Reviewed on this page:
My Aim Is True - This Year's Model - Armed Forces - Get Happy!! - Trust -
Almost Blue - Imperial Bedroom - Punch The Clock - Goodbye Cruel World - King Of America - Spike - Mighty Like A Rose - The Juliet Letters - Brutal Youth - Kojak Variety - All This Useless Beauty
Elvis Costello is nowadays a cult figure. But for a brief moment in the late 70s, he was one of the only commercially successful proponents of the new, stripped-down approach to rock that then was brewing in England. The Police and U2 arrived later, and several critic's favorites like XTC never really made the big time.
And heavy-weight Class of '77 punk bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Jam were a bitter pill for many rock fans to swallow.
Costello, however, combined clever, catchy songwriting, angst-ridden, moaning vocals, and a deceptively harmless, 50's-retro image that the public gobbled up. At the time I didn't like him much - his over-economical arrangements, which eschew either lengthy soloing or complex harmony, strike me as monotonous. But as the years go by his ear for melody and dynamics stands out impressively against the miserable sludge of modern rock.
Less-than-obsessive Costello fans like myself will quickly run into two problems. First, the man has got to be one of the most prolific rock writers around. He has slowed down a bit in recent years, but it's hard to know where to start. Second, Costello's vocal and instrumental limitations have led him to a series of fitful experiments: country-western, orchestrated balladry, 50's roots rock, even classical music. All of these experiments are odd and off-putting, so you'd better stick with his more straight-ahead rock records - if you can figure out which ones those are. I hope this page is of some use in light of all this. Unfortunately, I've acquired most of his catalogue recently and in some cases I am still trying to formulate an opinion.
Costello's classic late 70s discs have all been reissued with bonus tracks, so try to avoid the older, standard-issue versions.
Also, Costello put out a series of limited-release discs on his vanity Demon label in the 80s, of which 1987's Out Of Our Idiot has been strongly recommended to me. However, I have never seen these discs and have nothing very interesting to say about them.
As you'd expect, there's a good Elvis Costello home page with its own discographic info. (JA)
The Attractions: Steve Nieve (keyboards), Bruce Thomas (bass guitar), Pete Thomas (drums).
The Confederates: James Burton (guitar), Jim Keltner (drums), Jerry Scheff (bass). Numerous other players appear on each record.
My Aim Is True (1977)
Costello's impressive debut, packed with catchy tunes that
remain classics: the aching "Alison," the ultra-cool "Less Than Zero," the frenetic "Mystery Dance," and
the dreamy "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes." The backing
band here is a local group of Elvis' acquaintance called Clover. Producer Nick Lowe
keeps them as much in the background as possible - only keyboards and occasional backup vocals
distract at all from Elvis' guitar and vocals. The resulting
crispness must have seemed like a breath of fresh air back in the
pretension-laden 70s. The only shortcoming is the lack of any substantial punk influence at this early date, which brings Costello's 50's retro pretensions a little too much into focus and leaves a few tunes so down-tempo they're dull. Nonetheless, this gold
record thrust Costello onto the international rock scene and
is an absolute must for fans.
The Rykodisc version appends enough bonus tracks to double the
disc's running time; they're mostly home demos, notably excepting
the irresistable pseudo-reggae single "Watching The Detectives," one of his best tunes ever - it
appeared on the original US, but not UK, LP releases. (JA)
This Year's Model (with the Attractions: 1978)
The first appearance of Attractions, and not coincidentally one of Costello's best records ever. The band had its whole act worked out already: savage energy, crafty hooks, and Stax-Volt cool. Costello's mastery of dynamics, melody, and arrangement had reached a peak, and there isn't one loser in the whole pile of eleven songs.
"Pump It Up" flies with brutal drumming and frenzied MG's-like hooks; "Lip Service" is propelled by handclaps and acoustic guitar strumming; "This Year's Girl" lurches along with infectious hipster syncopation; "The Beat" grabs you with unexpected silent pauses; "No Action" even drags some Beatles-like harmonies in to the usual mania.
And best is saved for last: "Radio, Radio" synthesizes all of this in one roaring, three-minute pop symphony. Start here: if you don't get swept away by it all, then Costello's just not for you.
