Elvis Costello has the air of a legacy artist, generationally guarded. His music is not readymade for new cycles of youth culture, like how Nirvana can replenish its audience. He’s more like your Shakespeare professor whining about his third divorce. Except he’s a supertalented songwriter.
Too brainy? No. Among other things his music challenges the idea that intellectualism can’t offer genuine emotion. Politically he zeroes in on pockets of totalitarianism and how it spreads. And like most music fans he embraces a wide range of styles. Recall his scene with Burt Bacharach in Austin Powers – they recorded an album of material that is not really my bag. But it’s good work, with serious effort and expertise. Or look at his collaborations with Allen Toussaint or The Roots, or his old school country album Almost Blue. He doesn’t take halfway steps with different styles, and so learns from them, expanding his sound. That’s the secret of his catalog – you won’t get the same album twice.
WHERE TO START?
Get Happy (1980)
Quite a burst of pep pill inspiration. Twenty finely constructed songs that shake you into their worlds and then move right on. A songwriter can’t keep that pace up, and you can sense the burnout here on his fourth album. It will take a few listens for the songs to stand out, not because they’re samey but so subtle. “High Fidelity” uses radio puns to pine about an old flame. “Secondary Modern” could be about grade school heartbreak, or the fumbling steps in the digital dating world. Meaning is fluid with this set of song puzzles. The overall effect is tuneful enough for background listening, while rewarding close attention.
Blood & Chocolate (1986)
A breakup album, leaning heavy on the unhealthy side of things, all resentment and self-pity. “Next Time Round” is the worst offender, pondering his death and its effect on her future relationships. Bad thinking, great song. “Blue Chair” seems to invent a dialogue with her new beau, more bad thinking. “Uncomplicated” has the line “you think it’s over now but it’s only the beginning.” Yikes, EC is toxic on this one. Still: good music doesn’t have to give good advice. And this is great chunky rock music, edgy and impassioned. The sublime “Crimes Of Paris” gets off some good shots at that new couple – the second verse seems to describe a fellow musician in whom EC recognizes some phony game. His actual band was about to break up too, so their hostile chemistry matches fits the theme – one last great fuck before the marriage is over.
Brutal Youth (1994)
Domestic rock, with his trademark wit and aesthetics. “Pony St.” and “You Tripped At Every Step” cover parenting issues, “13 Steps Lead Down” hints at Dad’s sobriety struggle and “Sulky Girl” seems to be about a lesbian daughter. It’s a John Cheever novel! The closer “Favourite Hour” has an elegant chord progression with obscure lyrics like the meditations of some cruel general on the brink of a battle – lots of people are about to die, and he’s there in his study with his bourbon convincing himself that he’s a good man. Or it could be about a bad marriage. That’s probably what it is.
Imperial Bedroom (1983)
Richly produced, with class and elegance and a little eccentricity. Also kind of showboating, aware of itself as Art. Which means we are kept at some distance from an otherwise solid set of songs. “Man Out Of Time” is like a Tom Wolfe portrait of a rich man’s life falling apart. “…And In Every Home” sounds like the TV theme to a zany British family drama. “You Little Fool” is a psychedelic pop take on The Smiths. Tuneful yes, but not easily accessible. I just appreciate it as a collection of short stories set to inventive melodies.
This Year’s Model (1978)
Punchy new wave with the Attractions’ trademark circus organ. “Pump It Up” is the only Costello song made for NBA highlights. “No Action” bitterly rationalizes a broken relationship. “This Year’s Girl” pities the poor influencers. They perform some minor miracles in punky new wave, suffused with good righteous energy and songs that don’t overthink themselves.
Wake Up Ghost w/ The Roots (2013)
The chemistry is fine, as expected. He already noted Cannibal Ox as an influence on 2002’s “When I Was Cruel No 2,” which sounded to me more like Bobby Digital-era RZA. And his punchy poetry makes for a good marriage with The Roots. I can only hear one beat (“Refuse To Be Saved”) that should have been Black Thought’s. “The Puppet Has Cut His Strings” sounds like the sad meditations of a TV talk show host who goes home alone each night. One thing I don’t care for is how some tracks use recycled lyrics from old Costello songs. Which is like the same scenery rolling by in cartoon animation – it breaks the illusion.
WHAT TO AVOID
The Juliet Letters w/ The Brodsky Quartet (1993)
This album sounds like a free concert at the library. Just walk on by, don’t make eye contact.
Goodbye Cruel World (1984)
Part of pair of mid-80s albums generally regarded as his nadir. The other one (Punch The Clock – hint hint) has a few gems like the exquisite ballad “Shipbuilding” about war profiteering and “The Element Within Her” about the lothario losing his touch. Goodbye Cruel World is worse, just chasing formulas with a hacky 80s pop sound. This is how his career might have started to circle the drain if he wasn’t such a Serious Artist driven to experiment. Even that library album serves a purpose, expanding his songwriting palette. So I reject the idea that he’s ever too brainy – that is what has kept his music vital for 40+ years.
The Boy Named If (2022)
Modern Costello albums tend to collect his various styles, and that eclecticism sometimes feels rote. Of course he’s still a master of many forms with impeccable aesthetics, but these albums seem like strolls through the Costello wing of an art museum. Still you could pick out gems from this recent material to stand with his best work. “Newspaper Pane” from Hey Clockface riffs on the idea of a woman locked in a room surrounded by newspaper clippings. “Stripping Paper” from Look Now is also a woman’s POV, in which she seems to be looking back on an abusive relationship. The Boy Named If is my favorite of the this run, focusing on rock material. “The Death Of Magic Thinking” is a classic, with its tribal drumming and cut up melodies and some great lines: “They’ll teach you well but not enough, a punching bag and all for nothing.” At his best Elvis Costello gives eloquent voice to our lowest moments.