Friday, 3 August 2018

Elvis Costello




In the summer of 1977, I was doing some student work in a bakery in Aylesbury, Bucks, when a colleague came running up, excitedly telling me that "Elvis Costello's coming to Friars!" (the local rock club). I had never heard of Elvis Costello. His enthusiasm intrigued me so I went to the gig, despite not having heard any of his music. It was the "Stiffs" tour featuring Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric. Costello headlined and played an impressive set. After that, I bought the My Aim Is True album and then, the following year brought This Years Girl.

Many more live experiences of Costello and his excellent band The Attractions would be forthcoming over subsequent years as this quirky, bespectacled and passionate artist became one of my favourites. He was an ideal new wave anti-hero - odd-looking yet possessed of a superb instinct for a piece of wordplay in his lyrics. He also knew his music and was influenced by country music, Stax soul, Motown,  early rock 'n' roll, jazz and easy listening crooning. His output over the years has covered many different styles and although something of an acquired taste, particularly vocally, his material is invariably thought-provoking and challenging. He never makes an ordinary record.

   



THE FIRST TEN YEARS (1977-1987)

MY AIM IS TRUE (1977)


Welcome To The Working Week/Miracle Man/No Dancing/Blame It On Cain/Alison/Sneaky Feelings/(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes/Less Than Zero/Mystery Dance/Pay It Back/I'm Not Angry/Waiting For The End Of The World 

Released in 1977, My Aim Is True has, for me, always been something of a strange album. Fresh from the cleansing experience of Never Mind The BollocksThe Clash and The Ramones along came Elvis Costello, looking like an even geekier Buddy Holly and backed some (comparatively) old, musically experienced veterans playing a sort of jangly amalgam of "pub rock" and "country rock". Was this what the great punk revolution was all about? No sooner than it had started, the "New Wave" was upon us. Despite Costello's acerbic lyrics (by the way, Elvis Costello's lyrics are always described as "acerbic", (just as any Van Morrison review will contain the word "curmudgeonly"), there was precious little protest in the air on this rather (in places) tuneful and somewhat homely workout.

Regarding the album's creation, Costello was working as a data input clerk and called in sick to record this album, cut, amazingly, in six four-hour sessions at a cost of £1000. Granted £1000 went a lot further back then, but in record-cutting terms, the whole thing was truly remarkable. Because of that its sound has always been a bit "lo-fi", but it certainly isn't that bad and it sort of went with the home-produced punk ethic anyway. Stiff Records then matched his wages and gave him a contract.

Costello was duly hyped to the nth degree by Stiff Records' (comparatively) amateur but ubiquitous hype-ists. He almost became famous before he was famous. Amateur or home-produced or not, the hype worked and Costello on the "Stiffs tour" with Ian DuryNick Lowe and Wreckless Eric became the hottest ticket in town. Everyone wanted to see this (apparently) knock-kneed, bespectacled odbball. 
         
On to the songs and their comparative lack of punkiness - yes, Less Than Zero seemed a bit of an angry song, about fascism, apparently, although to be honest what he was going on about was often not clear. Waiting For The End Of The World had a touch of down home nihilism about it, I guess. I suppose I could punch the air to Blame It On Cain, just about. Don't get me wrong, I like all of these songs, especially the short, bassy punch of Welcome To The Working Week and the hooky (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red ShoesMiracle Man had another huge rumbling bass line and a dense drum backing. Costello's voice is sneeringly brilliant on this one too.

  

All good stuff. I just had a problem with the cultural identity of this particular album. I didn't have any problems once The Attractions had been formed and the excellent This Year's Model heralded a run of truly wonderful albums.

As I said earlier, My Aim Is True has always sat outside from the others. Maybe it is just me but I found its music somewhat out of touch with the zeitgeist, too jangly, too old school, at times too country. "This Year's Model" onwards featured that trademark organ and bass dominated Attractions sound, which is just not present here. Tracks like the country-ish Sneaky Feelings and Pay It Back are just nowhere near being anything remotely punky. It was remarkable, really, that stuff like this went down well at the time. I'm Not Angry is in the same style, but its cynicism redresses the balance somewhat, while the vaguely slow rock'n'roll influence of No Dancing remains as a rather unique creation. Similarly, the short, frantic Mystery Dance has some of the same qualities.

Just listen to the live versions of some of these songs played in 1977 and 1978 included on the "deluxe edition" of this album and on the Live At El Mocambo CD. The difference in intensity and overall sound between them and Clover is seismic. Steve Nieve's organ sound, Pete Thomas's drums and Bruce Thomas's bass drives the whole thing along with so much more attack, verve and ingenuity. The sound quality is excellent too. 



Oh, my goodness, I am forgetting the gorgeous ballad, Alison. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of material on here with potential, but it was a potential that would take until the next album to fully realise. What we had here was an oddity of a punk record that was deemed so largely due to its stripped-down sound, punk-style artwork on the cover, afore-mentioned acerbic lyrics and Costello's geeky, anti-hero look. Once I had accepted that it was not punk, musically, but had something similar in much of its imagery and attitude, I was sold on Costello and would remain so for many more decades.

Regarding this album, I still enjoy the occasional listen to it though, in no way do I dismiss it completely. As debut albums go it is more than acceptable and it brings back great memories. Actually, listening to it now, through a good sound system, it sounds blooming great - full, bassy and thumping. Clover, all is forgiven!

Try to get an edition that includes the non-album single Watching The Detectives on it too.


There were also notable tracks from the period that didn't make it on to the album:-

Watching The Detectives provided Costello with his first hit single and remains one of his most famous songs to this day. It hit the charts in October 1977 and was the first Elvis Costello song I ever heard. It has a vaguely reggae beat (very much clunky "white reggae", though) and concerns someone who wants to watch detective shows on TV all the time. The genesis of the song, an early example of Costello's lyrical cynicism is described thus by Costello himself -

"...I was in my flat in the suburbs of London before I was a professional musician, and I'd been up for thirty-six hours. I was actually listening to another inductee's record, the Clash's first album. When I first put it on, I thought it was just terrible. Then I played it again and I liked it better. By the end, I stayed up all night listening to it on headphones, and I thought it was great. Then I wrote "Watching the Detectives..."

It features different musicians from those who played on My Aim Is True. 

Radio Sweetheart is a country-sounding, upbeat song was left off the album and ended up as the 'b' side to Less Than Zero. It would have suited the general country rock-ish, jangly sound of the album, though, as it features some twangy steel guitar. It also has some nice bass and sharp acoustic guitar too. It is a lively and appealing track. 

Stranger In The House - this very country song appeared again in 1978 (see This Year's Model) but it originated on the sessions for My Aim Is True. However,  it was thought to be commercial suicide in 1977 to release a Country & Western song in the midst of punk, a genre whose coat-tails Costello was hanging on to. It shows that his liking for C & W music went way back, though. This early demo is certainly very country, full of steel guitar. It was re-recorded for the Almost Blue sessions as a duet with country singer George Jones. I like it a lot, I am not sure I would have been so keen in 1977.

THIS YEAR'S MODEL (1978)


No Action/This Year's Girl/The Beat/Pump It Up/Little Triggers/You Belong To Me/Hand In Hand/I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea/Lip Service/Living In Paradise/Lipstick Vogue/Night Rally

After Elvis Costello burst on the "New Wave" scene as part of the now legendary stiffs tour in 1977, he followed his debut album My Aim Is True with this even better offering. Now with his own band in place, The Attractions (the first album was played by session musicians, part of a band called Clover), Costello really developed his and his band's unique sound. Where Clover had been all jangly country-sounding melodies, The Attractions were like an amphetamine-fuelled, aggressive punky rock'n'roll outfit. Costello stated later that The Rolling Stones' Aftermath was a big influence on this album.

Based around keyboardist Steve Nieve's piano and trebly, parping organ, Pete Thomas's pounding drums and Bruce Thomas's bass, Costello's choppy lead guitar and contemptuously spat-out invective lyrics, they had a unique sound. A great example of this is the breakneck, punky hit single Pump It Up and the frenetic, just over a minute long opener No Action. There were none of the previous album's unthreatening country rockers, this was a proper punk meets new wave offering, maybe one of the first of its kind. One felt that My Aim Is True had "played with being punk", to an extent, due to its stripped down, edgy sound, but that this was the real thing. 

Also in the list of great songs are the mysterious, paranoid intensity of Hand In Hand, the staccato, slightly reggae-influenced I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea, the torch song-style ballad Little Triggers, the reggae-ish The Beat, the typically new-wave-ish Lip Service and the vibrant drum-dominated Lipstick Vogue. The anti-fascist Night Rally ends what is a short-ish but highly enjoyable album. 

   

Living In Paradise is a slow building number with a strong chorus. You Belong To Me is a frantic bluesy, jangly guitar-driven workout and This Year's Girl is a shuffling, solid and catchy song.

Actually, let's be honest, there's not a duff track on it. It is definitely one of my favourite Attractions albums and one of the best new wave offerings too. The songs literally speed by, played with such an energy that even the slower numbers bristle with an edge and an attitude. A song like Little Triggers, for example, is full of  a mean sneer that makes it a dark offering in a ballad's clothing. There is a viscerality to Costello's lyrics and his delivery, matched by the relentless abandon of the music that makes this an enigmatic and subtly menacing album. 

It still sounds good today, and stands steadfastly as an excellent example of what was breaking new ground in 1978-79. In many ways punk was pushed into the background by material like this. Clever songwriting, great hooks and melodies but still enough sneering anger to be part of the zeitgeist ensured that punk's development into new wave was a rapid one. 

There were so many tracks that didn't make it on to Costello's albums. Some of them this era are listed below:-

Radio Radio. This frantic, organ-powered number was a single in the early Autumn of 1978. It is a breakneck rant about "the radio" - a pet subject for many artists to moan about in 1978. Apparently we were forced to listen to whatever the radio wanted us to listen to. There was a simple cure for that - just put a record on!


