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.
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 Bollocks, The 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? Surely not? It seemed that 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. Incidentally, the backing musicians were a US country rock band called Clover, whose members later went on to become Huey Lewis's 'News'.
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 was one of those artists that almost became famous before he was famous. Amateur or home-produced or not, the hype worked and Costello's appearance on the "Stiffs tour" with Ian Dury, Nick Lowe and Wreckless Eric became the hottest ticket in town. Everyone wanted to see this (apparently) knock-kneed, bespectacled odbball.
At the risk of tediously repeating myself, I will labour the point once more - My Aim Is True has always sat outside from the other punk-new wave albums from the period. Maybe it was just me, but at the time I found its music somewhat out of touch with the zeitgeist - too jangly, too old school, at times too country. Much of its critical kudos has been retrospective. Back in 1977 I just had a problem with the cultural identity of this particular album when it came out. However, give it a few more months and I didn't have any such problems once The Attractions had been formed, new wave was in town and the excellent This Year's Model heralded a run of truly wonderful albums.
Oh, my goodness - I am forgetting the gorgeous ballad, Alison, which remains as the album's stand out number - look, I'll say it again, there is plenty of material on here with real 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 supposedly 'punk' record that was deemed to be 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 just had something similar in much of its imagery and attitude, I was sold on the distinctly unique, idiosyncratic Costello and would remain so for many more decades.
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.
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.
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 Squad, Senior Service, Green Shirt, Busy 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 later, had this to say 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.
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...".
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?
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 Supremes' Some Things You Never Get Used To are a delight. Also up there are the atmospheric, staccato King Horse, the frenetic, punky Love For Tender, the beautifully bassy Temptation, the gloriously Stax-esque Beaten To The Punch and the lively contemporary 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, insistent groove of Secondary Modern, the vaguely Booker T-ish organ-driven funk of Possession, the short, piano-led new wavers 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 heart-rending country soul of Motel Matches turn up. Or how about the new wave funk of Black And White World, the evocative, swirling New Amsterdam, the new wave-ish cod-funk beat of 5ive Gears In Reverse or the once more Stax soul vibe of I Stand Accused.
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.
As the years have passed, however, I have found I have come to appreciate the others like Brown To Blue, Success 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.
Surprisingly, Costello has since said that it was by far his and the band's most drug and drink-addled recording of their career. You would never have known - the musicianship is vibrant, crisp and clear and Costello's delivery anything but slurred. If I hadn't read this, I would have said the exact opposite - that this was their most professional and sober album! Apparently, Costello also revealed later that various tracks were influenced by other artists - Clubland by The Police; You'll Never Be A Man by The Pretenders; White Knuckles by XTC; Fish 'n' Chip Paper by Squeeze and Big Sister's Clothes by The Clash. I can't say that any of those comparisons had struck me, but if Costello said he based the songs thus then no doubt he did.
** 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.
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.
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 Bedtime, The 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:-
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 Dance, Shout 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 Thieves, the embittered soul of Mouth 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.
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.
Two years since his last album with The Attractions, which had been the half-realised and patchy Goodbye Cruel World, Elvis 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Tracks, Bruce Springsteen's Brilliant Disguise from Tunnel Of Love and Van Morrison's Full Force Gale.
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.
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.
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.
I feel Costello doesn't use instrumentation other than the stark, clunky piano enough on this album. For example, at the end of Still, The 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.
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 strangely 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 Bedlam.
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.
Overall, this is an impressive, largely upbeat Costello album. Very powerful and rock-ish in its sound, like Brutal Youth.
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 compilations that will suit better.
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.
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.
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.
After a really good virtually Attractions-backed album in 2018’s Look Now, Elvis Costello retains only keyboardist Steve Nieve for this beguiling, slow burner of an album. The booming, clear drum sound of Attractions drummer Pete Thomas is gone here, replaced by a deep, sonorous beat on the album’s more powerful tracks. Ironically, though, these are the album’s best numbers, as Costello spits out his trademark invective over a murky, dense, unnerving backing.
Much of the rest of the album is given over to satisfying Costello’s long held love of thirties-style crooning and jaunty twenties Vaudeville. The crooner and the showman have never been far from his persona for about thirty years or so now.
The better, more resonant, meaningful songs, both lyrically and musically are to be found in the first half of the album. Its second half tends to be bogged down in too much slow, mournful, orchestrated crooning. That said, on first listen I found that the album bored me, whereas a few more listens in I found that it grew on me. I still much prefer Look Now, however.
Anyway, on to the tracks. Revolution #49 is a totally inessential spoken intro with Costello talking in his semi-scouse accent (although at times he sounds like Van Morrison) over a sombre, Eastern-influenced backing. It all sounds a bit pretentious, to be honest. Things pick up soon, however, on the industrial denseness of No Flag, which, despite its programmed percussion is full of buzzy riffs, a muffled, paranoid atmosphere and a killer vocal from Costello. It is up there as one of his best tracks of recent times, reminding me of some of the material on the How To Be Cruel album.
Croony balladry soon arrives, though, on the gentle but mysteriously appealing They’re Not Laughing At Me Now, which has Costello revisiting a familiar theme of a misunderstood clown having the last laugh. It is enhanced by some nice brass parts. Tough, terse riffy menace returns on Newspaper Pane, which again features a programmed drum rhythm. Costello’s voice sounds strangely lisping and old, at a higher pitch than usual. Another punchy brass break adds to the song’s appeal. The lyrics are powerfully cynical too. I Do (Zula’s Song) is a typically smoky and atmospheric Costello ballad, with mournful orchestration and New Orleans funeral-style slow brass. His voice is back to a deeper timbre this time.
One of the last heavy, chunky numbers on the album is the shuffling, grainy groove of We Are All Cowards now, which again has echoes some of his early 2000s output. Costello has always liked a bit of soft-shoe vaudeville and he delivers some on the surprisingly enjoyable Hey Clockface/Can You Face Me? It almost breaks into tap-dance at one point and the woodwind swirls, twenties-style, all around. I imagine Costello's father would have loved this. The Whirlwind is an evocative piano and solo brass backed plaintive ballad. It brings to mind some of the songs on David Bowie’s Blackstar album at occasional points.
Hetty O’Hara Confidential is a quirky, thumping and staccato Costello shuffle, full of jerky piano, keyboards, heavy drums and an acerbic, almost rapped-out vocal. This is the final truly powerful, lively number on the album and it is strangely addictive. It reminds me of Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over) from the Mighty Like A Rose album. The oddly-titled The Last Confession Of Vivian Whip is another bleak piano, strings and voice ballad in that thirties style, like something Bryan Ferry would cover. Similarly maudlin is the voice and bassy guitar ballad What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have? Initially I felt the album was getting into a bit of a crooning rut at this point, but on subsequent listens it has started to get into my system and it becomes sleepily appealing. The next track, Radio Is Everything, is an oddity, however, as Costello narrates his lyrics, Van Morrison-style over an ethereal lone keyboard backing (a solo trumpet and some gentle percussion arrives near the end). It is like nothing he has ever done before but it inspires once more a surprising fascination in me. The long, low key end to the album continues on the brush drum, stand up bass and brass ballad, I Can’t Say Her Name and the piano-vocal strains of Byline are just as somnolent. This is an acquired taste of an album, one that is seemingly set firmly in the drawing rooms of the 1930s but the more I listen to it, the more it eats into me. At first I thought I didn’t like it - a few listens later I loved it.