A few days ago, as a project on my Facebook page, I started posting one Elvis Costello video a day — taken from his studio albums, in chronological order — with a short write-up. It occurred to me that I might as well compile the entries in one place, so here they are.
As I write this intro, I am only up to Armed Forces, but I will continue to update this page, daily, until I am through.
It’s been a lot of fun to do this. As I hope you can tell, I am a huge Elvis Costello fan, though admittedly more familiar with his earlier stuff than his later stuff, so I am sure this project will give me an opportunity to catch up on some cool tracks I may have missed along the way, and share them with you.
Here are the entries, starting with My Aim Is True (posted on Facebook on Sept. 19, 2020).
A Facebook post today by my friend Paul Iorio on Elvis Costello’s “King Horse” reminded me — not that I particularly needed it — how much I love EC. In my personal pantheon, he’s No. 3, behind Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, though I’ve written a lot less about him than those other two. (Though I have written plenty, and interviewed him twice). Anyway, it occurred to me that, as a fun project, I could share a song a day from each of his albums. It’s always hard to pick a favorite, of course, so I’m not going to agonize over it. I’ll just pick a song I like a lot, and err on the side of his less well known songs, so that some people may, perhaps, be able to hear them for the first time. So here I go: Here’s “I’m Not Angry” from his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True. (Spoiler Alert: He actually is angry).
This Year’s Model (1978) is one of my two favorite EC albums. (The other is Get Happy!!; I keep on going back and forth whenever I try to decide). It’s an album that, unlike his 1977 debut My Aim Is True, saw him totally embracing the punk-rock movement of the time. Here’s “Lipstick Vogue.”
Am not going to do just the studio albums: Will do live albums as well, plus the collaborative albums, which are essential. So after doing This Year’s Model yesterday, today it’s 1978’s Live at the El Mocambo, recorded in Toronto 11 days before the release of This Year’s Model and distributed later that year only as a Canadian promotional album (meaning, basically, it was sent to Canadian radio stations for airplay but not available for sale). It wasn’t until 1993 that it was officially available for purchase (as part of the 2 ½ Years boxed set), then in 2009 it was finally put out on its own. Devoted exclusively to songs from Costello’s first two albums — including “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” which had been on the U.K. but not the U.S. version of This Year’s Model — it captures the raw power of Costello and the Attractions on their early tours. Here’s “You Belong to Me.”
Armed Forces (1979) was the first Elvis Costello album I purchased, after being blown away by “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” when it was played by Vin Scelsa on WNEW-FM. I liked the rest of the album nearly as much, and quickly went out and bought the previous two, and played them all incessantly. I had discovered Dylan and Springsteen a few years previously, but this was something different. Dylan was one of the pillars of rock, of course, and Springsteen seemed very rooted in classic sounds. But Costello felt modern — not just a stunning songwriter but someone who could only exist right now, at the peak of the new wave movement. Very exciting. Anyway, “What’s So Funny” would be the obvious choice from Armed Forces, but I’ll go with something a little less well known, “Party Girl.”
Get Happy!! was released in early 1980; it was Costello’s fourth studio album in the 2 ½ years since releasing My Aim Is True in the summer of 1977. Twenty songs, ranging from 1:49 to 3:35, crammed onto two sides of vinyl, and nearly every one of them a winner. Unlike the previous three albums, this one has a strong R&B/soul flavor. Not only did Costello release his first four albums so quickly, but they’re all totally different from each other, and very rarely less than brilliant. The song I’m choosing to share is “Man Called Uncle,” which is lyrically nasty — Costello is berating a woman he’s in love with for having an affair with an older man — but also contains one of his most indelible melodies.
Taking Liberties, released later in 1980, was an odds-and-ends compilation with B-sides, soundtrack cuts, a few previously unreleased songs, and songs that were on Costello’s British albums but not the albums’ American versions. (A British album, Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How’s Your Fathers, was released at the same time and covered much of the same ground.) Like Get Happy!!, it was crammed with songs — 20 on two vinyl sides. I found a handful of the songs forgettable but liked most of it, and will spotlight, today, the R&B cover “Getting Mighty Crowded,” which had been the B-side of the second Get Happy!! single, “High Fidelity.” The song was written by Van McCoy — who had had a No. 1 hit in 1975 with the disco anthem “The Hustle” — and Costello presumably knew it from Betty Everett’s 1965 single, which had been a Top 20 hit in England but had not cracked the Top 40 in the United States. It’s a catchy, punchy song. I believe that if it had been included on Get Happy!! and released as an A-side single, it could have given Costello the bona fide hit that that album lacked.