Big Tears. This was the 'b' side of Pump It Up in April 1978 and a mighty good song it was too. It is sort of Graham Parker-esque and is notable for featuring Mick Jones of The Clash providing some trademark high-pitched guitar sounds in the middle. It was a track that deserved more exposure and should really have been included on the album. It has a great guitar intro, some evocative organ and a big, singalong chorus. It could have been released as a successful single, I think. Just listen to that wonderful bass line too. 

Tiny Steps. The 'b' side of Radio Radio was typical of The Attractions' sound at the time - lots of swirling keyboards and a mysterious lyric which made it quite an attractive, if slightly inconsequential track. It has a big, solid beat that make it always listenable. It wouldn't have been out of place either on This Year's Model or Armed Forces. 

Stranger In The House. A Country & Western-style record originally as a duet with country singer George Jones. Costello also recorded his own version in October 1978. It is an attractive song that provided a look into the future and the Almost Blue material. How this went down with the punks is not known as it didn't get much publicity at the time. It had been recorded earlier too on the My Aim Is True sessions but rejected due to its C & W sound. 

Crawling To The USA. This fast-paced, "Costello punky" number was recorded in October 1979 quite a long time after the release of This Year's Model but it would have suited that album easily, in my opinion, with its thumping drums and deep bass. It uses the Radio Radio organ swishing sound in its backing, making it sound rather similar to that song.

 

ARMED FORCES (1979)


Accidents Will Happen/Senior Service/Oliver's Army/Big Boys/Green Shirt/Party Girl/Goon Squad/Busy Bodies/Sunday's Best/Moods For Moderns/Chemistry Class/Two Little Hitlers
  
After 1978's This Year's Model, by 1979, Elvis Costello and The Attractions had made their organ and bass-dominated sound something of a trademark. Nowhere is it exemplified better than on this album, which became on of their most popular. Personally, there are others I prefer more, but it is twelve (thirteen if you include What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding) perfectly constructed three minute "New Wave" pop songs set against some observant, cynical lyrics. Bruce Thomas's bass never sounded better than it does here. This was an all-out attempt to make a poppy-commercially-appealing album, leaving behind the slight reggae influences of tracks like I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea and the punkiness of Pump It Up

Peversely, however, while the music was becoming more accessible, lyrically, he was becoming a tad more insular, cynical and paranoid in a "they're all out to get you" 1984 kind of way. Songs like Goon SquadSenior ServiceGreen ShirtBusy Bodies and indeed, Oliver's Army are all fine examples of this. So, while it was evidently poppy, there was still an intense, urgent density to it as well, making it quite a beguiling record. The cover and inner sleeves were full of photographic symbolism and slogans like "emotional fascism" that only helped to add to the feeling.

Costello, looking back at the album many years, said this about his songwriting -

"....Some of the highly charged language may now seem a little naive. It is full of gimmicks and almost overpowers some songs with paradoxes and subverted clichés piling up into private and secret meanings. I was not quite 24 and thought I knew it all...."

Despite all its good points, there was just a little something about this album, though, and its presentation, that came across as a bit self-satisfied and possessing of a feeling that it was better than it actually was. 

   

Backed by a mainstream TV advertising campaign (highly unusual, if not unique, for "pop" albums in 1979 - just showed how far "punk/New Wave" had come in three/four short years), the big hits - Oliver's Army, with its Abba-inspired keyboard riff, and Accidents Will Happen are obvious standouts, but other highlights are the sparse, mysterious Green Shirt (what was that one all about?), the futuristic-sounding organ-driven Busy Bodies, the quirky Big Boys, the upbeat, bluesy Goon Squad and the lyrically potent Two Little HitlersSenior Service has a quirky, staccato appeal too, while Party Girl is the album's one example of the sort of smoky ballad that Costello would record many more of over subsequent years.

There are a few inconsequential songs, though, the fairground organ swirl of Sunday's Best, the cod-funk of Moods For Moderns and the pretty impenetrable Chemistry Class in particular. Better was to come, however. For some, though, this was The Attraction's best album. For some reason, though, I rarely return to it all these years later. Maybe I should, because listening to it again I am really enjoying it, and the sound quality is excellent - big, full and bassy, as it should be.

Costello himself views it quite positively though, especially viewed through the context of The Attractions' progress as a band -

"...The confidence and cohesion of The Attractions' playing is the product of twelve months of intense touring. The sessions were not without dissent and tension, but we probably never had quite this level of consistent musical agreement again...".

The notable non-album tracks from the period were:-

What's So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding. A Nick Lowe song from his Brinsley Schwarz days, this is a marvellous song. Costello often ends his shows with a barnstorming rendition of it. It is a rousing number with a message that will always resonate. It has long been one of my favourite Costello numbers. 

Clean Money. This was a short, frantically punky out-take from the Armed Forces sessions that found some of its lyrics re-worked into Love For Tender off Get Happy!!. Costello retrospectively said this about it:-

"....Oddly enough the record was originally supposed to open with “Clean Money”, in an arrangement that owes quite a bit to The Beatles’ White Album rockers or more likely to The Beatles-influenced sound of Cheap Trick. Their record, In Colour (And In Black And White), had been another road favourite. We threw everything at the song: a rock and roll beat that is almost completely absent from the final running order, tracked guitar feedback, a guest background vocal from Dave Edmunds, plus a rare appearance from The Attractions as a vocal harmony group. It’s hard to imagine the record opening with this belligerent tone rather than the blindingly obvious first line of “Accidents Will Happen”.....".

What a lively opener it would have made to the album. It would have left everyone with a totally different first impression of the album, thinking "Elvis is still a punk after all". It is actually so short that I'm sure it could have been included. It is a good track that I have always liked. 



Talking In The Dark. Another from the same sessions. It is a short, romantic number with a catchy beat and refrain. It sounds more like a song from 1978 as opposed to 1979, though. A melodic, sonorous keyboard break is utilised in the middle of the song. It probably would have suited This Year's Model more than Armed Forces.

Wednesday Week. The punky energy of this song would seem to be a bit at odds with the crafted "new wave" pop of a lot of the Armed Forces material. It sounds like the sort of thing Costello was trying to leave behind in 1979. So, unsurprisingly, it didn't make the album. Just check out Steve Nieve's crazy organ flourishes on this, though. Also, it strangely changes ambience half way through and ends up sounding like something off Imperial Bedroom. It is quite an interesting track in that respect, showing Costello's composing development.

My Funny Valentine. Elvis Costello always liked an easy-listening, crooning ballad and here he records a Rodgers and Hart number that lasts only a minute and a half. It appeared as the 'b' side of Oliver's Army. I remember my girlfriend at the time had the single and said to me "you must listen to this Elvis Costello song". She loved it. I was quite underwhelmed at the time. Now I guess it is ok, but far too short. Just sing the verses again, eh, Elvis?

  

GET HAPPY!! (1980)


Love For Tender/Opportunity/The Impostor/Secondary Modern/King Horse/Possession/Clowntime Is Over/Man Called Uncle/New Amsterdam/High Fidelity/I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down/Black And White World/5ive Gears In Reverse/B Movie/Motel Matches/Human Touch/Beaten To The Punch/Temptation/I Stand Accused/Riot Act      

What a great album this was. Released in 1980, following on from the success of Armed Forces and its hit single, Oliver's ArmyElvis Costello decided to turn his back somewhat on the "New Wave" and produce and twenty track album of Motown/Stax/Atlantic/Northern Soul sub-three minute pop-soul classics. Any hanging on to the coat-tails of punk, whether intentional or not was long gone now, and, as mentioned, even the new wave was now something to be left behind as different styles were dabbled in. Indeed, when the band first recorded some of the songs back in 1979, they weren't happy with them, feeling they were "too new wave" (already, only a few years into the genre's existence!). So, they duly re-recorded them in an Atlantic/Motown/Stax r 'n' b style and this is what you hear on the eventual album. 
                                             
Contrived it may be, but the songs are a delight. Only Sam & Dave's I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down (radically re-arranged here anyway) is a cover. The rest are Costello originals "in the style of". Even the cover had sixties-style artwork and a false imprint of the disc imaged on to the middle of the artwork, to make it look like a worn-out old sixties album. He has the ability, however, to reinvent and interpret the past around his own image, making this very much a current, Elvis Costello & the Attractions album, as opposed to a revivalist exercise, or a tribute album. 

  

The tracks features Steve Nieve's organ to the fore and many have a Motown-stule percussion. Costello's acerbic voice is strangely suited, however, and tracks like the soulful Opportunity, the frenetic The Impostor, the Motown-ish High Fidelity with its first line taken directly from Diana Ross & The SupremesSome Things You Never Get Used To are a delight. 

Also up there are King HorseLove For TenderTemptationBeaten To The Punch and the ska of Human Touch. Only the final ballad Riot Act sounds like typical Elvis Costello.

The vibrancy never lets up on all the album's twenty songs. Just check out songs like the bassy Secondary ModernPossession, Clowntime Is Over and Man Called Uncle. They are all no more than three minutes long and form part of  the absolutely frantic first eleven songs that simply career through your ears like a fairground ride. The pace and quality drifts off just a tiny bit after that, but even then, little gems like the smoky and beautifully bass-driven B Movie or the country soul of Motel Matches turn up. 

From beginning to end, Get Happy! is an extremely enjoyable listen. In my top three or four Costello albums. Every time I put it on, it feels like the spring of 1980 again. I can't believe it is so long ago, because this album feels as vibrant now as it did then.



Some of the notable non-album tracks from the sessions for this album were:-

So YoungA cover version of a song by Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons (no me neither!). It is played in a lively reggae style and, with its infectious organ notes, sounds like an Attractions original, something I always thought it was. 

Girls Talk. This song was taken into the charts by Elvis's mate Dave Edmunds. This was his original of the song. It is a catchy song with a great hook that was, surprisingly, left off the album. I am amazed Costello didn't keep this for himself and release it as a single. It features that rather echoey backing that so characterised both the Get Happy!! and Trust albums. 

