RETROSPECT: elvis costello | Elvis Costello
an appreciation of one of the decade’s great songwriting talents; could you match them?
He's one of the most powerful and prolific songwriters of the post-punk era, yet Elvis Costello's talents as a musician and a producer remain a closed book to many. We set the record straight.
LISTEN TO ELVIS COSTELLO'S 12-year back catalogue in chronological order, and you will hear the sound of a man growing up. Yes, it's 12 years since Declan McManus, son of Joe Loss Band singer Ross McManus, arrived at Jake Riviera's newly formed Stiff label clutching his demo tapes. Riviera listened to them, and liked them. McManus had found himself a record contract. Then Riviera helped the young singer construct a new public image - that of Elvis Costello.
An early clutch of strong singles and Costello's distinctive public persona (the snarling wimp with the Buddy Holly specs and the knock-kneed stance) secured him cult status. With his first album 'My Aim Is True', and songs like 'Alison' and 'Watching the Detectives', Costello caused quite a stir - not an easy thing to do in the chaotic, infinitely creative post-punk era.
He formed a full-time band, the Attractions, consisting of Steve Naive (keyboards), Bruce Thomas (bass) and Pete Thomas (drums), and joined the infamous Bunch of Stiffs tour along with Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis. The Attractions' boisterous sound was based largely on Naive's keyboard work, particularly on Hammond organ. Costello's voice was unique, and he was an instantly recognisable artist. He was quick to strike up a solid relationship with producer Nick Lowe, an alliance that has proved to be fruitful, on and off, throughout Costello's career.
Elvis quickly followed-up his debut long-player with 'This Year's Model'. It had the frenetic feel of punk (more so, if anything, than 'My Aim Is True') coupled with razor-sharp lyrics that drew the inevitable "New Dylan" comparisons. A dozen songs, 36 minutes - Costello was a master of the three-minute diatribe. Two excellent singles in '(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea' and 'Pump It Up' further enhanced his reputation, and it was clear that another "angry young man" was here to stay. And even though his reputation and "marketability" were rock-solid by this time, Elvis continued to play hide-and-seek with the conventions of the pop world - frequently putting out singles that did not feature on album releases, and writing songs like 'Radio Radio', which showed that his digs at the establishment did not exclude the industries that made his success possible.
The next single, 'Oliver's Army', remains Costello's most successful single to date, taking him to number two in the UK. Successful touring and the subsequent 'Armed Forces' album - which also contained the hits 'Accidents Will Happen' and 'Green Shirt' - established him in the big league.
Song titles like 'Clowntime Is Over' and 'I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down' confirmed Elvis' role of ranting court jester, and although the social and political messages behind his songs were as acutely felt as ever, this period (late 70s and early '80s) remains his most successful commercially. Better than any of his contemporaries, Costello had managed to fuse irresistible pop tunes with tight musicianship and thoughtful lyrics.
Yet despite his gawky schoolkid image, he was now 26 years of age. Songs like 'New Amsterdam' and 'Riot Act' saw his writing achieve a new richness, and the 20-track 'Get Happy!!' album saw the Attractions depart from their pub roots slightly, borrowing from other styles including Motown. Elvis was now at the production helm himself, and it seemed logical that he would incorporate yet more influences into his music.
And so it proved. For while his records up to 'Trust' established Elvis Costello as a prolific songwriter with a lot more than just an ear for a good tune, subsequent efforts saw him confident enough to experiment more with style and arrangement. It is these experiments that have produced a back catalogue rich in variety.
In 1981, Elvis made a pilgrimage to Nashville to record 'Almost Blue', a short collection of country covers. As would happen with 'Blood and Chocolate' five years later, critical opinion over the LP was divided. Costello had dispensed with the services of Nick Lowe as producer, and 'Almost Blue' remains startlingly different to any of his other albums. Whether artistically courageous or just plain whimsical, 'Almost Blue' is evidence of Costello's talent for pastiche - mixing country standards with a rock delivery. And despite its lukewarm reception from the critics, the album produced another singles success in the ballad 'Good Year For The Roses', which reached number six.
The follow-up album, 'Imperial Bedroom', saw Costello in more familiar territory - the return of the lovelorn boy. It was just five years since Costello had burst into Britain's bedsits, and here was his eighth UK album. 'Imperial Bedroom' remains intense listening. Perhaps after trying his hand at other people's songs, young Elvis needed something akin to emotional exorcism.
After the quirky 'Almost Blue' and the angst of 'Imperial Bedroom', Costello bounced back in 1983 with 'Punch the Clock', a 13-track album that bubbled with enthusiasm and freshness.
After what had been a relatively lean period chartwise, Costello had produced an album to launch him back into the spotlight. Augmenting the Attractions were the soul backing group Afrodiziak and the TKO horns. The brass added the final gloss to a highly polished album, possibly Costello's most sophisticated production up to that point, and a record bristling with clever and concise songs. The first single to be lifted, 'Pills and Soap', saw Elvis appearing as 'The Imposter' due to contractual problems, 'Everyday I Write The Book' took Elvis back into the charts and was clear evidence of his strength with words.
