My Aim Is True (Columbia, 1977)
This ¬Year's Model (Columbia, 1978)
Armed Forces (Columbia, 1979)
Get Happy (Columbia, 1980)
Taking Liberties (Columbia, 1980)
Trust (Columbia, 1981)
Almost Blue (Columbia, 1981)
Imperial Bedroom (Columbia, 1982)
Punch the Clock (Columbia, 1983)
Goodbye Cruel World (Columbia, 1984)
The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions (Columbia, 1985)
King of America (Columbia, 1986)
Blood & Chocolate (Columbia, 1986)
Out of Our Idiot (Demon U.K., 1987)
Spike (Warner Bros., 1989)
Girls Girls Girls (Columbia, 1989)
Mighty Like a Rose (Warner Bros., 1990)
The Juliet Letters (Warner Bros., 1993)
2 Years (Rykodisc, 1993)
Brutal Youth (Warner Bros., 1994)
The Very Best of Elvis Costello (Rykodisc, 1994)
Kojak Variety (Warner Bros., 1995)
All This Useless Beauty (Warner Bros., 1996)
Costello & Nieve (Warner Bros., 1996)
Extreme Honey: The Very Best of the Warner Bros. Years (Warner Bros., 1997)
Painted From Memory (Mercury, 1998)
The Sweetest Punch (Decca, 1999)
When I Was Cruel (Mercury, 2002)
Cruel Smile (Island, 2002)
North (Deutsche Grammophon, 2003)
The Delivery Man (Lost Highway, 2004)
Il Sogno (Deutsche Grammophon, 2004)
My Flame Burns Blue (Deutsche Grammophon, 2004)
The River In Reverse (Verve Forecast, 2005)
Momofuku (Lost Highway, 2008)
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (Hear Music, 2009)
"Don't put your heart on your sleeve/When your remarks are off the cuff," Elvis Costello once warned, and like the great rock & roll romantic he is, he's spent a whole career betraying his own good sense. Costello emerged from the London punk explosion of 1977 as the resident singer-songwriter, using his smart mouth to turn sexual and political troubles into musical outrage. Elvis has gone through many changes since then, often coasting on mere craft, or the memory of it. But his key to greatness has always been his passion—his "Let It Bleed" means more than his "Lush Life." A wit, a blackguard, a moralist, a poet, a bitch, a Celtic folk ranter, a grinning pop tunesmith, a radio sweetheart with a sullen punk stare, he's a true original whether he's rocking on out or just trying to look Italian to the musical Valium.
Costello made a big splash right off with My Aim Is True, an attack on pop romance in all its guises, with the kind of venom that could only come from a true believer in spite of himself. With backup from a fluffy California bar band, Costello sneers about sex ("Watching the Detectives"), politics ("Less Than Zero"), and religion (the bad-Catholic-boy classic "Waiting for the End of the World")—although the one he'll be stuck singing for the rest of his life is the reluctant love ballad, "Alison." Elvis really found his voice when he got the Attractions together, souping up the music into the Stones/Nuggets garage-band racket of every teenage rock geek's dreams, with Steve Nieve's nagging headache of an organ standing in for the brutal guitar Costello couldn't play. This Year's Model is the peak of the angry young Elvis, channeling the rage into the furious hooks of "Lip Service," "Lipstick Vogue," and "No Action."
Armed Forces soon followed—too soon, probably, since it suffers from a heavy case of road fatigue. The shrill, cluttered keyboards, almost all treble, suit the paranoia of the politically charged lyrics ("She's my self-touch typewriter/And I'm the great dictator"). Get Happy loosens up for a tour de force of 20 tracks imitating Booker T. and the MG's at Ramones velocity, although "Opportunity" and "Riot Act" showed what a supple ballad singer Elvis had become. Trust has always been underrated because there's no real angle—just 14 brilliantly barbed pop tunes about men paying the wages of masculinity and suffering for their sins, with Pete Thomas's punchiest drumming and Steve Nieve's glossiest piano. In great songs such as "Watch Your Step," "New Lace Sleeves," and "You'll Never Be a Man," Elvis finally comes clean about his woman problems, with enough wit to suggest a way out: "Shot With His Own Gun," indeed. Not as epochal as This Year's Model or King of America, Trust still marks Elvis's summit as a singer, songwriter, and miserable-Irish-bastard pin-up boy.
Costello spent the next few years stretching out stylistically, starting with the well-chosen, miserably sung country covers of Almost Blue. The Cole Porter homage Imperial Bedroom overdresses some excellent songs ("Beyond Belief," "Man Out of Time") and a few duds ("The Long Honeymoon") with layers of vocal overdubs, strings, horns, harpsichords, guitar solos, and Sgt. Pepper studio gimmicks. Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World imitate Top Forty radio, actually more of a stretch for Elvis than country or Cole Porter, with successes like the anti-Thatcher protest "Shipbuilding" and fab real-world hit "Every Day I Write the Book."