Clowntime Is Over #2. The faster track from the Get Happy!! album is considerably slowed down here on a very  evocative alternate version. It begins with an almost hymnal organ from Steve Nieve and Costello's vocal, together with the beat, is slowed-down to walking pace. It is a complete contrast to the fast, Northern Soul beat of the album's original. 

Getting Mighty Crowded. The Get Happy!! album had a lot of Northern Soul influences and this was a cover of a Northern Soul original, by Betty Everett. Elvis covers it enthusiastically, in suitably upbeat fashion. The organ parps away and the drums pound behind Costello's throaty but soulful vocal. It is a good track and would have sat well on Get Happy!!. 

Dr. Luther's Assistant. This was an odd out-take, sounding far more like something from Armed Forces sessions but it was actually recorded after the release of Get Happy!!, in March 1980. It is a mysterious song full of swirling, fairground-style organ parts and a bit of a grating vocal. What is was all about is unclear. 

Ghost Train. From the same session as Dr. Luther's Assistant is this equally sparse, stark and enigmatic song. Both these tracks were deviations away from the sixties soul sound of Get Happy!! to a denser, more stripped back style. This is not something that would continue on to Trust, however, which was far more full-sounding and melodic.

Hoover Factory. Similar to the previous two is the appealing little song about a distinctive building on a road out of West London. I remember the building well (pictured below). The song is short and again minimalist in its backing. These songs were more in tune with the ambience of Imperial Bedroom than Trust and Get Happy!!. 


Just A MemoryThis was a romantic ballad with a distant-sounding vocal from Costello sung against a grandiose piano and organ backing. It has a bit of a "demo" feel about it. 

  

ALMOST BLUE (1981)


(in brackets are the country artists who originally recorded the songs)/Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do (Hank Williams)/Sweet Dreams (Patsy Cline & Loretta Lynn)/Success (Loretta Lynn)/I'm Your Toy (The Flying Burrito Brothers)/Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down (Merle Haggard)/Brown To Blue (George Jones)/Good Year For The Roses (George Jones)/Sittin' And Thinkin' (Charlie Rich)/Colour Of The Blues (George Jones)/Too Far Gone (Tammy Wynette)/Honey Hush (Big Joe Turner)/How Much I Lied (Gram Parsons)           

When this was released, in 1981, the album actually carried a sticker that read “WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners.” Many punks and new wavers were appalled by the fact that their anti-hero had released and album of Country and Western covers. Motown? Sure. Northern Soul? No problem. Rock n Roll/Rockabilly? Ok, maybe. But Country And Western? You're having a laugh, aren'tcha? Many fans pretended to like it at the time, like me I guess, just as we had with David Bowie's Pin Ups.

The move was a perverse thing that would prove to be relatively commonplace in Costello's subsequent career - he went on to dabble in folk, classical, jazz and easy-listening as well, but do do this with a deeply uncool genre in 1981 took the biscuit for nerve and sheer bloody-mindedness. Costello said that "anyone who can string together three chords can play rock 'n' roll", or something like that, saying that he wanted to push himself and the band beyond current constrictions. However, I'm not sure the gentle strum of country music would provide such a stimulus.

Costello had also stated that "maybe I could just get away from myself for a while and throw the light on the emotional side of what I do...". He had always liked a tear-jerker of a ballad, and country music offered him plenty of them. Although all the songs on here are covers, the genre would continue to influence his songwriting over subsequent years. He didn't want to get too far away from what The Attractions were doing, though, and made it clear to the band that this was just a brief diversion.
              
Actually, I always liked the single releases Good Year For The Roses and Sweet Dreams and also the frantic, bluesy Honey Hush and the melodic, piano-driven Gram Parsons cover, How Much I Lied.

The frantic opener, Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do had lots of appeal too. It had an irresistible attack and energy to it that was almost, well, dare I say punky. If anyone thought Costello was going to be tamed in Nashville, as maybe Bob Dylan had been for Nashville Skyline, this sort of proved them wrong, as too did Honey Hush.



















As the years have passed, however, I have found I have come to appreciate the others like Brown To BlueSuccess and the archetypal country self-pity of Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down a lot more. Sittin' And Thinkin' has crept in to my consciousness as well.

I'm Your Toy is another suitably lachrymose ballad that seemed to suit Costello's delivery down to the ground. It is taken from The Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace Of Sin album where it is credited as Hot Burrito #1.

Colour Of The Blues and the moving Too Far Gone both fit the same bill too. 

Taken for what it is, a New Wave artist trying his hand at the Country & Western music he loved, it is an enjoyable effort. It is clear he knows his country music, by both his choices of songs and the respectful delivery of them. He makes this far more than just a vanity project.  Fair play to Costello for having the balls to release it at the time too. It didn't really go down to well with many people at the time, though, not that you ever got the impression that Costello really cared. He was confident enough now as an artist to plough his own furrow, and indeed has done ever since.

  


TRUST (1981)


Clubland/Lovers Walk/You'll Never Be A Man/Pretty Words/Strict Time/Luxembourg/Watch Your Step/New Lace Sleeves/From A Whisper To A Scream/Different Finger/White Knuckles/Shot With His Own Gun/Fish 'n' Chip Paper/Big Sister's Clothes                 

Before taking a huge gamble with 1981's gamble of an album of Country & Western cover versions in Almost BlueElvis 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 PoliceYou'll Never Be A Man by The PretendersWhite 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. 

 

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 ClublandNew Lace Sleeves and the jaunty Fish 'n Chip PaperLovers 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 TilbrookFrom 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.

Big Sister. 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...".

Slow Down. 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.

Weeper's Dream. Also in the same vein is this very Style Council-esque brief guitar instrumental.

Gloomy Sunday..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.

IMPERIAL BEDROOM (1982)


Beyond Belief/Tears Before Bedtime/Shabby Doll/The Long Honeymoon/Man Out Of Time/Almost Blue/...And In Every Home/The Loved Ones/Human Hands/Kid About It/Little Savage/Boy With A Problem/Pidgin English/You Little Fool/Town Cryer      

By 1982, the “new wave” had faded somewhat, the two tone thing had gone the same way and the preposterous flouncings of “new romanticism” abounded. Little more than five years and six albums later - was Elvis Costello still relevant? His previous album had been received with incredulity from may of his punk/new wave fans because it was an album of country and western songs. While Almost Blue was what it was, it must be remembered that the album nine months previous to that, Trust had been a mini-masterpiece of polished, organ-driven, bassy pop with Costello's now trademark cynical lyrical edge to the fore. It was also notable for its delving into different styles, though, and this is continued on this, arguably his best album. 

Although commercially, his star was waning a little bit, he remained highly respected and showed himself to be an artist who was prepared to diversify and push his own boundaries, albeit still at the moment within the confines of his band, The Attractions. He certainly did that with this, which in many ways was his Sgt Pepper.
                   
Ironically, employing the very engineer who worked on Pepper, Geoff Emerick, Costello and his band produced a “chocolate box” of an album, with tracks differing from track to track, from the short and snappy, bass-driven Beyond Belief and Tears Before Bedtime to the tuneful pop of Human Hands to the longer, mysterious, edgy Shabby Doll

Then to the gentle piano ballad of The Long Honeymoon and the slow torch song Almost Blue. A great pop single is there in the catchy, riffy You Little Fool and Man Out Of Time is classic overblown Costello. Little SavagePidgin English ...And In Every Home and the echoey Kid About It are all equally impressive.

The musicianship is top class throughout and, as we had now come to expect, beneath what sometimes appeared jaunty, catchy melodies lay dark, sombre lyrics and images. There is a bitterness and a brutality the like of which, even for Costello, had not been expressed before. Songs like Tears Before BedtimeThe Loved Ones and Human Hands are all awash with lush orchestration and sonic perfection, yet bristle with that perplexing angst that Costello was rapidly making his own. You can say the same about the slow ballad Boy With A Problem and the moody closer, Town Cryer

It is certainly not an instantly appealing album. There is nothing on it that can be approximated as "rock" music. It is an exercise in trying to produce pop perfection, but with a lyrical cutting edge. For that reason, it took me quite a long time to “get into” this album when it came out. To be honest, it was probably fifteen years or so later that I really began to truly appreciate it. Therein lies its appeal, however.  Even now, I still find it a fascinating listen. Highly recommended. It still sounds good today. Most importantly, it is the first album that gained Elvis Costello true respect, across he board, not just from his fans or peers.

There were many non-album tracks that came from this period. These are some of them:-

Little Goody Two Shoes. Dating from November 1981, this song has two versions. The first is a frantic, harmonica driven piece of blues rock, the second a slowed-down, jazzy blues number. Both are equally impressive and enjoyable.

I Turn Around. This hails from February 1982 and has a lively Get Happy!! beat to it and an infectious bass line. Its organ sound goes right back to the Armed Forces era. It has a couple of lines that would re-appear in 1983's The Invisible Man

From Head To Toe. A cover of a Smokey Robinson & The Miracles song, it is also from February 1982. It is a suitable toe-tapping, energetic number featuring a glorious Motown bass line. Elvis and The Attractions do this really well. A rocking piano drives it along, together with some lively drums.

The World Of Broken Hearts. From the same sessions comes this Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman cover. It is given a grandiose Costello ballad makeover. It doesn't quite do it for me, being a bit too melodramatic vocally.


Night Time. This is a cover of a song by an artist called Paddy Chambers, whose work I am not familiar with. It is played slightly jazzily by The Attractions and would have fitted nicely on the Trust album, if it had to go anywhere. 

Really Mystified. We now get a fourth cover, this time going back to the sixties and The Merseybeats. It was as if Elvis was just having a bit of fun with these covers in the studio and had no intention of putting them on the album. This is a very sixties/Beatles-ish number, typical of its era.

The Stamping Ground. This was the 'b' side to You Little Fool. It is a slightly mournful, slow-paced Costello original. It is a reasonable track, with a good hook, but probably not worthy of being on the album. 

