertoire nudges at the boundaries of doctrinaire country a little bit — Big Joe Turner's jump blues number "Honey Hush" turns up, as well as two Gram Parsons tunes (although Costello renames "Hot Burrito #1" to the more dignified "I'm Your Toy"). Mostly, though, it's a document of Costello's then-current obsession with straight-up Nashville and, in particular, a bunch of songs associated with his idol (and frequent Sherrill associate) George Jones. One way to hear Almost Blue, though, is to listen for the subtext in most of these songs: heartbreak and booze may both have been country commonplaces, but this is a really gin-soaked record in which nearly every song involves a shattered relationship.
It took Costello a good long while, but he finally addressed the legacy of that other King Elvis on a regally assured, uncharacteristically relaxed and expansive album on which his rotating backup included several members of the other King Elvis's band. ("The Costello Show," as the record was originally credited, also featured appearances from veteran jazz bassist Ray Brown, zydeco accordionist Jo-El Sonnier and, on "Suit of Lights," the Attractions, with whom his relationship was rapidly cooling.) King of America is a tour of America and its music, conducted by a Brit whose contempt for American culture's stupidities is tempered by adoration for the glories of the country's pop music. The two original side-openers are the album's statements of purpose: "Brilliant Mistake" (which confronts the absurdity of the States) and "American Without Tears" (a waltz about a pair of transplanted Englishwomen who married American G.I.s) are both roots songs that stare into the depths of their own rootlessness. Elsewhere, he pays direct tribute to various strains of American popular song "Poisoned Rose" and "Indoor Fireworks" are up there with Costello's deepest torch songs; "The Big Light" is the sleekest and funniest of his Johnny Cash pastiches; "Our Little Angel" is a straightforward country song on the outside and crammed with barbs on its interior. The master songwriter gets out of the way for a pair of hoarse, seething covers (Nina Simone's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues"), but his lyrics have never been smarter and more thoughtful than they are here.
Elvis Costello was raised in Liverpool and has lived everywhere from Dublin to New York, but a good chunk of his heart belongs to Nashville. That much would be obvious even if Sacred, Profane & Sugarcane hadn't been recorded in that city's Sound Emporium Studio in three days and produced by Americana doyen T-Bone Burnett with a crack band of Nashville session all-stars including Jerry Douglas, best known for his dobro playing for Alison Krauss's Union Station. All you need to do is pay attention to the album's regret-soaked selections to figure it out. None of this is especially surprising: Costello has been writing convincing country music since his career began. The year he began recording, 1977, saw both "Radio Sweetheart" and "Stranger in the House" issued as B-sides, and from 1981's Almost Blue, a country-covers album, to 2004's The Delivery Man, featuring co-vocalists Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, he's recorded extensively in Nashville. The songs on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane come from a wide assortment of places. A few are Costello collaborations with other writers, including Burnett ("The Crooked Line" and "Sulphur to Sugarcane") and Loretta Lynn ("I Felt The Chill Before The Winter Came"). A handful of others, notably the slave-era narrative "Red Cotton," originated with an incomplete project based on Hans Christian Andersen's visit to the U.S. with his beloved, the singer Jenny Lind. There are a couple of older Costello songs, "Complicated Shadows" and "Hidden Shame," written for (and the latter recorded by) Johnny Cash, and the album finishes with an old Bing Crosby tune, the doleful slow waltz "Changing Partners," which Elvis sings as though deep into his cups. The band's relaxed arrangements help make everything run smoothly. Not too smoothly, as is generally the case with Costello even in studio-pro mode: these tracks have a lived-in roughness that suits the material and singer equally nicely. And the mood of the songs is as variable as their points of origin, from the reflective honky-tonk of "Down Among the Wine and Spirits" to the semi-title track, "Sulphur to Sugarcane." The latter is the album's truest delight, a randy lover-man-on-the-road boast that sounds like Costello and Burnett were trying to top each other while writing it: "Up in Syracuse, I was falsely accused," Costello croons, "but I'm not here to hurt you/I'm here to steal your virtue." It's an idle sentiment: Secret Profane isn't about stealing virtues. It's about reaffirming them. Michaelangelo Matos
