In this article Nick Triani tries to pin down how the Elvis Costello he knows today came into view whilst giving an overview of his career. He also looks back at five of his favourite Costello albums. Elvis Costello performs in Helsinki February 20th.
At some point around the start of the 1990’s, Elvis Costello underwent something of a sea change. By this stage Costello had released a series of spectacular to very good albums (with a couple dropping below that cachet). Phase two of Costello’s career was about to rear sharply into focus. If all his previous music at this point had steered a varied yet consistent line as that of a songwriter fronting a succession of versatile bands (most notably his trusted Attractions), his album with the Brodsky Quartet was something totally different – even more so than his dip into country music with 1981’s Almost Blue. The Juliet Letters (1993) was more than Elvis showing us he could do quasi-classical (pure classical was to come), this left turn demonstrated clearly that Costello had in effect run his course with pure rock’n’roll and a new era of restlessness was upon us.
In an overview of his career to date, this is quite crucial. I still love the hits from his early punky era (which retain the trait of many a great songwriter; timelessness) and his post-punk songbook also remains crucially strong. One criticism leveled at Costello is his disregard for his earlier music in favour of fanciful session players and an all-encompassing encyclopedic musical appreciation of everything. But gazing at Costello from 2017, one can see an artist who has pushed his own boundaries (not always successfully) and that point from 1993 is perhaps the first taste of a Costello I relate to the most today. He is a high quality jack of all trades who can turn his hand to most genres at the very least in a credible manner, still retaining the essence of who he is. Collaborative albums have been strong and plenty: Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint and The Roots to name a few, as well as filling in for John Lennon opposite Paul McCartney for the latter’s Flowers In The Dirt album (that title is pure Costello). Versatility reached its peak in 2004 when Costello topped the Billboard Classical Music Charts with the album Il Sogno (a ballet score based on Shakespeare no less). Is there anything Costello can’t turn his hand to?
It must have been 1982 when I briefly met my then hero. I vaguely recall there used to be an HMV on the King’s Road (it could have been a different store), but visiting one day, the shop was empty save for one guy with large spectacles and a sweaty brough flipping through some jazz records. I couldn’t believe it was Elvis. I hovered close by (maybe too close) and eventually blurted out nervously “hey Elvis, I’m a big fan…” before being cut off. Costello without barely acknowledging me simply interjected with a curt “Fuck off”. I realized at this point the adage about meeting your heroes bore crushing relevance, and I made haste for the exit. After all these years, one can only comment “No hard feelings Elvis”.
Costello without barely acknowledging me simply interjected with a curt “Fuck off”. I realized at this point the adage about meeting your heroes bore crushing relevance, and I made haste for the exit. After all these years, one can only comment “No hard feelings Elvis”.
My first Elvis single was ‘Oliver’s Army’ which I remember picking up from the Staines High Street branch of WHSmith in 1979. It was riding high in the charts at the time. Those first three, perfect Costello albums I would return to at a later date. The five records I’ve chosen here represent a time where I came in and Elvis loomed large in my life as an inspiration. These records meant a lot and then some. They still sound great today.
Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Get Happy!! (1980 F-Beat Records)
The reputation of Get Happy has increased over the years after causing some sense of bemusement on its original release. As much a homage to the songwriting of Holland-Dozier-Holland and the two minute single, Get Happy thrives on a punky northern soul vibe. The soul is referenced on the album’s storming first single, a cover of Sam & Dave‘s ‘I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down’ and Tony Colders’ soul standard from 1965 ‘I Stand Accused.’ But there is more here than meets the eye: Costello references Ska with ‘The Imposter’ (the previous year Costello produced the debut Specials album), whilst ‘Clowntime Is Over’, ‘New Amsterdam’, ‘Motel Matches’ and ‘Riot Act’ bear the sound of classic Costello. Nick Lowe‘s production is consistent and The Attractions have never sounded more in sync. Twenty incredibly concise songs (in under 40 minutes) housed in a Barney Bubbles sleeve makes Get Happy one of the best and enduring Costello releases.
Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Trust (1981 F-Beat Records)
By 1981 Costello had already become an iconic presence on the musical landscape – he didn’t even need his name on the front cover of his albums anymore, a picture would suffice. Trust has a great album sleeve with Costello in golden era Hollywood type pose. This is where I came in with Elvis: Trust is the first album of his I picked up on release and it remains my favourite Costello record. Trust is the point where Costello’s voice gained a new timbre and musically it represented his broadest album thus far. Trust was a reaction to the Margaret Thatcher government while also addressing problems Costello was having in his first marriage. Costello would later admit the album recordings were seriously fuelled by drugs and alcohol and “It was completed close to a self-induced nervous collapse”. There is a darkness here and lyrically, Costello displays a heavy cynicism, which is counterbalanced by a lot of humor. That previously mentioned broadness in sound is evident in a wide range of musical styles which run through the record. ‘Shot With His Own Gun’ sees Elvis channel Frank Sinatra whilst a lot of other tracks feature Costello paying heed to many of his contemporaries; The Police, Pretenders, XTC and Squeeze (who Costello would produce on their East Side Story album). At times Trust really rocks (‘Luxembourg’, ‘From a Whisper To Scream’) while it also displays a rarely seen lightness (‘Big Sister’s Clothes’, ‘Watch Your Step’). Although containing no ‘hits’, Trust has one of the all-time great Costello songs with ‘New Lace Sleeves’. Trust also features Nick Lowe’s airiest and richest production to date for a Costello record (it would be Lowe’s fifth consecutive album for Elvis). Trust has been seriously underrated as regards the Costello canon. Time to dig in, you won’t be disappointed!
Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Punch The Clock (1983 F-Beat)
Costello followed Trust with the country covers of Almost Blue and then The Beatles infected soundscapes of Imperial Bedroom. The latter is a dense yet great Costello album, but it performed poorly commercially. With this in mind, Costello hooked up with hit-producers of the time: Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (who’d cooked up considerable hits for Dexys Midnight Runners and Madness). As well as having a cleaner more accessible sound (very much built for 1983), Punch The Clock signified a move toward more political writing from Costello. A different version of ‘Pills & Soap’ preceded the album, released under the name of The Imposter, the single was rush released before that years coming general election. Margaret Thatcher’s Britain drew a sharp response from Costello (a theme he would famously return to for Spike‘s ‘Tramp The Dirt Down’) :
“The king is in the counting house
Some folk have all the luck
And all we get are pictures of lord and lady muck
They come from lovely people with a hard line in hypocrisy
There are ashtrays of emotion for the fag ends of the aristocracy”
Punch the Clock also secured Costello a big hit with ‘Everyday I Write The Book’, whilst ‘Let Them All Talk’, ‘Charm School’ and ‘The Greatest Thing’ were amongst Costello’s poppiest moments to date. Big horns (supplied by TKO) and a guest appearance from Chet Baker on Costello’s own take of the Falklands war balled ‘Shipbuilding’ just add to the richness on offer. Punch The Clock was enthusiastically received (and was a still credible NME‘s album of the year for 83), but its reputation has waned, probably down to the fact that the production makes this one of the easiest Costello albums to date. But I love the bounty of pop nuggets that run through Punch The Clock and this makes for one of Costello’s easiest records to digest.
The Costello Show featuring the Attractions and Confederates: King Of America (1986 F-Beat)
For his tenth album, Elvis Costello not only dispenses with his name but secretly invents alt-country. To make things even murkier, the albums is credited to The Costello Show whilst the songs are written by Declan McManus (Costello’s real name) and features his usual backing band The Attractions on one track only, ‘Suit of Lights’. The main personnel on King of America are some of the USA’s most seasoned musicians. That other Elvis’ stalwarts Jerry Scheff, Ron Tutt and James Burton feature as do two producer greats: Mitchell Froom And T-Bone Burnett. This band has a collective name, The Confederates (the album is full of love/hate sentiments for the USA – see the acerbic ‘American Without Tears’). The acoustic guitar was played by Little Hands Of Concrete (Nick Lowe’s nickname for the string breaking Costello). It’s enough to make you wonder what kind of record you’ve waltzed into. Country and old-skool RnB are the main flavours – but in essence, this is Costello at the height of his songwriting powers. The cover offers little clues. Again, no name features on the front, instead, a seriously worn looking Costello wearily looks out in black and white, with crown atop his head – it’s a great sleeve. Taking into account where Costello was at this time gives some idea of King Of America‘s lyrical themes – divorce, his band breaking up, his last album flopping (and considered his worst to date) – the 31-year-old was in some turmoil. That King Of America would be such a triumph amongst all this – and yes, such a radical departure – speaks volumes. Commercially, apart from the cover of Nina Simone‘s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ (take note of Costello’s completely shot voice!), King Of America didn’t really register at all. As a substantial work that helped re-establish Costello as one of the main voices of disquieting heartache, King of America‘s romance filled anguish wholly succeeds. Crucially, Costello could see life apart from The Attractions. King of America is a key record in this respect and offers an insight into much of what was to follow. I caught one of the few live shows Costello performed with this band. It was a raucous, enlivened and special affair that’s stayed in the memory.
Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Blood & Chocolate (1986 F-Beat)
1986 was to be one of Costello’s most productive and rewarding years musically. Having got the roots out of his sound with King Of America, Costello regrouped with The Attractions and producer Nick Lowe to deliver the often brutal Blood & Chocolate. Blood & Chocolate features as primitive a brand of rock’n’roll that Costello had encountered. A very dry, effect-free sound, raw, live-like takes characterize most of Blood & Chocolate, with Costello full-on with vocals that are often spat out. Again, Blood & Chocolate is credited to three different characters; Declan Macmanus, Elvis Costello and Napolean Dynamite ( the later to be the name of an indie movie hit). There are shades of The Beatles, Dylan’s Wild Mercury Sound and plenty of punk attitude. But Blood & Chocolate distinguishes itself from those earlier punky Costello albums as it goes deep on personal themes (the new standard here – ‘I Want You’ exemplifies this). Further vitriol is dished out on the first single ‘Tokyo Storm Warning’, ‘Hope You’re Happy Now’ and ‘Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind’. But not all of Blood & Chocolate rages. ‘Blue Chair’, ‘Battered Old Bird’ and ‘Home Is Where You Hang Your Head’ all offer a more melodic softer respite. The album closes with the buoyancy of ‘Next Time Round’, and with it closes chapter one of Costello’s career. Blood & Chocolate could be the last essential full stop before Elvis’ different personas took over.
As a footnote, and addressing that finality, Blood & Chocolate would be the last album Costello would make with The Attractions till 1994’s Brutal Youth (an album that tries to recapture Blood & Chocolate‘s emotional rawness). By 1986, the relationships with the band had been worn down completely by a demanding Costello. Costello also left his label F-Beat/Columbia and would resurface on Warners three years later. A new beginning.