Trust (1981) was the first of EC’s five studio albums, alas, that I didn’t love. I didn’t dislike it. I just wasn’t as blown away as I had been with the previous four. It’s hard to say why. Maybe it just didn’t have a song that reached out and grabbed me the way various songs on the previous albums had. Looking over his catalog, I see it as a transitional album, moving away from the fire and focus of his early albums toward something more emotionally complex and musically exploratory. Anyway, here’s one of my favorite tracks, the subdued and suspicious “Watch Your Step.”
Almost Blue, a country album released in 1981, was quite a daring project for a new wave rocker to take on at that time, especially since Costello didn’t write any of the material himself and used old-school “countrypolitan” Nashville producer Billy Sherrill. (Trivia fact: Sherrill co-wrote and produced Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man”). Almost Blue got panned at the time, but I liked it then, and I like it now. Here’s Cosello’s take on Gram Parsons’ “How Much I Lied,” with a sincere, straightforward vocal performance and typically imaginative and ornate piano accompaniment by Steve Nieve.
Imperial Bedroom was pretty much universally acclaimed as a masterpiece when it came out in 1982, and has held up well. After the country detour of Almost Blue, Costello returned, more or less, to the strategy of Trust, with the music growing even more eclectic but the words stinging just as much. Fifteen different kinds of songs, mostly about love, ranging from bouncy pop-soul (“Tears Before Bedtime”) to noir-ish balladry (“The Long Honeymoon”). I’ve chosen to share “Man Out of Time,” which has the stately feel and lyrical richness of Dylan circa Blonde on Blonde.
Punch the Clock (1983) enabled Costello to enter the American Top 40 for the first time, with “Everyday I Write the Book.” He caught some flak at the time for making a “pop” album, but Punch the Clock is more “pop” in terms of its bright, shiny production that its (typically for Costello) thorny songwriting. “Everyday” was the album’s only U.S. hit, though “Pills and Soap” and “Let Them All Talk” also made the British singles chart (rising to No. 16 and No. 59, respectably). Personally, I think I might have pushed for the ingeniously catchy “The Invisible Man” to be the followup.
Goodbye Cruel World (1984) was the first Costello album to be almost universally panned (even Almost Blue got better reviews). And it deserved it: Single “The Only Flame in Town” seemed like a halfhearted attempt to repeat the success of “Everyday I Write the Book”; elsewhere, the songwriting was solid enough, but the spark had mostly gone out of Costello’s singing and the Attractions’ playing. And yet there are some winners here, such as “The Comedians” (later covered by Roy Orbison) and “The Deportees Club,” which finds Costello and the Attractions re-summoning — for one track, at least — the verve of their early albums.
King of America (1986) represents a fresh start after the dead end of 1984’s Goodbye Cruel World. It’s an Americana album (though I’m not sure if people actually used that term back then) and The Attractions are largely absent from it. Instead, Costello calls on a diverse group of aces to back him, including both T-Bones (Burnett and Wolk), James Burton, Jim Keltner, Earl Palmer, David Hidalgo, Jo-El Sonnier and Mitchell Froom. Guitarist Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Ron Tutt — who had played together in Elvis Presley’s TCB Band — back Costello on “The Big Light,” which sounds like a classic Merle Haggard hit (and, in fact, name checks Haggard). It’s one of Costello’s most lyrically straightforward songs — “the big light” represents a force that pulls you out of negative or self-destructive behavior — and this is a dynamic version, with some great playing by Burton in particular. I love the chorus: “The Big Light came through my window and it opened up my eyelids/And it snapped them up like roller blinds and told me things that I did/I can’t face another day and night of good ideas and complications/And I’m thankful that I didn’t open another bottle of inspiration.” Johnny Cash gave his stamp of approval to the song by covering it on his 1987 Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town album.
Blood and Chocolate surprised fans when it came out in September 1986, just seven months after King of America. Unlike King of America, which found Costello working, mostly, with American roots-rock musicians, this one featured The Attractions, and the old chemistry was very evident. I’m particularly fond of “I Want You,” which I consider one of Costello’s masterpieces. The singer’s lover has cheated, and after a plaintive intro, he shifts gears and spills his guts in excruciating, masochistic detail while obsessively repeating the phrase “I Want You”: “I want you/I’m not ashamed to say I cried for you/I want you/I want to know the things you did that we do, too/I want you/I want to hear he pleases you more than I do/I want you/I might as well be useless for all it means to you/I want you/Did you call his name out as he held you down?/I want you/Oh no, my darling, not with that clown.” As dark and intense a song as has ever been recorded.