Imperial Bedroom. Now, this really should have been on the album that bears its name. It is a piano-driven waltz of a number with some killer, rumbling bass and some great vocals from Elvis. The hook is memorable and I have found myself singing "In the imperial bedroom, the regal boudoir..." many times. 

Seconds Of Pleasure. There are a couple of versions of this track. I am sure some of the lyrics end up on a song on Punch The Clock. Both the versions are Costello singing over a clunking piano backing. The "demo" version is marginally better than the eventual recording, although both date from the same session. The song meanders around without ever getting where it was heading, for me. 

  

PUNCH THE CLOCK (1983)


Let Them All Talk/Every Day I Write The Book/The Greatest Thing/The Element Within Her/Love Went Mad/Shipbuilding/TKO (Boxing Day)/Charm School/The Invisible Man/Mouth Almighty/King Of Thieves/Pills And Soap/The World And His Wife    

For me, the great period of Elvis Costello & The Attractions began with the first album together, 1978's This Year's Model and continued until the highly impressive, career high of 1982's Imperial Bedroom. The following year, during a period when "New Romanticism", preening pop poseurs and synthesised, electric keyboard-dominated music were everywhere, Costello released an album of upbeat, pop songs, but ones driven by melodic piano riffs and punchy horn sounds, backed up by female backing vocals. It was a catchy album, with not many archetypal, mournful, bleak Costello laments. It was, it would seem, a deliberate attempt to produce an album that would appeal to the mainstream pop audience. It did, and it didn't. There were two excellent singles, that are actually the the first two tracks on the album - the pulsating, horn-driven Let Them All Talk and the instant likeable Everyday I Write The Book, with its easily singable chorus.

Most of the album's other material was lively, full of horn attack and convincing vocals, but it was still Elvis Costello, packed full of oblique lyrics and killer, cynical couplets, like that found on the otherwise jaunty Love Went Mad - "I wish you luck with a capital 'f'...". Costello, really, despite a few hit singles, would always be something of a cult artist, despite the fetching, rather showy leather jacket he sported on the promotional pictures. I did buy a similar jacket myself, however. In all seriousness, though, the jacket showed Costello trying to be showy. All that raw, punky edge had dissipated, as, of course, had the whole punk ethos in general. These were the worst traits of the mid eighties. Fashion and music was expected to be showy. A sun-tanned David Bowie was wearing a suit and tie, Paul Weller wearing pristine white denim jacket and trousers, Mick Jagger similarly bright, pastel-shades. Music had to be poppy, too - Let's DanceShout To The Top and the like. Costello was trying, unconvincingly at times, to plough the same furrow.

All the tracks are appealing in their very similar way - the funky The Greatest Thing; the piano boogie backing from Steve Nieve on Love Went Mad; the typical Costello cynicism on the bassy King Of ThievesMouth Almighty and the slow, soulful Charm School.

The Element Within Her and The Invisible Man hark back to the Motown-influenced, short piano-driven romps of the Get Happy!! album. It is almost as if he is trying to re-create his previous successes, though, somehow.

TKO (Boxing Day) is another one that features a mighty, strident horn riff, as also does The World And His Wife. All these tracks are quite indistinguishable from each other in some ways - all containing addictive hooks in some places, immaculate piano and bass and lots of classic Costello lyrics.

   

What is left? The two intense, evocative slow numbers - the Falklands War-referencing Shipbuilding with its stately feel, emotively-delivered vocals from Costello and simply wonderful French horn solo at the end. A truly mighty track. The animal welfare anthem, Pills And Soap is stark and staccato, sombre and bleak in its message and majestic in its piano and vocal set-up. These two songs are the album's two real classic moments.

This is not a bad album, for sure, but for some reason it is not one I return to very often if I am in a Costello frame of mind. There is something about it that makes me feel Costello was trying too hard to be something he wasn't. Imperial Bedroom, in contrast, had been effortlessly brilliant.



GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD (1984)


The Only Flame In Town/Home Truth/Room Without A Number/Inch By Inch/Worthless Thing/Love Field/I Wanna Be Loved/The Comedians/Joe Porterhouse/Sour Milk Cow Blues/The Great Unknown/The Deportees Club/Peace In Our Time                    

This was widely accepted as a nadir in Elvis Costello & The Attractions' recording career - his Never Let Me Down, his Dirty Work. Even Costello himself dismissed it as their worst piece of work. Tensions were high between Costello and bassist Bruce Thomas at the time and Costello disbanded his high-successfulband soon afterwards. Thomas would only return briefly, in the nineties, and when he did, they fell out again. I actually quite like the album in parts, strangely enough. There is some good material on it, but you always get the impression that the production went awry somewhat and some of what were potentially good songs ended up sounding a bit half-baked.

This is true of tracks like The Comedians and Joe Porterhouse - they have some great lyrics, the usual Costello couplets but they don't seem to quite reach their potential. There is still a lot of synthesised pop abounding, a left over from the previous year's Punch The Clock. However, the slick, polished, laid-back poppy vibe intended to be achieved on The Only Flame In Town and the jazzy, smoky I Wanna Be Loved largely gets there, for me. Both these tracks are different from Costello, and all the better for it.

Home Truth is a typical, clunky piano-driven slow number, as also is the atmospheric and jazzy Inch By InchRoom Without A Number is a lively, invigorating shuffle rocker, while Worthless Thing and Love Field are two of my favourite Costello songs. The former is lyrically and musically beguiling, with an addictive hook and an excellent Costello vocal, while Love Field is mysterious, brooding and sublime in places. Listening to these tracks I have to say that this is not a bad album at all, certainly nowhere near as bad as many have said it is, and, for me, I definitely prefer it to Punch The Clock. The sound on it is excellent too.

 

The old "Side Two" of the album includes the two tracks I mentioned earlier that don't quite make it and a couple of raucous, Costello-blues in Sour Milk-Cow Blues and the enjoyable The Deportees Club. Both are lively enough, but a bit throwaway if I am brutally honest. The Great Unknown is another that doesn't quite get there. However, Peace In Our Time is the one true Costello classic that always comes up with, whatever the album. It is moving, meaningful and backed by some excellent brass.

As I said, this is not a truly awful album, not in any way, but this is Elvis Costello we are talking about. The mid eighties were a truly dreadful time for music. Elvis Costello simply suffered during it, as did everyone else. This definitely marked the end of Elvis Costello as a pop performer, however.



KING OF AMERICA (1986)


Brilliant Mistake/Lovable/Our Little Angel/Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood/Glitter Gulch/Indoor Fireworks/Little Palaces/I'll Wear It Proudly/American Without Tears/Eisenhower Blues/The Poisoned Rose/The Big Light/Jack Of All Parades/Suit Of Lights/Sleep Of The Just           

Two years since his last album with The Attractions, which had been the half-realised and patchy Goodbye Cruel WorldElvis Costello returned with a session band of US musicians steeped in country rock and folk and produced this interesting album. He returned to his folk-rock roots for much of the material on the album, and the material features some of his finest songs for many a year.  His muse seemed to have well and truly returned, and the album sees him completely rejuvenated. It was the kick up the backside he needed to give himself. His days as a punk anti-hero were now long gone. He was now well on the path to being an established, mature, creative artist. Singles and chart success did not matter anymore.


                  
The album is absolutely pack full of excellent songs, and also, despite its rootsy edge, the sound quality is excellent and that befits the musicianship on view. There is a huge country tinge to a lot of the material, but it is one that backs Costello's wonderful lyrics, as opposed to 1981's Almost Blue, which was populated with covers of country standards. It is also very much an album of Americana. The catchy, lilting acoustic folk of Brilliant Mistake exemplifies this. A cynical tale of the mainstream US media. Lovable is a rockabilly-style bluesy romp, while Our Little Angel is total steel guitar country, but it has a captivating hook to it. Costello's cover of The Animals' sixties classic Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood is more than convincing. It is vibrant and powerful, suiting him down to the ground.

Glitter Gulch is back to the jaunty, folky country blues and Indoor Fireworks is a typical Costello ballad with country airs. Little Palaces and I'll Wear It Proudly are classic Costello slow numbers, full to the brim with cutting lyrics. I love American Without Tears - a folky, moving number concerning GI Brides from World War Two who left Coventry for a sad life in the USA with their whirlwind-romance GI husbands. Eisenhower Blues is a full on rocky blues thumper, and The Big Light has a fast-paced shuffling country blues style too, with a sort of stand up, throbbing bass groove. The Poisoned Rose is a mournful lament of a ballad.

The album ends with three copper-bottomed Costello corkers - Jack Of All ParadesSuit Of Lights and Sleep Of The Just. The former are very Attractions-like in style, full of uplifting piano riffs, but enhanced by the breadth of the musicianship and slick production of the team involved with the production of this album. The latter, and closing track, is an emotive song about a girl and her unfortunate dalliance with a soldier, sung over a haunting organ backing. It is a harrowing tale upon which to close what has been a varied and constantly interesting album. Up there with Costello's best of all time.

 

BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE (1987)


Uncomplicated/I Hope You're Happy Now/Tokyo Storm Warning/Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head/I Want You/Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind/Blue Chair/Battered Old Bird/Crimes Of Paris/Poor Napoleon/Next Time Round   
                               
This was the last album in "phase one" of Elvis Costello and the Attractions' recording career, the final one after eight years of superb releases. Relations between the band were strained after non-stop touring and recording over that breakneck punk/new wave period and they recorded this album all in different rooms, listening to each other's contributions on monitors but playing in isolation. This was supposedly to get a "live" feeling in the recording, and indeed they played at stage volume (you can tell, it is a loud album), but also the fact they couldn't stand the sight of each other was helped by this set-up. The sound is nowhere near as good as on 1984's Goodbye Cruel World or earlier in 1986's King Of America, it is much more crashing.

The first two tracks are deafeningly loud - the grinding, throaty Uncomplicated and the frantic, vintage Attractions swirl of I Hope You're Happy Now. A lot of people do not like the lengthy, one-paced, wordy Tokyo Storm Warning, but I have always quite liked it. It is crammed full of images and perplexing references. Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head is an organ-driven soulful classic Costello mid-pace number, with its lyrical hooks and typical Costello vocal.