Elvis Costello does not make albums for these times. As mainstream pop draws increasingly on cheerleading chants and advertising jingles for inspiration, the greatest songwriter to grow out of the punk/New Wave era embraces complex tunes and harmonies inspired by jazz and classical, ornate arrangements reliant on old acoustic instruments and garrulous lyrics crazy with arcane imagery, boasting byzantine rhyme schemes. A more hit-hungry artist would top-load their album with their most accessible cuts, but Costello sequences National Ransom's most immediate tracks midway through. None of them resemble the rest of the record or his most familiar songs: Abhorring stasis, Costello dodges categorization and commercialization like other artists clamor for it. But for listeners with long attention spans (and if you've made it 30+ albums into Costello's career, you're among them), this ranks among his most rewarding offerings in years. Like 2009's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, National Ransom is produced by T-Bone Burnett, a master at replicating the sound of classic country. It boasts some of bluegrass's most celebrated minstrels Mike Compton on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro and lap steel and Stuart Duncan on banjo and fiddle. But there's also keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas of the Attractions, avant-jazz guitarist Marc Ribot, legendary pianist Leon Russell, Nashville icon Vince Gill, and a hefty horn section. Where Sugarcane stuck to American styles and topics, Ransom drifts in and out of them to embrace somber Anglo folk ("Bullets for the New-Born King"), British Invasion rave-up ("The Spell That You Cast"), and beyond. With Ribot on board and Costello turning his attention to dissolute, doomed protagonists, there's more than a whiff of Tom Waits and nasty Thunderbird wine in tracks like "Jimmie Standing in the Rain." Precipitation is one of the album's defining metaphors: It's both a cleansing blessing and a destructive curse, and the arrangements accordingly billow thick and varied squalls of guitar and other stringed things. Eight or more musicians interlock on locomotive rhythms, and on cuts like "Five Small Words" where the sound is dense yet hooky, fans may be reminded of such prime Costello outings as Imperial Bedroom. Like Costello's early producer Nick Lowe, Burnett favors loose performances low on studio trickery: Pained songs like "Stations of the Cross" find Costello straining at the top of his register, revealing the impact of advancing years. As always, Costello doesn't make it easy on himself. So it comes as a shock when seven tracks in, his voice drops to a deep, comfy croon for the smoky cabaret of "You Hung the Moon," the album's instant and most substantial knockout. The song is a jazzy, torchy lament, but Costello avoids singing of conventional lover's woes. Instead, he depicts soldiers returning from war, but they're not all there: Some return as ghosts, others as drunkards, tearful and damaged. Seeking guidance, Costello looks to the moon, that guardian of lonely hearts, but its guiding luminescence is extinguished, its gravitational force destroyed. "The shore is a parchment, the sea has no tide/Since he was taken from my side." Whether chronicling economic havoc in the jagged, incisive title track or documenting romantic forfeiture in the forthright "I Lost You," National Ransom focuses on bereavement, but it does so with nuance that sustains multiple listens. Like that lunar glow, the angry young man of Costello's glory days has vanished. In his place is a much wiser and more eclectic fellow who mourns civility's loss as his artistry's sophistication grows. Difficult yet not disagreeable, he's the rare musical contrarian with the both the flexibility and the temerity to endure and endear. Barry Walters
Jack Of All Parades
Costello's second collection of B-sides and miscellany is his most scattered album — spanning eight years' worth of sessions, it was originally released as a "Various Artists" record (with individual tracks credited to the Coward Brothers, Napoleon Dynamite and the Royal Guard, the Emotional Toothpaste...). Some of these songs were outtakes for good reason, but others are pretty terrific one-offs that wouldn't have fit on a "regular" Costello album: the apoplectic rocker "Baby's Got a Brand New Hairdo," a romping duet with Jimmy Cliff called "Seven Day Weekend," a Johnny Cash homage called "The People's Limousine." A half-dozen covers (including songs by Smokey Robinson, Yoko Ono and future collaborator Burt Bacharach) hint at the breadth of Costello's songwriting inspiration. And admirers of King of America are directed to a fantastic single from those sessions: the Motown-inspired original version of "Blue Chair" (re-recorded for Blood and Chocolate) and a mournful sequel to "American Without Tears."