By the mid-Eighties, Costello was looking for new tricks: His thunder had been stolen by look-alike Steve Albini, who took the smoldering geek rage of This Year's Model to new sonic heights with Big Black. But Elvis roared back in 1986 with two of his best albums, both clearly influenced by his work producing the Pogues. King of America is where Costello harkens to his folkie roots, busting out the acoustic guitar, hooking up with T-Bone Burnett and an unlikely passel of grizzled session dudes for a masterpiece. King of America gets off to a mighty slow start, but once you hit "Indoor Fireworks" at track six, settle in for one gem after another (okay, not "The Big Light" or "Eisenhower Blues"), from hoarse political rants like "Little Palaces" and "Sleep of the Just" to soulful love ballads like "Jack of All Parades." The Attractions returned for Blood & Chocolate, completing the one-two punch with one of Elvis's loudest, funniest records. Although the songs have the rugged acoustic strum of King of America, the Attractions' ham-fisted garage rock animates the Celt-folk passion of "Tokyo Storm Warning," "Poor Napoleon," and "Crimes of Paris." Best line: "She hit him with that paperweight Eiffel Tower."
Since that creative peak, Elvis has kept admirably busy, but with only sporadic moments of interest on his new records. Spike features more all-star cameos (from Paul McCartney to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band), but except for the righteously Thatcher-bashing "Tramp the Dirt Down," it's pretty words and no action, losing vague tunes in grandiose arrangements. The sequel Mighty Like a Rose vanished without a trace. The Juliet Letters is—get this—a classical song cycle about Romeo and Juliet, but it's no "Mystery Dance." Brutal Youth is a lightweight Attractions reunion; All This Useless Beauty offers muted balladry like the poignant "I Want to Vanish." The covers collection Kojak Variety has sharp versions of Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy" and Randy Newman's "I've Been Wrong Before"; the deluxe 2004 Rhino reissue adds a must-hear bonus disc with a country version of Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" (done as a demo for George Jones) and the Gershwin standard "How Long Has This Been Going On."
Kojak Variety was shaping up to be Elvis's best Nineties album until his Burt Bacharach collaboration, Painted From Memory. What could have been a camp joke becomes a magnificently bittersweet career summary for both gentlemen—the heartbreaking "Toledo" is, if anything, too good for Dionne Warwick to sing. (The Sweetest Punch reinterprets these songs with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.) When I Was Cruel, a belated and gratuitous return to guitar rock, finds Elvis thriving again on his commitment to tricky hooks, funny lyrics, and the head-scratching career moves that will keep his fans on their toes for the rest of his days. Any guy who can write songs such as "Episode of Blonde," "Alibi," and "When I Was Cruel" while pushing 50 is in no danger of burning out.
Costello has remained compulsively prolific, to the point where the music seems hasty and distracted on principle—as one songwriter grumbled, "I could put out an album a year too, if I didn't bother to finish any of the songs." But the restless pace is part of the point; by now nobody's ever surprised when Costello shows up with an orchestral ballet score (Il Sogno) or a rock throwaway dedicated to the guy who invented ramen noodles (Momofuku). North is a return to jazz ballads, with Costello sounding a little stiff and dusty. The Delivery Man and Secret Profane & Sugarcane pay homage to Southern roots-rock, with songs both inspired ("Bedlam") and forced ("Scarlet Tide"). My Flame Burns Blue interprets his songbook with a Dutch avant-jazz group, the Metropole Orkest, with an ace New Orleans R&B cover, Dave Bartholomew's "That's How You Got Killed Before"; he expands the New Orleans concept into The River In Reverse, playing sideman to the legendary Allen Touissant.
Costello's greatest-hits albums seem redundant, since he puts his heart and soul into his discrete concept albums. Girls Girls Girls is an eccentric compilation annotated by the maestro himself, who's always worth reading (his liner notes to the 1994 reissue of Goodbye Cruel World begin, "Congratulations! You have just purchased our worst album!"). Taking Liberties and Out of Our Idiot collect some of the stray B-sides and outtakes Costello was leaving in his wake; most of these songs appear as bonus tracks on the various CD reissues of the Costello catalogue. Ones to keep an eye out for: "Black Sails in the Sunset," "Hoover Factory," "Talking in the Dark," and his ragged cover of Sam Cooke's "Get Yourself Another Fool."
2 ½ Years is a box with the first three albums; Cruel Smile has outtakes from When I Was Cruel; Costello & Nieve is a five-disc box of intimate 1996 live performances. In the late Nineties, Elvis began a strange new career appearing as himself in movies, such as Spice World, 200 Cigarettes, and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, where he shows up with Burt Bacharach to sing "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." In 2008 he took on a new role as America's favorite musical chat-show host on the TV series "Spectacle"; watching Costello hobnob with the stars, it's clear he's earned that "Beloved Entertainer" plaque to which he's always half-mockingly aspired.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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