I Want You is an absolutely magnificent piece of paranoid jealousy put to music, in an insistent, acoustic ballad form that has a bitter, vitriolic Costello spitting out his invective against a lover who has left him for another. It is one of the great "anti-love songs" of all time. Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind is a straight ahead bluesy Costello rocker. Blue Chair is less confrontational, more melodic and catchy in that Stax/Motown-influenced Get Happy!! sort of way. It is a great track. Always been a favourite of mine.

Another superb cut is the evocative and slowly building, dramatic Battered Old Bird. To this day, I have no idea what is about, but it sounds full of conviction. Costello's vocal is excellent on this. Crimes Of Paris is an upbeat and instantly hooky number that would have made a good single, but wasn't one. Poor Napoleon is sort of buried in swirling keyboards before another top notch vocal finds its way through. Next Time Round proceedings with a raucous piece of mid-pace rock of the sort that characterised the beginning and end of the album so dominantly. Costello had spat out the lyrics and thrashed out the chords on this album, which is a bit of a cold one, emotionally, it has to be said. There is a nastiness to a lot of the lyrics.

Despite that, you can't really tell that all was not well with The Attractions on this outing. It sounds upbeat, energetic and powerful. A genuine Costello "rock" album. They would not record together for another eight years.

 



THE LATER PERIOD (1989-2018)



SPIKE (1989)


...This Town/Let Him Dangle/Deep Dark Truthful Mirror/Veronica/God's Comic/Chewing Gum/Tramp The Dirt Down/Stalin Malone/Satellite/Pads, Paws And Claws/Baby Plays Around/Miss Macbeth/Any King's Shilling/Coal-Train Robberies/Last Boat Leaving               
It had been three years or so since Elvis Costello's last album, Blood And Chocolate, on which he was backed by The Attractions. Here he was back with various musicians as guest backing throughout the album, including Paul McCartneyRoger McGuinnAllen Toussaint and Nick Lowe. He had re-invented himself, to an extent, as a sort of Woody Guthrie-style wandering minstrel - a troubadour with a biting social conscience, railing about many contemporary issues in a far more direct manner than he had done before. His comments were often oblique and his lyrics always seemed to be described as "acerbic". Here, there was no doubt as to his targets on several songs. His approach was now full on, vituperative and often a little over the top in its vindictiveness.

The music was now quite Celtic in its influences - folky and fiddle in places. The effect of The Pogues via his new squeeze, Cait O'Riordan, was clear. Paul McCartney was also an influence, particularly on the tracks he collaborated with Costello on. The music is quite harsh in production at times. It is quite difficult to describe effectively, but it had lost a lot of that keyboard and bass warmth of The Attractions at their peak. Costello presets himself as "The Beloved Entertainer" on the cover, a sort of vaudeville clown at the mercy of his demanding audience. In return Costello gives his unforgiving mob a sprawling, unconnected set of songs that proved a sort of variety show. This is no happy-go-lucky show, though. It is one of Costello's most brutal, hardest-hitting pieces of work.

...This Town is funky guitar-led punchy song, with swirling organ, thumping drums and a cynical lyric, spat bitterly out by Costello. Not quite sure what it is about though. It just sounds right to moan along with - "you're nobody until everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard..."

Let Him Dangle is a heartbreaking, sparse, slightly Celtic ballad concerning the unjust hanging of Derek Bentley, aged only 19. It almost sounds as if it could be a Southern Irish rebel song in its narrative tale of injustice. It is a poignant song and a rallying cry for anyone who finds the concept of capital punishment utterly distasteful. "The Hangman shook Derek Bentley's hand to calculate his weight..". Chilling. The guitar solo on the song is suitably cutting.

Deep, Dark, Truthful Mirror is one of my favourites - a soulful song that has Costello staring into his dark heart, searching for himself. It has superb New Orleans-style brass backing and piano too. Costello's voice is at its absolute best too. Once again, it is lyrically magnificent - beguiling, perplexing and inspiring within a matter of a few lines. My overall favourite, however, is the melodic, catchy and incredibly sensitive tale of Veronica, an old lady with dementia who once was a carefree young beauty. It is based on Costello's own paternal Grandmother. "She used to have a carefree mind, and a delicate look in her eye, these days I'm afraid that she's not even sure if her name is Veronica...". These are some of the most touching lines Costello ever wrote. There are some lovely horn passages on the song too, together with a rich, powerful bass.

God's Comic is a folky slow-paced, acoustically-driven with some delightfully wry lyrics about God. Chewing Gum has an addictive funky beat, great throbbing bass and some odd lyrics that sounded portentous, but about what, only Costello knows. About the mainstream radio apparently ( a pet subject). It has a great line in "he gives her a picture of Maradona and child...". More New Orleans brass features heavily on this one.

 

Then, it is time for the Celtic-influenced and tumultuously bitter Tramp The Dirt Down that has Costello longing for the final demise of Margaret Thatcher. Now, I loathed Margaret Thatcher with a vengeance, and I loathe her legacy to this day. In many ways I agree with the vengeful sentiments of this song 100%. Whenever I hear it, I bristle and I spit out the lyrics, gripped with hatred. Then I always feel ever so slightly guilty. It is a tremendously powerful song, and its sentiments are spot on in so many places. There is something in me, nevertheless, which finds it distasteful to take pleasure in the death of a human being. What does that make me? On the day Margaret Thatcher died, I did not celebrate. I simply said "she won't be missed" and got on with my life. Then I went and played this song. Go figure, as the Americans say.

Anyway, thats got that out of the way. Suitably, after such a shocking, vitriolic song, the ambience is lifted by the jaunty instrumental mysteriously titled Stalin Malone. The stately Satellite is an archetypal Costello ballad, and harks back to the days of Imperial Bedroom, although the production is more bombastic and just a little over-orchestrated in parts. The Paul McCartney co-written Pads, Paws And Claws is a lively, jazzy sort of stand-up bass type of romp.  It is after this track that I start to flag a bit when listening to this album. If it had been a seventies album it would have been over by now. Now, the CD age is here, and it lasts just over an hour, which would have been a double album in the seventies.



On with the show, though. Baby Plays Around is a tender love song, back with acoustic guitar only. This maybe would have been a perfectly low-key song on which to end the album. It is then, though, that we get the somewhat raucous, slightly grating Miss Macbeth, with a noisy, discordant intro that proceeds, via some New Orleans funereal brass into a sort of cod-reggae folky romp, if there could be such a thing. Some fairground organ turns it into a kind of Mr Kite. It is a veritable cornucopia of different sounds. It has never really done it for me. Any King's Shilling has a beautiful Irish harp intro, although it heralds a slightly sprawling, stark ballad in the mournful, narrative Irish tradition. It has a quiet, noble beauty, and some lovely, evocative instrumental passages, but, as I said earlier, I am tiring a bit in my listening to the album. Because of that, I have never paid much attention to Coal-Train Robberies, which a shame, as it is a robust, bass-driven solid mid-pace rock-ish number, with some interesting lyrics. The same applies to the gentle, endearing Last Boat Leaving, with its gorgeous bass line, and some fetching accordion/Spanish guitar parts. If they had both appeared earlier in the album, I would know them off by heart. Good album overall, though.

MIGHTY LIKE A ROSE (1991)


The Other Side Of Summer/Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)/How To Be Dumb/All Grown Up/Invasion Hit Parade/Harpies Bizarre/After The Fall/Georgie And Her Rival/So Like Candy/Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 2/Playboy To A Man/Sweet Pear/Broken/Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4  
             
Elvis Costello's two previous solo albums (without The Attractions) had been largely folk/country/Irish music/acoustic affairs. Both were excellent (the country-ish King Of America and the Irish/folky Spike). Here. however, he was back with a really rock-influenced sound - big, booming, bassy production, with powerful drums - like The Attractions but with a punchier, fuller sound. Some commentators I have read find this an impenetrable, difficult album to appreciate. Not so me. I love it. It is less sprawling and disconnected than Spike and has a far better sound, in my opinion. This is one of Costello's warmest, bassiest-sounding albums, which, for me is always good to hear. Parts of Spike were quite tinny in comparison. Image-wise, his shaggy beard and dull garb were questionable, however.

The opener, the lively, exhilarating The Other Side Of Summer has some Beach Boys-style harmonies over a thumping beat and some Attractions-influenced piano parts at the end. Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over) is a staccato, shuffling, funky, rhythmic drum-driven groove that is quite hypnotic, and with its bizarre lyrics it is like nothing Costello had ever done before. The guitar and bass sound is excellent on it.

Elvis is quite wound up and stressed over a few things on here, though, and he beautifully spits out his venom on the marvellous How To Be Dumb, which I dedicate to many of the idiot bosses I had the misfortunate to work for over the years. Listen to the lyrics, it is ideal for that sort of thing. I am not sure who Costello's target was, but it sure works. All Grown Up is another cynical song, with a sort of Irish pub at closing time, singalong chorus, another rumbling bass line and some vibrant horns and clunking piano. These are some seriously great tracks. Invasion Hit Parade is a grandiose, piano and horn that sounds a bit like the musical experimentation used on parts of the Imperial Bedroom album from nearly ten years earlier. "Playing their Doors records and pretending to be stoned.." is a great line. Musically, is is very adventurous and exciting to listen to hear. All sorts of sounds in there. For me, this is some of Costello's best material for years.

Harpies Bizarre is my favourite track on the album. Lots of Attractions vibes, plus some excellent woodwind bits, appealing orchestration and Costello's great lyrics and delivery. One of his best ever tracks. I am a bass addict, used melodically within a song,  and I love the bass lines on this song. After The Fall is a tender, beautifully sung slow song, featuring just Costello, a guitar, and some background strings. Georgie And Her Rival is an invigorating, upbeat Attractions-esque song. It is another one with an instant appeal. Very catchy. This is Elvis Costello at his very best. I love the line "It was half-past February...".