Out of Our Idiot (1987), like 1980’s “Taking Liberties,” is a collection of odds and ends (soundtrack cuts, B-sides and so on) not previously released on his studio albums. The album was officially released only in the U.K., but was readily available in the U.S. as an import. (At least, I remember getting a copy pretty easily.) It caps an amazing period of productivity: Counting this and Taking Liberties, Costello released 13 albums between 1977 and 1987. Here is “Walking on Thin Ice,” his imaginatively arranged and rawly emotional cover of the Yoko Ono song, originally released on the 1984 Ono tribute album, Every Man Has a Woman.
Spike (1989) was recorded with all-star supporting casts in four different cities (London, Dublin, Los Angeles and New Orleans). It was frustratingly uneven yet it did yield Costello’s biggest American hit (“Veronica,” co-written with Paul McCartney) and has several other memorable songs as well (“Let Him Dangle,” “God’s Comic,” “Tramp the Dirt Down”). Possibly best of all is “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” a forceful word of warning to an incorrigible drunk (“One day you’re going to have to face a deep dark truthful mirror/And it’s going to tell you things that I still love you too much to say”) featuring stellar support by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and pianist Allen Toussaint.
Mighty Like a Rose (1991) is, honestly, not one of my favorite Elvis Costello albums. I find most of its songs dark and chaotic, and not in a good way — just hard songs, for the most part, to connect to. And I am sharing, in fact, a song that’s atypical for the album, and for Costello’s career in general: “Broken,” a lyrically direct, atmospheric ballad that some might find droning but I find mesmerizing. It was written by Costello’s wife of that time, Cait O’Riordan, and its haunting beauty and somber tone breaks through the clutter of a generally subpar album.
The Juliet Letters (1993) is an adventurous collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet. Each song represents an imaginary letter. It’s a tough album to love: classical music fans may find Costello’s rough-hewn vocals ruining the pristine beauty of the strings; rock fans will grow tired with the songs’ lack of a simple, straightforward rhythm to latch onto. But it’s beautiful in its own stubborn, difficult way. Highlights include the comedic “This Offer Is Unrepeatable,” which echoes both Gilbert & Sullivan and Stephen Sondheim.
We’ll take a bit of a detour now, to Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears, the 1993 solo debut album by Wendy James (best known for fronting the band Transvision Vamp). Costello does not sing or perform on the album, but he wrote all 10 of its songs, five of them with his wife of that time, Cait O’Riordan. One of the Costello/O’Riordan collaborations is “London’s Brilliant,” a punchy homage to The Clash that anticipates Costello’s next studio album, the back-to-basics Brutal Youth. “London’s Brilliant” was the second single from James’ album and a minor hit in England.
Costello’s 1993 four-CD boxed set 2 ½ Years included his first three studio albums with a generous number of bonus tracks for each one (some but not all previously released on the Taking Liberties compilation) plus the Live at the El Mocambo album. Among the most notable previously unreleased tracks was “Cheap Reward,” originally recorded in 1975 or 1976. It’s interesting to Costello fans not only because some of the song was recycled in “Lip Service,” but also because the country-flavored arrangement hints at one of Costello’s future musical interests.
Brutal Youth (1994) was Costello’s first album with The Attractions since 1986’s Blood and Chocolate (though Nick Lowe actually plays bass on more tracks than Bruce Thomas does) and one that echoes the earlier Attractions albums in many ways. “You Tripped at Every Step,” somewhat reminiscent of the Trust album, is my favorite. It’s a sumptuously beautiful song about a guy who stands by helplessly as his partner becomes harder and harder to handle, drinking too much (“And I would try to catch you, anytime you call/Only you drank that potion, and went out of control”), exploding with anger (“the fury raged around the house”) and threatening violence (“Let me take your hand/Put down that frying pan”). Brutally honest but also sweet and comforting, in a way.
Kojak Variety (1995) is a ballad-heavy and mostly forgettable covers collection. Costello sounds like he’s having fun, at least, on Jesse Winchester’s rowdy barroom anthem, “Payday.”
Deep Dead Blue (1995) is a seven-song EP recorded live with guitarist Bill Frisell at the Meltdown Festival in London earlier that year. The tracks, featuring just Costello on vocals and Frisell on guitar, include songs by Charles Mingus (“Weird Nightmare”) and Lerner & Loewe (“Gigi”); previously unrecorded songs co-written by Costello and Frisell (the title track) and Costello and Rubén Blades (“Shamed Into Love”); and reworked songs from Costello’s past. Frisell plays in a thoughtful, delicate manner and Costello responds with a series of soulful but restrained performances. My favorite track is “Baby Plays Around,” co-written by Costello and Cait O’Riordan and originally released on the Spike album. I could not find a video of that alone but here is one of the whole album, with “Baby Plays Around” first.
