Sunday, 4 October 2020

Elvis Costello - Jack Of All Parades (1989-2020) (inc. new album)

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 Blue

Pouring 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 CongratulationsGram 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, oddly-titled 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/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 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 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 compilations 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 Dishonour 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.

Hey Clockface (2020)

Revolution #49/No Flag/They’re Not Laughing At Me Now/Newspaper Pane/I Do (Zula’s Song)/We Are All Cowards Now/Hey Clockface-Can You Face Me?/The Whirlwind/Hetty O’Hara Confidential/The Last Confession Of Vivian Whip/What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?/Radio Is Everything/I Can’t Say Her Name/Byline

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.

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