Friday, 11 June 2021

Bite-sized Costello

These are most of Elvis Costello's studio albums, together with introductions from my longer reviews (which can be accessed here) :-

My Aim Is True (1977)

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. 

This Year's Model (1978)

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.

Armed Forces (1979)

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 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.

Get Happy!! (1980)

What a great album this was. Released in 1980, following on from the success of Armed Forces and its hit single, Oliver's Army, Elvis 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. 

Almost Blue (1981)

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.

Trust (1981)

Before taking a huge gamble with 1981's gamble of an album of Country & Western cover versions in Almost Blue, Elvis Costello & The Attractions came up with their most eclectic and polished album to date. Whereas the previous outing had been the twenty-song, short, sharp attack of the soul/Motown/Stax vibes of Get Happy!! The Attractions stuck to their to their trademark organ and bass-dominated sound for much of this album, but also, tellingly, experimented with other influences as well. There were jazzy bits, frantic punk energy, torch song balladry and a country song, for the first time. Steve Nieve's piano is also more to the fore than his organ. It was a complex, sophisticated album that showed just how far the new wave had developed in such a short period. This was far more than fist-punching punk rock, (not that Costello had ever delivered that) - it ploughed furrows that were far more innovative and creative. It is clever, witty and solidly rocking too. Surprisingly, Costello has since said that it was by far his and the band's most drug and drink-addled recording of their career. You would never have known - the musicianship is vibrant, crisp and clear and Costello's delivery anything but slurred. If I hadn't read this, I would have said the exact opposite - that this was their most professional and sober album! Apparently, Costello also revealed later that various tracks were influenced by other artists - Clubland by The Police; You'll Never Be A Man by The Pretenders; White Knuckles by XTC; Fish 'n' Chip Paper by Squeeze and Big Sister's Clothes by The Clash. I can't say that any of those comparisons had struck me, but if Costello said he based the songs thus then no doubt he did. 

Imperial Bedroom (1982)

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.

Punch The Clock (1983)

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. 

Goodbye Cruel World (1984)

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.

King Of America (1986)

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.

Blood And Chocolate (1987)

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.

Spike (1989)

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 McCartney, Roger McGuinn, Allen 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.

Mighty Like A Rose (1991)

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.

Brutal Youth (1994)

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 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)

After making a comeback with The Attractions for 1994's Brutal Youth, Elvis 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.

All This Useless Beauty (1996)

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. 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)

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. 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)

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.

The Delivery Man (2004)

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. 

Momofuku (2008)

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

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009)

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. 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)

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. 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)

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. 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.

Look Now (2018)

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.

Hey Clockface (2020)

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.

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