Despite being dominated by bounding songs like 'The World and His Wife' and 'Let Them All Talk', the album's strongest track was its most atypical - 'Shipbuilding'. With lyrics by Costello and music by producer Clive Langer, 'Shipbuilding' was a pensive ballad, a bleak comment on the economic prosperity that the Falklands War brought to the shipbuilding communities. Built around a skeleton of piano and strings, and complete with Chet Baker's echo-laced trumpet solo, 'Shipbuilding' remains one of Costello's finest moments.
In fact, the whole of 'Punch the Clock' shows the strength of good arrangement. The TKO horns are an integral part of the album; their presence does not clutter the other instruments, and it's evident they were not recorded six months later in a different studio - unlike some others I could mention.
Proving (yet again) his unpredictable nature, Costello then produced an album that was generally acclaimed as a dud. The title, 'Goodbye Cruel World', summed it up - the album had neither the vitality nor the songs to cause much of a stir, and quickly died a death. Being as prolific as Costello is, it is perhaps to be expected that every once in a while he'll churn out something sub-standard. In truth, it's remarkable this hasn't happened very often.
The next year was a quiet one for Costello, save a brief but memorable set at Live Aid. Typically, Costello chose his words carefully: a heavily ironic cover of 'All You Need Is Love' and his own blistering '(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding'. That same year, 1985, saw the release of a compilation album, 'The Best of Elvis Costello - The Man'. In the temporary absence of any new product, it served as a timely reminder of Costello's achievements thus far, and remains an excellent introduction to his work.
If the previous few years had been somewhat lean for Elvis, 1986 proved to be an artistic renaissance. He released two wildly different albums, confirming his undying eclecticism. The 'King of America' album was released under the guise of The Costello Show; on the cover, a bearded Costello looked resplendent in crown and "John Lennon" specs. As the lyrics of one of the songs reminds us, "If they had a king of fools then I would wear that crown/and you can all die laughing because I'll wear it proudly." The Attractions featured on only a single track. In their place, Costello called in some heavy-duty veterans from the States, including James Burton, and assembled them as the Confederates.
The album harked back to Costello's experiment with Country on 'Almost Blue', with Elvis' acoustic guitar providing the backbone for many of the 15 tracks. The production was clear and sparse, leaving ample room for Costello's excellent (improving?) vocals. On the inner-sleeve, Elvis attributed his guitar parts to the Little Hands of Concrete, a self-deprecating stab at his sometimes heavy-handed strumming. Additional colour was provided by double bass, brushes and drums(!) and Burton's Telecaster and dobro, but the smooth production belied some harsh sentiment.
Costello's sardonic lyrics were as uncompromising as ever. Domestic violence, America, and the usual love/hate relationships all got the Costello treatment.
Within months, Costello had countered the understatement of the 'King of America' album with the brutality of 'Blood and Chocolate'. This time he appeared under the pseudonym of Napoleon Dynamite. Reunited with the Attractions and Nick Lowe, Costello proved that even if he wasn't a young man any more, he was still angry. The band provided solid backing for Costello's raw guitar and vocals, with Lowe's production echoed the vitality of the performance. The songs had the relentless energy of his early recordings - 'Uncomplicated' and 'Tokyo Storm Warning' were both built around repetitive riffs, laying down the perfect base for Costello's vocal tirade. 'Blood and Chocolate' is a startling album - as brash as his early records, but showing infinitely greater maturity in songwriting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the lamentable state of the singles charts during the late '80s, the album failed to spawn a hit, and made only a brief impression on public consciousness.
Elvis again stepped out of the limelight for a while before returning with his latest album, 'Spike - The Beloved Entertainer'. 'Spike' sees Costello reunited with T-Bone Burnett and members of the Confederates, and has been the recipient of tumultuous critical acclaim. The album features a sophisticated array of musicians and instruments, but lyrically Costello is still darkly venomous. 'Tramp the Dirt Down' is one of the most severe songs Costello has ever written, yet it still works. On the other side of the coin, 'Veronica' sees him writing with that monolith of the rock 'n' roll establishment, Paul McCartney. (And Elvis has returned the compliment, cowriting three songs for Macca's forthcoming LP.) Now, with a special edition of BBC2's 'The Late Show' devoted to the new album, Costello has at last joined the ranks of rock's elder statesmen.
There's no doubt that in terms of popular appeal, Costello had his 15 minutes of fame early in his career. Since then, he's quietly been proving himself one of the best songwriters of modern times, and an accomplished musician, arranger and producer who knows exactly when to start and exactly when to stop. His "bad" albums are invariably better than most of today's pop fodder, and if you can write lyrics like his, you'll never be broke again. Growing up never sounded so good...
Feature by Michael Leonard
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