I've been told that Mick Jones of the Clash appears on a bonus track ("Big Tears"). (JA)
Armed Forces (with the Attractions: 1978)
Costello's first and best attempt at a concept album, with most of the lyrics mixing military metaphors and romantic nihilism. There's no shortage of sparkling tunes here. "Oliver's Army" leads the way with complex changes, a foot-tapping beat, morose lyrics, and a great refrain. Shimmering ballads ("Two Little Hitlers"), homages to the 50's ("Moods For Moderns"), and reggae ("Senior Service") are all still part of the formula, and all of it still works.
Meanwhile, there's plenty of Costello's harsh, driving rock formula, which by now owes a lot to punk but goes far beyond it - "Goon Squad" is the best example.
Lowe's production is a little more elaborate here, with good use of stereo effects and a booming sound. And the Attractions seem close to their peak as well.
The only drawback is that the previous album took Costello's New Wave style about as far as it ever was to go, and the tunes here aren't quite as extraordinary.
The American version of the disc includes Lowe's booming, crashing "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding," with an outstanding vocal making it one of Costello's most memorable singles. (JA)
Get Happy!! (with the Attractions: 1980)
Possibly the fastest-paced pop record ever made, stuffing 20 tracks into just 48 minutes. It's so frenetic that you never have a chance to get bored - or really very engaged. And by now Costello had no idea what to do with his band, tossing off the same instrumentally spartan, but hyperkinetic ska-meets-the-50's formula ("Human Touch") on song after song. So when he matches jangling acoustic guitar to stately electric organ on "New Amsterdam" or tosses in a brief harmonica solo on "I Stand Accused," the trivial change of instrumentation is downright startling.
Admittedly, there are a few fine little songwriting nuggets; the dramatic anthem "Riot Act" will stick in your head for a long time. And Bruce Thomas' McCartney-influenced bass lines are superb: sly and nimble on "King Horse," arrestingly unpredictable on "Black And White World," irresistably danceable on MG's-influenced numbers like "Beaten To The Punch," "B Movie," and especially "Opportunity."
But there's no passion and fury here, just occasional histrionics ("The Imposter") - after a while it all sounds like so much rumbling noise. Not surprisingly, Costello started a decade-long commercial slide at this point. (JA)
Trust (with the Attractions: 1981)
A solid rebound, with one number after another delivering up-tempo, riff-laden pop mania in Costello's signature style. His command of dynamics and melody is back on great tunes like "New Lace Sleeves," and even Lowe's mix sounds better. The lead-off track "Clubland" is among the stronger selections, and like most it's carried by the bouncy rhythm section and retro organ and guitar parts.
But there a couple of experiments like the disturbing piano-and-voice number "Shot With His Own Gun," the country song "Different Finger," and the neurotically repetitive but impressively tuneful "Strict Time."
And then there's the swinging vocal duet with Squeeze singer/songwriter Glenn Tillbrook, graced by a bass line that practically pushes you out on to the dance floor ("From A Whisper To A Scream"). The only misfire is Costello's lyrically ambiguous take on domestic violence ("White Knuckles," otherwise a fine song); and the major minus is that if you're looking for either early-era quasi-punk Costello or late-era crafted pop Costello, this is an intermediate effort that doesn't epitomize either period. (JA)
Almost Blue (with the Attractions: 1981)
Costello now got bored with his literate punk rock formula and abruptly switched gears for an entire album of country-western cover tunes produced by Nashville sleeze-meister Billy Sherrill. It's a disaster. The band is as solid as always, and hired-gun pedal steel player John McFee is fine.
But the material is totally unsuited for Costello's sarcastic, gritty delivery, and the sappy, gimmicky, dumbed-down lyrics ("Brown To Blue") couldn't be any farther from Costello's famously witty songwriting.
Sherrill slathers the ballads with strings and churchy backing vocals ("Sweet Dreams"; "Good Year For The Roses"; "Too Far Gone"),
and even the relatively biting, boogie-woogie-like "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)" and "Honey Hush" seem like parodies.
There is some entertainment value - a few old-timey tunes like "Colour Of The Blues" and Gram Parsons' straightforward "How Much I Lied" are harmless; the old Flying Burrito Brothers standard "I'm Your Toy" is pretty if overblown; and the swinging, pop-flavored "Sittin' And Thinkin'" is campy fun.
But unless you're intrigued by the idea of a punk rocker tackling tunes by George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and even Hank Williams, skip this one.