Elvis Costello's first album in two and a half years — an eternity by his standards in 1989 — was a declaration of independence: from "and the Attractions," from his old label, from the album-by-album narrow stylistic focus that's been his habit for most of his career. Recorded with a rotating crew of over 30 musicians, it's basically a variety show: here's a rock 'n' roll tune! here's an instrumental brass-band piece! here's a quiet torch song! here's a topical number! The cover found Costello's head done up in clown makeup and mounted on a plaque labeled "The Beloved Entertainer," and the album's centerpiece is "God's Comic," a half-speed variation on George Formby-style novelty songs, in which a variety-show comedian finds himself trying to justify his existence before his Creator.
It is, in short, a mixed bag, alternately eager and unwilling to please, with high peaks (the delightful "Veronica," one of two songs co-written by Paul McCartney, became Costello's biggest American hit) and low valleys (the second half has some egregious filler). The best tracks here are one-off high-concept pieces whose conceits are reinforced by their sound. "...This Town...," an extended middle finger smirkingly directed at L.A., features guitar from quintessential L.A. musician Roger McGuinn; "Tramp the Dirt Down," a Celtic elegy recorded with Irish folk musicians, turns out to be Costello telling Margaret Thatcher he can't wait to jump up and down on her grave. And "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," a smashing riff on New Orleans-style soul ballads, was Costello's first collaboration with master Crescent City pianist Allen Toussaint.
One of the bitterest albums in a career that's not short on bitterness kicks off with two songs endorsing the apocalypse, proceeds through a series of vicious character portraits and a couple of masochistic love songs, and concludes with an exhausted scowl at both belief and atheism. It's a dark, perverse record; the cheeriest Costello sounds is when he's hoarsely screaming the title of "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)." "All Grown Up" is a waltz, with orchestra, that he sing-spits in a voice suitable for pronouncing judgment on an axe murderer. The album's second half is dominated by a series of despondent ballads, the best of which is "So Like Candy," a leftover from his songwriting sessions with Paul McCartney a few years earlier.
If Spike had been Costello showing off what he could do without the Attractions, MLAR is him groping for a new musical direction, sometimes more successfully than others. (The tremulous, clattering arrangement of "Hurry Down Doomsday" is spectacularly creepy, but the Dirty Dozen Brass Band nearly overload the fragile "Sweet Pear.") Fortunately, he could still be cruel and funny at the same time. "How To Be Dumb" is five minutes of Costello clobbering somebody with a blunt instrument (smart money says it's Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, who had recently published an unflattering roman à clef, "The Big Wheel"). And the Beach Boys pastiche "The Other Side of Summer" pairs one of his sunniest melodies with lyrics about "the pale pathetic promises that everybody swallows." If darkness was coming down, at least Elvis was going to greet it with a song.
Recorded in 1990 (with a band including some of the Confederates) but not released for another five years, this is as deliberately minor a record as Costello has ever made — a fun, casual collection of cover tunes that he wanted to come out "without fanfare, letting it simply appear in the racks." A few of these songs had been in his repertoire for a long time, notably Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone" (in an arrangement inspired by the Beatles' then-unreleased version) and James Carr's "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man"; a few display the overeager mixtape maker's habit of trying to be non-obvious. (If you're going to blow your voice out on a Little Richard song, you only pick "Bama Lama Bama Loo" if you want to avoid one of the big hits.) Costello's version of "Running Out of Fools" can't possibly measure up to Aretha Franklin's, but his adoration for its streamlined power is obvious.
