Sheep to the slaughter, oh I thought this must be love....
Released January 1981
Recorded at Eden Studios, London
Running time 41.09
Before taking a huge gamble with 1981's gamble of an album of Country & Western cover versions in Almost Blue, Elvis Costello & The Attractions came up with their most eclectic and polished album to date. Whereas the previous outing had been the twenty-song, short, sharp attack of the soul/Motown/Stax vibes of Get Happy!! The Attractions stuck to their to their trademark organ and bass-dominated sound for much of this album, but also, tellingly, experimented with other influences as well. There were jazzy bits, frantic punk energy, torch song balladry and a country song, for the first time. Steve Nieve's piano is also more to the fore than his organ. It was a complex, sophisticated album that showed just how far the new wave had developed in such a short period. This was far more than fist-punching punk rock, (not that Costello had ever delivered that) - it ploughed furrows that were far more innovative and creative. It is clever, witty and solidly rocking too.
Surprisingly, Costello has since said that it was by far his and the band's most drug and drink-addled recording of their career. You would never have known - the musicianship is vibrant, crisp and clear and Costello's delivery anything but slurred. If I hadn't read this, I would have said the exact opposite - that this was their most professional and sober album! Apparently, Costello also revealed later that various tracks were influenced by other artists - Clubland by The Police; You'll Never Be A Man by The Pretenders; White Knuckles by XTC; Fish 'n' Chip Paper by Squeeze and Big Sister's Clothes by The Clash. I can't say that any of those comparisons had struck me, but if Costello said he based the songs thus then no doubt he did.
2. Lovers Walk
3. You'll Never Be A Man
4. Pretty Words
5. Strict Time
7. Watch Your Step
8. New Lace Sleeves
9. From A Whisper To A Scream
10. Different Finger
11. White Knuckles
12. Shot With His Own Gun
13. Fish 'n' Chip Paper
14. Big Sister's Clothes
The country sound appears in the catchy A Different Finger, but there are other styles too - a torch song-style sparse piano-driven ballad in Shot With His Own Gun; a frantic, punky blues in Luxembourg; Get Happy!!-style soul in the addictive Strict Time; and a more typical Attractions sound in the beautifully evocative Watch Your Step, the jazzy Clubland, New Lace Sleeves and the jaunty Fish 'n Chip Paper. Lovers Walk has an absolutely addictive staccato beat to it, while You'll Never Be A Man is a rousing new wave anthem.
The duet with Squeeze's Glen Tilbrook, From A Whisper To A Scream is another enjoyable highlight. Big Sister's Clothes is a Costello classic, full of those wonderful lyrical couplets.
White Knuckles is dark and sombre beneath its typical Attractions backing. Pretty Words and the afore-mentioned You'll Never Be A Man both have killer hooks, the type of which Costello could trot out in his sleep by now. He is doing far more than just going through the motions though. These are immaculate, finely-tuned contemporary pop songs. Tuneful, yet cynical at the same time.
Costello was moving, however, into a slightly more mature style of composition. This album was something of a benchmark as Costello began to move slowly away from the constrictions of "new wave”. The musicianship on the album is excellent throughout, more inventive than it has ever been, but it is never allowed to become indulgent and, while this is a creative album, it is always down-to-earth, never pretentious.
*Some of the most notable non-album tracks from this era were:-
Black Sails In The Sunset
This is a most delectable track, with a lovely bass line and piano melody. Costello's yearning vocal gives the song great feeling. I am surprised that it didn't make the cut for the album as it is one of his best songs from the time.
A rocking, frenetic version of Big Sister's Clothes that has Costello spitting out the lyrics over a clunking piano backing. There is a further extended alternative version, which is twice as long and is slowed down to a trundling pace. It almost sounds as if it has been slowed down too much, and it goes on too long.
Twenty-Five To Twelve
This is a very typical Costello song from this period, and sounds like others on the album - driven by vibrant piano as opposed to organ, pounding drums, solid bass and Costello's couplet-based lyrics sung in a deep soulful fashion. It is a fast-paced, attractive number. It a quality reject. Bruce Thomas's bass is rumblingly superb. There is also a bit of the Get Happy!! album in its backing.
Sad About Girls
A track that would not have sounded out of place on Imperial Bedroom, with its laid-back, but bassy and tinkling piano style. It is another song that makes you think "my goodness there is some seriously good material left on the cutting room floor here...".
A cover of the old Larry Williams song, previously done by The Jam on their In The City album. The Attractions and Elvis rock out convincingly. It is the sort of thing that would have gone down well live, and it was performed occasionally.
Love For Sale
Cole Porter's song is delivered by Costello crooningly, over a subtle guitar background. Elvis always liked to do a few peaceful torch songs like this.
Also in the same vein is this very Style Council-esque brief guitar instrumental.
..and again, more laid-back fare in the smoky, late-night sorrowful sound of this ballad. This provided a pointer to much subsequent Costello material. It started here.