The eleven Rykodisc bonus tracks are mostly from a 1981 live performance and entirely in the same vein, except for a decent Costello original that shows how dull the covers really are ("Tears Before Bedtime") and an orchestrated live take on "I'm Your Toy" that shows how much worse things could have been. (JA)
Imperial Bedroom (with the Attractions: 1982)
This was Costello's first serious stab at orchestration, working with new producer Geoff Emerick (ex-engineer for the Beatles). But most of the change is in his tone, suddenly brooding and baroque; he often makes much broader use of overdubs, studio gimmickry, and relatively novel instrumentation like the accordion and harpsichord. Some of it works. "Shabby Doll" is too long but rocks hard. "The Loved Ones" is a fine radio hit, successfully recycling Costello's swinging 50's-meets-the-Beatles formula.
"Beyond Belief" builds so much tension it makes you want to scream, holding off the chorus till the bitter end.
But a lot of the rest is flaccid, weighed down by all the elaborate production - "Man Out Of Time" squanders a decent chorus by running on tediously for five minutes. And the orchestrated numbers are a total embarassment; Steve Nieve is a fine pianist, but his arrangements are just peppy British muzak spiced with 18th century flourishes ("...And In Every Home"; "Pidgin English"). Skip this unless you're running out of early-period Elvis Costello records to buy. (JA)
Punch The Clock (with the Attractions: 1983)
Costello was still sticking with the Attractions at this date, but he had again switched producers. You could argue that the new team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley glossed over the rough edges that make Costello so great, and indeed neither this nor the following effort broke his commercial slump in the U.S. But the change of pace did lead to Costello's one and only Top 40 hit - "Everyday I Write The Book," a really fine, well-produced love song with wickedly punning lyrics, another great Bruce Thomas bass line, and imaginative backup vocals courtesy of the two-woman combo Afrodiziak.
The rest of the record is pretty damn good as well. Numbers like "Let Them Talk," "The Greatest Thing," "TKO (Boxing Day)" and "The World And His Wife" all capture the joyful, frenetic side of Costello's early sound but fill it out cleverly with a pumping horn section. And then there are Elvis' bitterly anti-romantic lyrics, most of them focusing on ruined marriage. The subtle populist political protest "Shipbuilding" is one of the few exceptions. With a Chet Baker horn solo and a good arrangement by David Bedford, it also proves that Costello can pull off a stately orchestrated number that's tasteful and tuneful. Not the prototypical Elvis Costello album, but one of my personal favorites. (JA)
Goodbye Cruel World (with the Attractions: 1984)
Much in the same vein as the last record ("Room With No Number"), but neither as memorable nor as tasteful. Langer and Winstanley just don't know where to draw the line here: almost every track is defused with treacly backup vocals, light jazz keyboard parts, and even a languid sax solo or two ("Inch By Inch").
As for Costello, he seems to be burned out; his melodies are sweet but monotonous, especially on side 2. There's even a cover tune - the wimpy, but intricately arranged "I Wanna Be Loved," which turns out to be more compelling than most of the record.
Still, the production is mostly fresh enough to keep you awake ("Sour Milk-Cow Blues"), and never really intrusive. And the lyrics are interesting, with a lot of poetic merit even though he gets carried away here with bitter, paranoid, misogynistic anti-romance numbers ("The Only Flame In Town," a duet with Daryl Hall); there's even some outright eroticism (the dreamy "Love Field"). (JA)
King Of America (1986)
Yet another bout of foolish experimentation, with Costello dumping Langer and Winstanley in favor of T-Bone Burnett, and the Attractions in favor of an all-pro studio band (Jerry Scheff, Jim Keltner, James Burton, and future co-producer Mitchell Froom). It's lame: lame boogie-woogie country-blues ("Eisenhower Blues"), lame waltzing acoustic country ("American Without Tears"), lame 2/4 country stomp ("The Big Light"), lame, lame, lame. There's even less energy than on Imperial Bedroom, and the low-key production makes it less Costello-ish than almost anything else in his catalogue.
The album hits rock bottom with a dreary, uninspired cover of the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" that just spotlights Costello's meagre vocal talent - an Eric Burdon wannabe at best.
With lazy four-minute arrangements that sum to a one-hour running time, high points are painfully few; the closest things are "Brilliant Mistake," the punchy "Jack Of All Parades," the stark "Sleep Of The Just," with a dramatic vocal, and the mandolin-driven folk number "Little Palaces." An album for completists and folks who just have no idea what Costello's contribution really was. (JA)
Blood And Chocolate (with the Attractions: 1986)
The Attractions and Lowe made an encore appearance here, their last for nearly a decade. This is the only standard-issue Costello record not in my collection; I haven't seen it for sale very often but of course do plan to get it. (JA)
Costello's first album in ten years to go gold, co-produced by Burnett and Kevin Killen. Two songs were written in collaboration with Paul McCartney, and I can't think of any other reason for the commercial rebound - this is one of the most exhausting Costello listens anywhere, so incoherent it has no conceivable audience.