The final album Costello made with the Attractions is a conceptual mess with moments of riveting clarity and sad elegance erupting out of its murk. Originally intended as a collection of songs he'd written for other singers, it evolved into something different: a set of introspective songs, most of them slow to midtempo, that sometimes threaten to drown in their own verbiage but eventually resolve into a portrait of a dissolving relationship — possibly the band's relationship. "You Bowed Down," written for Roger McGuinn (and played in a very Byrdsian mode) is a scalding kiss-off to some kind of sell-out or other; "The Other End of the Telescope," a rewritten version of a song that had first appeared on a 'Til Tuesday album (sung by co-writer Aimee Mann), moves so smoothly between compassion and bitterness that it's hard to make out the seams. And even though programmed rhythms seem like they'd be a waste of the Attractions' strengths, the hint of trip-hop that drifts into songs like "It's Time" has aged unexpectedly well.
Accidents Will Happen
"Probably the worst record that I could have made of a decent bunch of songs," Costello's called this one, and though it's not entirely a stinker, he's close. (Some of the arrangements are better than he thinks, and a lot of the songs, most of them on the theme of domestic despair, are worse.) As the title suggests, his main lyrical strategy here is covering up genuine anguish with transparently fake joke anguish — "The Comedians" would only really take shape when he later rewrote it stem to stern for its inspiration Roy Orbison. But the Clive Langer/Alan Winstanley production that had given a jolt of pop to Punch the Clock turns fussy and grotesquely slick here: Its single "The Only Flame In Town," the laziest of Costello's extended-metaphor tunes, is maddeningly dated-sounding. "Peace In Our Time" is a keeper, if a downer; "Love Field" has somehow stuck around in the Elvis repertoire. Otherwise, most of these songs are just painful to listen to, and not in a cathartic way.
In the early 2000s, Costello's marriage to Cait O'Riordan broke up, and he fell into a new romance with jazz singer Diana Krall. He commemorated his life shift with this restrained, formal collection of torch songs (unsurprisingly about the dissolution of an old love and the dawning of a new one), with brass and strings, initially issued on the classical imprint Deutsche Grammophon. The lineup of musicians is impeccable — Steve Nieve plays suitably black-tie piano on most of it, and other longtime collaborators like vibraphonist Bill Ware and the Brodsky Quartet turn up too. He foregoes his habitual venom, puns and hyper-verbosity; his singing is more consistently subdued than it's been in decades. The problem is that everything interesting and enjoyable about his songwriting and performances is muffled, too — "austerity" isn't what anyone looks for in an Elvis Costello album, and even his reliable sense of melody appears to have taken off along with his indignation and eye for stinging details.
It seemed like such a good idea on paper: after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Costello figured he'd make an album with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. Then the original plan — to cut a quick set of Toussaint covers with the man himself and the Imposters — got more complicated: The two of them wrote a handful of new songs together, and Costello wrote the title track himself. And somewhere in there, everything got gummed up. Whatever else they were, Toussaint's classic records were pleasure music, and framing them as solemn elegies by the master poet of a destroyed city does neither them nor him many favors. The band, oddly, evinces a near-total lack of swing; Joe Henry's production is crisp but chilly.
There are a couple of highlights here. Toussaint takes over lead vocals for one cut, his own "Who's Gonna Help a Brother Get Further?" and says more with his restraint than all of his companion's scenery-chewing. (It's also got a fine, rowdy trombone solo by "Big Sam" Williams.) "Ascension Day" — a new Costello lyric to a minor-key adaptation of Professor Longhair's New Orleans classic "Tipitina" — is a smart, gracefully executed gesture. For the most part, though, this is strictly minor Costello: a tribute to someone else that ends up being mostly about him.