  

So Like Candy is such an atmospheric slow number, featuring some excellent twangy Duane Eddy-style guitar in places and, yet again, some big, thumping speaker-shaking bass. All fine by me. Playboy To A Man is a raucous collaboration with Paul McCartney that has a strange sound to it, the volume fading in and out. Odd production that sort of spoils the experience a bit. Sweet Pear is back to normal for an intense, guitar-driven rather solemn song. The next one, Broken is a mournful, bleak and short number on which to almost end the album  (apart from the jaunty, brassy Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4 which follows). Overall, though, it is one of my favourite Costello albums, but it is certainly true that the better material is up to and including Georgie And Her Rival.

BRUTAL YOUTH (1994)


Pony Street/Kinder Murder/13 Steps Lead Down/This Is Hell/Clown Strike/You Tripped At Every Step/Still Too Soon To Know/20% Amnesia/Sulky Girl/London's Brilliant Parade/My Science Fiction Twin/Rocking Horse Road/Just About Glad/All The Rage/Favourite Hour                           

This was the first album Elvis Costello had recorded with The Attractions since Blood And Chocolate in 1986. It has received a certain amount of criticism for the harshness in its sound quality. To an extent, I understand these views, but for me, the quality of the songs outweigh those drawbacks. There is some great stuff on here. The Attractions are in enthusiastic rude health. Nick Lowe is on bass, replacing the enigmatic Bruce Thomas on some tracks, but drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard wizard Steve Nieve are still there for all of the album.

The album starts with bang - the frenetic, clunking piano, rumbling bass and pounding drums back Costello's vitriolic vocals on Pony Street providing a great opener. Kinder Murder continues the quality with another copper-bottomed Attractions classic. They really are back on "form", to use the old cliché. Costello's lyrics, popularly described as being "acerbic", are indeed just that. A razor sharp acoustic guitar strums aggressively into the staccato drums of 13 Steps Lead Down. So far, this album is burning with a fire absent from Costello's work for for a couple of years. He is an unstoppable force of nature on this album.

This Is Hell slows down the frantic pace, but it is one of those marvellous, wordy, evocative Costello slow but passionate and dramatic numbers. Clown Strike is a jaunty, slightly upbeat jazzy song and You Tripped At Every Step is another typical Costello slow but classically graceful song. Still Too Soon To Know is a torch-song type of mournful ballad. Now it is time to up the tempo again and the madcap 20% Amnesia does just that, with Costello spitting out the lyrics with a vengeance. Nobody does this sort of thing better. Similarly, the mysterious rhythmic groove of Sulky Girl, with its echoes of Shabby Doll off Imperial Bedroom.

 

Two favourites of mine are the wonderful, atmospheric and nostalgic London's Brilliant Parade with its London landmark name-checks, and the powerful, grinding Rocking Horse Road. There are lots of typical Attractions keyboard breaks in this song. My Science Fiction Twin is a breakneck echo of the late seventies too, with Nieve's keyboards swirling all over the place. Just About Glad is a throwback to the soulful rock of Get Happy!!All The Rage has a fifties-style intro before it morphs into a folky lament from a yearning Costello. Favourite Hour ends this excellent album in a sombre, reflective slow mood. A classic Costello slow heartbreaker.

The criticisms of this album from some are somewhat unfair. I have always been very fond of it. It is up there as one of his most consistently impressive mid-career albums.

KOJAK VARIETY (1995)


Strange/Hidden Charms/Remove This Doubt/I Threw It All Away/Leave My Kitten Alone/Everybody's Crying Mercy/I've Been Wrong Before/Bama Lama Bama Loo/Must You Throw Dirt In My Face/Pouring Water On A Drowning Man/The Very Thought Of You/Payday/Please Stay/Running Out Of Fools/Days       

After making a comeback with The Attractions for 1994's Brutal YouthElvis Costello went back to his love of Americana for this pleasant and enjoyable enough album of cover versions of songs which if not all country rock in style were turned into such by Costello and his band. Covers albums are often a bit problematic because everyone is so familiar with the original versions of the songs that any other recording of them comes up short. With this album, not all the songs are particularly well-known, so they, to a certain extent, sound not much different to actual Costello originals.
                                       
Tracks like Mose Allison's bluesy Everybody's Crying Mercy is a fine example. Not that well known, it is given a deep, bassy, late night jazzy feel by Costello and sounds totally convincing in his hands. Similarly the late fifties r'n'b blues of Leave My Kitten Alone (which was covered by The Beatles and released as part of their Anthology compilation). Indeed, quite a lot of the material is drawn from the blues vaults - Willie Dixon's slow and romantic Hidden CharmsScreamin' Jay Hawkins' rocking opener Strange (complete with false intro). If not the blues, then country rock/folk makes appearances, like Bob Dylan's I Threw It All Away (originally from his country/folk album, Nashville Skyline), which is done exceptionally well. Must You Throw Dirt In My Face is a typical lachrymose country ballad of the sort that Costello loves covering.

Little Richard's lesser-known Bama Lama Lama Loo is given that country rocking upbeat treatment that Costello used to great effect on tracks like Honey Hush on his album of country covers, 1981's Almost BluePouring Water On A Drowning Man is the sort of lively, upbeat country-ish rock that Costello would do so well on 2004's The Delivery Man. He does an easy listening crooning standard in The Very Thought Of You, again, very convincingly. Payday is pulsating, rocking r'n'b, while Burt Bacharach's Please Stay is a country-style heartbreaker. Aretha Franklin's Running Out Of Fools is one that Costello makes sound like one of his own songs. It has a great riffy backing in places. One of the best on the album. Finally, The Kinks' Days is turned into a slow, dignified anthem. All the covers on here are done respectfully, but in all cases adding something new to the song. Quite an achievement.

The "deluxe" two CD version of the album has more of the same on CD 2, including some Lennon-McCartney covers - Step Inside Love (originally recorded by Cilla Black) and You've Got To Hide Your Love Away.

There is another Dylan track in You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go from Blood On The TracksBruce Springsteen's Brilliant Disguise from Tunnel Of Love and Van Morrison's Full Force Gale. Costello deals with them all admirably, as he does Paul Simon's Congratulations , Gram ParsonsStill Feeling Blue and Tom WaitsInnocent When You Dream.

A surprise is Robin Sarstedt's My Resistance Is Low (originally by Hoagy Carmichael). All good stuff, although the original album is perfectly enjoyable to listen to in its original line-up of tracks.

ALL THIS USELESS BEAUTY (1996)


The Other End Of The Telescope/Little Atoms/All This Useless Beauty/Complicated Shadows/Why Can't A Man Stand Alone?/Distorted Angel/Shallow Grave/Poor Fractured Atlas/Starting To Come To Me/You Bowed Down/It's Time/I Want To Vanish        
This is a less harsh-sounding album than 1994's Brutal Youth, although the songs aren't quite so memorable. There is an appealing mix of slow, yearning numbers and upbeat Costello-style rockers. It is a bit of a patchy album, to be honest, I prefer its predecessor, and it doesn't really hold a candle to the great albums of the seventies and eighties. That said, it is not without its highlights.
          
The Other End Of The Telescope is a heartfelt, moving slow number full of those classic Costello couplets, while Little Atoms is probably my favourite on the album, with real echoes of the Imperial Bedroom era in the instrumentation and the vocal. All This Useless Beauty is a typically stark Costello ballad backed by a lonesome, late night piano. It also features some excellent lyrics. Complicated Shadows is a muscular, riffy rocker in the vein of some of the Blood And Chocolate material. It features an infectious drum sound at points and Costello spits out the lyrics with a trademark sneer. Why Can't A Man Stand Alone? is a plaintive ballad, while Distorted Angel is a beguilingly-backed, mysterious-sounding number.


Shallow Grave is one of those strangely rhythmic songs that Costello does, such as featured on Spike and Brutal Youth, full of loud drums and rimshots. Poor Fractured Atlas is another evocative, piano-driven ballad. Starting To Come To Me is a King Of America-style country rocker of the kind that seems to be unique to Costello. You Bowed Down is a big, grandiose mid-paced rock-ish number in that archetypal Costello melodic but punchy style. It has a Byrds-influenced guitar riff. It's Time has those big, resonant drums again and a scratchy backing and some Steve Nieve organ that has echoes of the seventies. I Want To Vanish ends the album on a mournful, torch-song note.

 

Let me state, in conclusion, that this is certainly not a bad album. It is actually quite good, but, for me, I found more of the Brutal Youth material stayed in my mind, by far, despite this album's clearly superior sound quality.

WHEN I WAS CRUEL (2002)


45/Spooky Girlfriend/Tear Off Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution)/When I Was Cruel No. 2/Soul For Hire/15 Petals/Tart/Dust 2.../Dissolve/Alibi/...Dust/Daddy Can I Turn This?/My Little Blue Window/Oh Well/Episode Of Blonde/Radio Silence                 

Firstly, it has to be said that this album suffered, as many did around the time of its release, from a deafeningly loud production. Now, I like my music loud, I like it thumpingly bassy, but even I have to turn this one down considerably from the volume I play most other albums at. Along with Paul McCartney's Memory Almost Full it is one of the worst offenders.

Now that is out of the way, it is a good album in places. 45 is a rumbling, mysterious yet powerful opener. Spooky Girlfriend is a deliciously beguiling song, but it is somewhat overpowered by its piledriving bass rhythm. It is a great song though. Costello had not released an album since 1996's All This Useless Beauty (if you don't count the Burt Bacharach collaboration, Painted From Memory) and this one has a lot of the power and lyrical nastiness of 1986's Blood And Chocolate mixed with the intuitive ear for a melody that was exposed on 1994's Brutal Youth. It was certainly Costello's rockiest album for many a year. That feel is continued in the muscular, pounding Attractions-influenced Tear Off Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution), with its Bruce Thomas-esque rumbling bass line. This is one of the best cuts on the album.