The problem is the overproduction, starting with the excess of players: McCartney and Roger McGuinn, who sounds great on the catchy "...This Town..."; Allen Toussaint (piano on "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror"); Chrissie Hynde (backups on "Satellite"); studio pros like Burnett, Keltner, Scheff, Pete Thomas, Jerry Marotta (drums), and Benmont Tench (keyboards); an Irish band including Davy Spillane; and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, which delivers a lively instrumental ("Stalin Malone") and rocks out on the funky "Chewing Gum," but fits in like a sore thumb.
Just one or two weak selections sound like the "real" EC ("Coal-Train Robberies"). Everything else is an experiment; some work (the creepy 2/4 "Let Him Dangle"), but most are tuneless, dreary, mannered, and lifeless, especially the syrupy Irish folk ballads. Macca's stuff is slim: "Veronica" is a cutesy, over-produced pop song, and "Pads, Paws And Claws" is a snotty Stray Cats sendup. Costello's wife Cait O'Riordan also gets a co-write ("Baby Plays Around"), and the song's blunt sentiments and simple acoustic tunefulness just emphasize everything else's baroque insincerity. (JA)
Mighty Like A Rose (1991)
You can practically hear the steam coming out of his ears as Costello struggles even harder here to be clever and innovative, but also to recapture some of his early-period energy. Occasionally it works, as with the cleverly arranged, lyrically indulgent "Harpies Bizarre," and the harsh, semi-industrial groove tune "Hurry Down Doomsday" (written with Jim Keltner, and featuring Nick Lowe on bass). Elsewhere Elvis flails with goofy waltzes ("Couldn't Call It Unexpected"), atmospheric experiments ("Broken"), sputtering 50's rock 'n' roll ("Playboy Into A Man"), and most often complexly layered, horn-dominated R & B ("Invasion Hit Parade").
And sometimes he does settle for the usual catchy pop tunes. They're mostly overproduced and enjoyable anyway, like the deluxe late 60s Beach Boys treatment on "The Other Side Of Summer."
To make things even more confusing, Paul McCartney collaborated on two songs; although he doesn't appear, the mellotron and bass lines on their "So Like Candy" deliver a remarkably effective Beatles tribute. In sum, the record's always odd enough to keep your attention despite the lack of focus and stylistic chaos. There are a ton of players, including late-80s associates like Mitchell Froom and Jerry Scheff, and big names like Larry Knechtel and Rob Wasserman. (JA)
The Juliet Letters (with the Brodsky Quartet: 1993)
A concept album with each song being in the form of a letter. It was a collaborative project with the Brodsky Quartet, otherwise not a pop act; they provided all of the instrumental backing and co-wrote most of the tunes, including the lyrics. It's fascinating most of the time, and it's musically well crafted, with Costello's voice in great form and the string quartet arrangements usually just modern enough to keep your attention.
That leads to the bad news - the vocal song format just doesn't lend itself to the monotonous, completely uniform instrumentation. Worse, the letter gimmick leads to the group writing one generalized, melodramatic lyric after another. Only a few songs really stick out of this 20-track monster: the jumpy "I Almost Had A Weakness," the Broadway-flavored "Damnation's Cellar," Costello's entertaining snarl on the goofy junk mail ode "This Offer Is Unrepeatable." Almost every other tune is grim, plodding, anachronous, and set in a minor key; you'll have trouble telling them apart, and by the time you get close to the end, you'll be aching for a good old-fashioned electric guitar. (JA)
Brutal Youth (with the Attractions: 1994)
Costello seems completely comfortable with his past here, bringing back the Attractions and just letting them do their thing. Nick Lowe also shows up, but he doesn't produce; instead, he replaces bassist Bruce Thomas on about half the tracks. The reunion seems to have sent Costello back in a time warp: tunes like "My Science Fiction Twin" and "Just About Glad" could just as well have been recorded in the early 80s. But there are some harsh roots rockers here like the thumping, reverb drenched "Kinder Murder" that are almost as fresh and exciting as his 70s records.
Some of it is even more raw than that, almost venturing in Neil Young territory.
Still, though, Costello never really strays from his riff-happy pop formula, and in places he falls back on 50's affectations ("Clown Strike," complete with doo-wopping; "20% Amnesia," with a braying horn section and Stray Cats-like rhythm) or on sophisticated, but low-key balladry ("This Is Hell"; the dreary, operatic piano-and-vocal whine "Favourite Hour"). Because the Attractions lend so much class to every number, the record is an honorable addition to Costello's resume. (JA)
Kojak Variety (1995)
Having shored up his fan base with another Attractions record, Costello indulged himself with a collection of obscure 50's and 60s rock 'n' roll, pop, and Nashville songs - there's even a boring 30's moldie ("The Very Thought Of You"). Some of the writers are big names like Willie Dixon ("Hidden Charms"), Screaming Jay Hawkins ("Strange"), Little Richard ("Bama Lama Bama Loo"), Bob Dylan ("I Threw It All Away"), Holland/Dozier/Holland ("Remove This Doubt"), and even Randy Newman ("I've Been Wrong Before").
But with the material intentionally chosen to prove Costello's music scholar credentials, it's not only unfamiliar but unimpressive - if you've heard "Leave My Kitten Alone" before, do you really want to hear it again? The only really successful effort also is the only legitimate rock song, but hardly a well-known one (Ray Davies' gently trippy "Days"). The over-professional studio pro band doesn't help much (Burton, Keltner, Knetchtel, Ribot, Scheff, Pete Thomas); they're good at recreating the appropriate low-tech retro vibe, but the crystal-clear digital recording makes the whole thing seem like a smirking joke. Not recommended even for obsessive fans. (JA)
All This Useless Beauty (with the Attractions: 1996)
Costello really was on a roll at this point, easily tossing off another Attractions record.
Once again it's a pretty solid effort. He seems assured in his use of dynamics and production, avoiding almost any rudderless experimentation or drably retro influences.
So when he does go with sequenced synths ("Little Atoms") or grungey guitars (the threatening "Complicated Shadows"), it's refreshing instead of annoying.
But there are a lot of problems: only a few tracks are in his early-period, Stax-influenced style ("Starting To Come To Me"), so instead most of them wander aimlessly as they follow his down-tempo melodrama formula ("Distorted Angel"; "Poor Fractured Atlas").
Worse, he ruins "It's Time," whose hiphop drums and intermittent metal guitars should have made it a high point, by dragging it out for six minutes. Plus there's some audible laziness, with Costello pointlessly recycling his Roger McGuinn give-away "You Bowed Down," and apparently reviving a leftover from his collaborations with Paul McCartney (the rockabilly-influenced "Shallow Grave").
So this is a decent buy for those who still believe in Elvis, but not a key record in any sense.
Co-produced by Costello and Geoff Emerick; the Brodsky Quartet appears on the album-closing piano ballad "I Want To Vanish." (JA)
Terror & Magnificence (John Harle: 1997)
I'm only listing this in case you were fooled, as I nearly was, into thinking this is a bona fide Elvis Costello record. Instead, it's entirely the work of an avant garde German composer known for an obsessive interest in "early" music. The snippets I heard on NPR weren't promising at all, with a lot of long instrumental passages, at least one vocal handed over to a classically trained soprano, and the lyrics based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Costello's contribution is utterly minimal, just a few lead vocals. Don't even think of blowing your money on this one. (JA)
Painted From Memory (Costello and Burt Bacharach: 1998)
This is a heavily hyped studio album that features an unexpected collaboration between Costello, whose picture on the cover makes him look like he's gained about 100 pounds, and Brill Building 60s pop music mastermind Burt Bacharach, the man responsible for creating such cultural icons as Dionne Warwick.
If Costello is running true to form here, it's probably an egotistical and largely unlistenable experiment - but I'll give it a try anyway. (JA)
For The Stars (von Otter and Costello: 2001)
Another pop-oriented experiment, this time Costello producing singer Anne Sofie von Otter on a set of pop tunes.
Apparently Costello sings some backups and von Otter duets with Tom Waits on one track. (JA)
When I Was Cruel (2002)
His first new studio album after something of a dry stretch. The single is "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution").
The band is kinda-sorta the Attractions, with Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas joined by ex-Cracker bassist Davey Faragher.
There's also a horn section, but no significant guests that I know of. (JA)
Co-produced by Costello and Kevin Killen.
There's a very large horn section here in addition to the Brodsky Quartet and a regular band including Steve Nieve. (JA)
Goodbye cruel world.