When I Was Cruel No. 2 is an atmospheric slow burner with a great Costello vocal but an incredibly irritating female backing vocal part that repeats "unn" on every backbeat. The song would be so better without it. It is a good one, though, full of great lyrics. He even quotes from Abba's Dancing Queen at one point. It goes on for six minutes at the same tempo, but does not get tiring, apart from the "unns", of course, which carry on throughout. Soul For Hire continues the vibe in a track that sounds very similar to the previous one, to be honest, you almost don't notice the change. 15 Petals is a swirling, frenetic song with some madcap brassy parts over a solid, funky rhythm.

Tart is a perplexing, cynical slow number, while Dust 2... is another bassy, deep number. Dissolve is a powerful, upbeat, bluesy rocker. Alibi is similar too, but it has a memorable refrain. The remaining tracks are all pretty much a mixture of the same sort of thing - throbbing, bassy slow-tempo numbers. As with quite a few albums from this period, however, it is probably a few tracks too long. After about ten or eleven tracks I have had enough and feel like a change. There are fifteen tracks on here. My Little Blue Window is a good one, though, and Radio Silence is a great, evocative closer. In fact, they are all ok, but I do feel an eleven track album would have been fine.

This was a good album, but I don't play it that much, maybe I should. Taking just a few tracks at a time to fully appreciate them.

NORTH (2003)


You Left Me In The Dark/Someone Took The Words Away/When Did I Stop Dreaming/You Turned To Me/Fallen/When It Sings/Still/Let Me Tell You About Her/Can You Be Sure?/When Green Eyes Turn Blue/I'm In The Mood Again/Impatience                  
I own most of Elvis Costello's albums (apart from some of the collaboration ones) and I have to admit that of all those many pieces of work, this is the one I come back to the least. After being inspired by his Burt Bacharach collaboration, 1998's Painted From Memory, Costello decided to craft an "easy listening", "crooning" album himself. I understand that he likes this sort of material (he has often added a low-key, piano ballad to most of his albums over the years), but for me he is at his best either spitting out visceral, frenetic Attractions-style rock or upbeat country blues/rock such as on 2004's The Delivery Man. I don't really get Costello as Bing Crosby or Wee Small Hours-era Frank Sinatra.

This is an extremely laid-back, almost bleakly low-key jazz and classical-influenced album that doesn't really change in pace, ambience or atmosphere and and thus is, personally, quite difficult to get into. It has a great cover, one of his best, and because of that (shallow, I know), I always expect more from the album. However, it is sleepy, vocal and slow jazz piano, late night, mournful material for the duration of the album.
            
Basically it is an album of tracks like Almost Blue from Imperial Bedroom. These songs are fine in isolation, but a whole album of songs in the style of the opener, You Left Me In The Dark or the so slow as to be almost comatose When Did I Stop Dreaming, with its dead-slow jazzy brush-drumming, leave me just a little uninspired. Yes, I know some love Costello in this minimalist, piano and crooning voice fashion and I can certainly hear its appeal, but for me an entire album of it is just not to my taste. When Did I Stop Dreaming is definitely atmospheric, but it is not a song I want to return to very often, if at all. The same applies to the positively somnolent You Turned To Me.

I feel Costello doesn't use instrumentation other than the stark, clunky piano enough on this album. For example, at the end of StillThe Brodsky Quartet play some lovely strings, but it is too little to late, and there is a simply sumptuous piece of saxophone on the beautiful Let Me Tell You About Her. The final track, the jazzy, pulsating Impatience completely bucks the trend with its Latin syncopations, however. Some would say "about time too".

Someone Took The Worlds Away is probably my favourite on the album. It also features some subtle background saxophone. Look, maybe I am being a little harsh, because it is without any doubt a finely crafted and highly credible album. Songs like Fallen and When It Sings are nice songs, on their own. I also have to say that the album does get into your consciousness after a while, once you have submitted to its mood. Can You Be True? is simply a beautiful song. Fair play to Costello for following his muse and dong exactly what he wanted to do, though. As I said, the material is of a high quality but it just doesn't satisfy me in the way that many of his other albums do. That doesn't mean others won't love it. I have tried to describe this album as it comes over to me, which is a personal thing. Others may feel completely different. I still love parts of it and understand where it is coming from.

THE DELIVERY MAN (2004)


Button My Lip/Country Darkness/There's A Story In Your Voice/Either Side Of The Same Town/Bedlam/The Delivery Man/Monkey To Man
8. Nothing Clings Like Ivy/The Name Of This Thing Is Not Love/Heart Shaped Bruise/She's Pulling Out The Pin/Needle Time/The Scarlet Tide    
                                        
This was supposedly a concept album about the impact on three women's lives by a man, "the delivery man", who had a hidden past. If I hadn't read this in a review recently, I would never have known this, and I have had this album since its release. To me, and no doubt to many others, it is simply a lively, Americana-influenced piece of Costello rock. It has no real continuity or narrative. It functions just as a collection of powerful songs. It is far more of an Elvis Costello-style album than a country one, like "Almost Blue" was, despite some country stylings in places. It is also possessing of a fine, deep, bassy sound quality. Just listen to that beautiful bass on Nothing Clings Like Ivy and Heart-Shaped Bruise.

Button My Lip is a breakneck paced opener , a real typical Costello rocker, while Country Darkness is an appealing country-ish ballad with some steel guitar, but also some solid, muscular drums and powerful vocal. There's A Story In Your Voice, featuring guest duet vocals from a wired-sounding Lucinda Williams,  is a huge, crashing number, really full of energy and power. You know, this is an underrated album and one I should listen to more than I do.

Either Side of The Same Town is a great Costello ballad, that sounds as if it should be on Trust, maybe. As indeed also does the Strict Time-ish rhythmic groove of BedlamThe Delivery Man is another great one - a quality, organ-driven, haunting number. It is an excellent song, packed full of atmosphere and characterisation. This is one track that seems to fit the "concept" thing, but only in isolation. Monkey To Man rocks solidly, with some barroom piano and catchy guitar riffs. One thing that does annoy me about Costello, however, is where, as on The Name Of This Thing Is Not Love he absolutely bellows the first line of the song, before the music has come in, before toning it down for the remainder of the song. 20% Amnesia on Brutal Youth is another similar offender.

The remainder of the album is a similar mixture of passionately delivered slow numbers, (four in a row, in fact) great lyrics and catchy rockers like Needle Time and is definitely one of his most impressive albums of the 2000s yet one that rarely gets mentioned. The first half of the album is really good, the second slightly less so but it is still his strongest rock album in years - ten years, probably, since Brutal Youth.

MOMOFUKU (2008)


No Hiding Place/American Gangster Time/Turpentine/Harry Worth/Drum And Bone/Flutter And Wow/Stella Hurt/Mr. Feathers/My Three Sons/Song With Rose/Pardon Me Madam, My Name Is Eve/Go Away                  

This album was, apparently, rush-released after Costello had been ranting about never releasing anything in the UK ever again. His hot air all came to nothing and this album suddenly appeared. It was a good one too, one of his best, rockiest non-Attractions albums.
                           
The Attractions-ish No Hiding Place opens the album in lively fashion, while American Gangster Time has real echoes of Bob Dylan in the Blonde on Blonde era, plus once again lots of Attractions-style music, particularly the keyboards. It is a thumpingly impressive track, and Costello sounds really "up for it", vocally. Turpentine is a wonderful, psychedelic style song, slightly in the vein of Lipstick Vogue, from This Year's Model, especially in Pete Thomas's drum sound. Harry Worth is one of those typically-Costello staccato numbers, with that instantly recognisable drum sound. The song is named after long-forgotten comedian Harry Worth, who was really popular in the late sixties/early seventies. The song doesn't seem particularly related to him, however.

Drum And Bone is a jazzy-ish, slightly bluesy rocker in that Costello-blues style. Flutter And Wow has a big, thumping bass sound backing Costello's yearning vocal. Stella Hurt is a marvellous, grinding number, with some great organ and industrial-sounding guitar. It burns from beginning to end. Mr Feathers is one of those shuffling 1920s/30s jazzy ballads Costello specialises in.

My Three Sons is a slow and emotive song from Costello to his sons. It is melodic, atmospheric and heartfelt too. Song With Rose sounds like something off Blood And Chocolate, with some Attractions-Style piano. Pardon Me Madam, My Name Is Eve is an infectious-sounding song full of archetypal Costello wordplay. Go Away is sort of sixties blues rock meets Oasis, with the latter's rhyme scheme in the chorus.

Overall, this is an impressive, largely upbeat Costello album. Very powerful and rock-ish in its sound, like Brutal Youth.

SECRET, PROFANE AND SUGARCANE (2009)


Down Among The Wine & Spirits/Complicated Shadows/I Felt The Chill Before The Winter Came/My All Time Doll/Hidden Shame/She Handed Me A Mirror/I Dreamed Of My Old Lover/How Deep Is The Red/She Was No Good/Sulphur To Sugarcane/Red Cotton/The Crooked Line/Changing Partners         

This is a country rock record from Elvis Costello, a bit similar to some of the material on 1986's King Of America, but far more rootsy and country-bluesy than that album, which still contained many echoes of his recent at the time work with The Attractions. There are no such throwbacks on this one. It is probably the rootsiest album he had recorded thus far.
                                
Kicking off is the lively country blues of Down Among The Wine And Spirits then, funnily enough,  we get a cover of a 1996 Attractions number, from All this Useless BeautyComplicated Shadows, but done in an acoustic style.

I Felt The Chill Before The Winter Came is a mournful, folky lament backed by a solid bass and evocative fiddle. My All Time Doll is a folk ballad reminiscent of some of the material on Spike. It has some really haunting fiddle at the end. Hidden Shame brings to mind The People's Limousine and Glitter Gulch from King Of America, in its jaunty countriness.

She Handed Me A Mirror is a stark, evocative ballad, as indeed are I Dreamed Of My Old Lover and How Deep Is The Red. The latter are more intricate, musically, but all three are slow-paced numbers. She Was No Good is a muscular, powerful, but starkly backed folk ballad. The pace of the album has become very sombre and reflective by now.


The bluesy and vaguely jazzy Sulphur And Sugarcane lifts the mood somewhat, with a rich, bassy swing and good-time feel. This is a most catchy track, one of my favourites on here. Red Cotton is a tale of seafaring, trading out of the port of Liverpool and so on, sung over a folky banjo. An upbeat sound arrives with the Cajun strains of The Crooked Line. Another good one. The solemn Changing Partners ends the album with a yearning, heartfelt country song.

This is an unusual, rootsy country album but its tone is a little too mournful throughout, which is unusual for Costello albums, as he normally ups the pace more than just a few times in thirteen songs. If you are in a quiet mood, however, it does the trick.

NATIONAL RANSOM (2010)


National Ransom/Jimmie Standing In The Rain/Stations Of The Cross/A Slow Drag With Josephine/Five Small Words/Church Underground/You Hung The Moon/Bullets For The New-Born King/I Lost You/Dr. Watson, I Presume/One Bell Ringing/The Spell That You Cast/That's Not The Part Of Him You're Leaving/My Lovely Jezebel/All These Strangers/A Voice In The Dark/I Hope        

After 2009's very country bluesy and folky offering in Secret, Profane And Sugarcane, this album still remained in slightly the same vein, but there are differences. There is more rock on here, more full bass and drums, less country guitar, banjo and fiddle. More of an upbeat, fuller sound to some of the material. I much prefer this to its predecessor.
                                                        
National Ransom is a real throwback to the glory days of The Attractions - packed full of thumping drums, swirling, parping organ, a general frenetic beat and Costello hammering out the cards and lyrics. The mood goes all 1930s jazzy with the stand up bass lament Jimmie Standing In The Rain, one of those evocative numbers Costello does so well. Stations Of The Cross is a muscular, slow and dignified rock ballad, with solid bass and drums and an impassioned vocal. A Slow Drag With Josephine sees Costello go back to the 1920s with a number that is almost a parlour song in its vocal style. Musically, it is given some modern enhancements, with a full, rumbling bass as well as some traditional banjo and jaunty whistling.

Five Small Words is a pounding return to bluesy rock. There certainly wasn't anything like this on the previous album. It raises the tempo and feel of the album, something the last album failed to do. There is a catchy Cajun influence underpinning this track. Similarly, the strong, powerful Church Underground would not have found a place on the last album. You Hung The Moon is back to the 1940s with a slow torch-style song. Bullets For The New-Born King is another slow, reflective ballad, this time in an acoustic folk style. I Lost You is a catchy, mid-paced country rocker, again showing that there are lots of changes of pace and style here.
























Dr. Watson, I Presume is a Celtic-influenced folk number with touches of Americana country rock. One Bell Ringing is an atmospheric, Paul Weller-influenced slow song, with some delicious deep clarinet on it at one point. The Spell You Cast is back to Attractions-style rock, with that Radio, Radio organ sound.

That's Not The Part Of Him You're Leaving is a slow country lament. My Lovely Jezebel is a lively, bassy and bluesy rocker, a bit like the material on 2004's The Delivery Man.  All These Strangers returns to the slow, mournful ballad style. The closer, A Voice In The Dark is a beautiful piece of 1920s-style jazz that would have sat nicely on Bryan Ferry's As Time Goes By. It is a delightful piece of melodic, catchy fun to end what is an innovative and adventurous album.

Elvis Costello is a bit of an acquired taste, particularly his later work, I guess you have to like him in the first place. If you do and you are prepared to travel with him through different styles you will like it. If you prefer the old new wave days, then there are plenty of compliations that will suit better.

WISE UP GHOST (2013)


Walk Us Uptown/Sugar Won't Work/Refuse To Be Saved/Wake Me Up/Tripwire/Stick Out Your Tongue/Come The Meantimes/(She Might Be A ) Grenade/Cinco Minutos Con Vos/Viceroy's Row/Wise Up Ghost/If I Could Believe      

On this album, Elvis Costello is backed by hip/hop band The Roots, a group from a much younger generation to Costello and one who I will freely admit to having no prior knowledge of. They can play, however, and considerably enhance the musical ambience of the album. They add a muscular, punchy staccato rhythm to the backing which matches Costello's vocals perfectly. It is perhaps a surprising union, but it really works.
              
Walk Us Uptown is a rumbling, rhythmic and bassy grinder of an opener, underpinned by some excellent brass and industrially-jangling guitars. At the end it even uses a bit of melodica (better known in dub reggae). Costello's vocal sounds a bit older, more gruff, but still bearing that trademark cynical sneering tone. Sugar Won't Work is a pulsating, mysterious number, once again with a deep, solid bass line. It is slightly funky in its insistent groove. In a similar, shuffling beat comes Refuse To Be Saved, which quotes from 1991's Invasion Hit Parade (non-stop Disco Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes...). Wake Me Up brings back echoes of Chewing Gum from 1989's Spike in both its slow funky groove and its brass interjections. Costello seems to attempting to reconnect with older material of his, while giving it an updated feel. Indeed, Tripwire blatantly uses the intro from Satellite, also from Spike. It is a great song, though, with a sumptuous bass and infectious chorus.

Again, Stick Out Your Tongue  uses lyrics and ambience from 1983's Pills And Soap. Yes, there is an argument that plundering old material to write new songs around may signify a lack of a new creative spark, but I don't see it like that. All the new songs have an identity of their own. The Roots add a wonderful drum rhythm to Come The Meantimes. All these songs have a real feel of Costello from days gone by, yet also feels completely contemporary. In that respect it is a really enjoyable, successful album. It really breathes. I love it. Check out the buzzy guitar, drums and vocals on the afore-mentioned Come The Meantimes. Excellent stuff.


(She Might Be A) Grenade is a quirky, bassy slow burner of a track, one of the album's most beguiling and inventive. It also samples an earlier Costello song but try as I might, I can't remember what it is. It is in the acoustic guitar riff part. Cinco Minutos Con Vos is an interesting, atmospheric number with some sultry female Portuguese vocals as well as Costello's crooning delivery. Viceroy's Row sees Costello revisiting that late-night jazzy feel he has done regularly over the mid/later period of his long career. Some jazzy brass accompanies the bassy, slow, chugging beat. Costello sings in a falsetto voice in places, which is unusual, but it works.

Wise Up Ghost is another infectious, slow, shuffling number and If I Could Believe ends the album in a low-key fashion. Overall, this is an innovative, appealing piece of work. Certainly one of Costello's finest latter-era albums.

LOOK NOW (2018)


Under Lime/Don't Look Now/Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter/Stripping Paper/Unwanted Number/I Let The Sun Go Down/Mr & Mrs Hush/Photographs Can Lie/Dishonour The Stars/Suspect My Tears/Why Won't Heaven Help Me?/He's Given Me Things                  

For some reason, I was expecting a album of laid-back, “croony” Burt Bacharach-style material on this album. (Bacharach indeed collaborated on some of the songs). Not so, some of it is there, because that has been what has floated Costello’s boat for the last twenty years or so, but a lot of it is refreshing powerful, punchy and at many times Attractions-esque. Not surprising, as keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas are in attendance. The sound quality is one of the best I have heard on a Costello album too.

Under Lime is a delicious mixture of an upbeat rocky number featuring some typical Costello balladry with a bit of Beatles-style brass thrown in for good measure at one point. The bass line is beautiful on this and Costello’s voice sounds just like it did many years ago. The track is hindered just a little by some unnecessary embellishments - some superfluous “ba-ba-ba” vocals, for example. That is a minor thing, though, overall, it is a quite innovative and impressive number. Some Attractions-style piano comes in near the end too. Don't Look Now is, I believe, a leftover from a shelved musical featuring Bacharach material. It has that feel about it, with Costello’s best crooning, deep vocal, but it is enhanced by a powerful drum sound. The same power continues on the jaunty but bassy rockishness of the interestingly-titled Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter (co-written with Carole King, apparently). I love this one. Energetic and infectious. It has some great brass on it too.

Stripping Paper is what may at one time have been recorded as a stark piano and vocal ballad, but as with all the material so far, it is given a different feel by Pete Thomas’s muscular drums. Nieve’s piano on this is beautiful. Unwanted Number is a thumping, but bluesy melodic Attractions-style offering, dated from 1996, I read.

Some more George Martin brass (French horn?) crops up on the evocative and pretty impressive I Let The Sun Go Down. Costello’s voice is so good on this one, which is one of his best songs for many a year. Particularly sad when one thinks of the recent passing of engineer Geoff Emerick, who worked with The Beatles for so long and, of course, Costello on Imperial Bedroom. His influence would seem to be all over this.

Mr & Mrs Hush is like something from 2004’s The Delivery Man but with added brass accoutrements. Again, Costello sounds energetic, enthusiastic and effervescent, something that is coming across so much on this album. Photographs Can Lie is initially a more typical Costello piano and vocal number, like Almost Blue, then its get some infectious bass and percussion which makes it even better. I am really enjoying this. I’m not sure Dishonor The Stars was  one of the tracks from the aborted musical, but it has that story-telling, narrative feel about it. It is not one of my favourite melodies from the album, but it is buoyed by its excellent quality backing.

Support My Tears is a beautiful, deep ballad with big, dramatic stage-style orchestration and a bit of a poppy melody to it.  There is a real Bacharach air to this. I am not sure yet who wrote the individual songs and whether this is one of the collaborations with Bacharach. If not, Costello certainly wrote it in that style (it's not - Don't Look Now, Photographs Can Lie and He's Given Me Things are the Bacharach collaborations). Why Won't Heaven Help Me? has echoes of The Long Honeymoon from Imperial Bedroom in places. He's Given Me Things is a tender, low-key ballad on which to end this highly impressive album.

Personally, I feel this album will be a real grower that will justify numerous plays over the years, just like Imperial Bedroom, the Costello album that this reminds me of the most, and I can’t say better than that.