The ’90s was a very uneven decade for Costello, full of experimentation and collaboration, but All This Useless Beauty (1996), recorded with The Attractions, is relatively straightforward and consistently satisfying. The concept: a collection of songs written with other artists (Paul McCartney, Aimee Mann) or for others to record. Costello delved into the subject of evil and sin on “Complicated Shadows,” hoping that Johnny Cash would record it. Cash never did (though he did cover two other Costello songs, “The Big Light” and “Hidden Shame”). Costello handles the song quite differently from the way Cash probably would have, but comes up with something haunting and explosive.
Costello & Nieve was a five-EP 1996 boxed set recorded at five concerts featuring just Costello and Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve (joined, at two songs at one of the shows, by Attractions drummer Pete Thomas). It’s a great way to spotlight nuances of familiar songs, and showcase the infinite inventiveness of Nieve’s playing. Check out the first song in this video: A new version of “Temptation,” from 1980’s Get Happy!!, convincingly transformed into a reflective cabaret song. (This video includes the entire boxed set; I couldn’t find a video devoted to just that song).
I assume many Costello fans have never even heard of 1997’s Terror and Magnificence, which features the works of composer John Harle and rose to No. 3 on Billboard magazine’s Classical Crossover charts. Costello appears on five songs; Harle plays saxophone and keyboards and the album also features singer Sarah Leonard, saxophonist Andy Sheppard and others. Three of the Costello’s numbers are adaptations of poetry from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” set to music by Harle. Here’s one of them, “When That I Was and a Little Tiny Boy.”
Painted From Memory, Costello’s 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, is very possibly his best album of the last 25 years. Costello’s affection for Bacharach’s music was well known — he was performing “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” all the way back in the ’70s — but few could have foreseen how well his lovelorn crooning would work with Bacharach’s complex melodies and ornate orchestrations. A revelation, all the way around — and quite a comeback for Bacharach, who hadn’t released a studio album in 21 years. Here is “God Give Me Strength”:
I haven’t, in general, been including greatest hits albums in this series. But I will make an exception for 1999’s The Very Best of Elvis Costello because it marked the first appearance, on one of his albums, of “She,” which was a pretty important song for him — his last Top 40 hit in the U.K. (His last in the U.S. was “Veronica”). “She” also was featured prominently on the “Notting Hill” soundtrack that year, which explains, in part, its popularity. Written by Charles Aznavour and Herbert Kertzmer, the song has the same kind of classic-pop elegance that Costello displayed on his Painted From Memory collaboration with Burt Bacharach, the previous year, though its lyrics are more sentimental than anything Costello would have been likely to come up with on his own.
Today we come to For the Stars, a 2001 collaboration with the Swedish singer Anne Sofie von Otter. Costello produced the album and sings and/or plays guitar, organ or bass on many tracks. About half the songs are written or co-written by Costello (both new and old). The other half are covers of material by everyone from The Beatles and The Beach Boys to Kate McGarrigle and Ron Sexsmith. Here’s a medley that cleverly links Tom Waits’ “Broken Bicycles” to Paul McCartney’s “Junk”:
When I Was Cruel (2002) marked Costello’s return to rock after six years of other projects, as well as the debut of The Imposters (though they weren’t called that yet): Attractions members Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas, along with new bassist Davey Faragher. Even so, I think it rivals Mighty Like a Rose for his worst album released up to that point in his career. Here’s the song that I think is the best of a subpar bunch, “Dissolve.”
As I mentioned, I’m not really a fan of 2002’s When I Was Cruel. Well, today we come to Cruel Smile, a sequel to that album that was released later that year featuring B-sides, alternate versions, remixes and live tracks. Again, not a favorite of mine, though I do like “Oh Well,” a haunting ballad about something you wouldn’t expect a workaholic like Costello to write about: ennui.
North (2003) is a unique work in Costello’s catalog: an intimate, cabaret-style song cycle about having your heart broken and then finding new love. It may not have convinced that anyone Costello was going to be the next Tony Bennett, though it did have some magical moments. It ends with the optimistic, uplifting “I’m in the Mood Again.” Accompanying himself on piano, Costello sings about walking around New York, late at night or early in the morning, alone, and marveling at his good fortune. I like this one so much I will share its lyrics in their entirety:
Hail to the taxis
They go where I go
Farewell the newspapers that know more than I know
Flung under a streetlamp still burning at dawn
I’m in the mood again
I walk the damp streets rather than slumber
Along past the fine windows of shameless and plunder
But none of their riches could ever compare
I’m in the mood again
I don’t know what’s come over me
But it’s nothing that I’m doing wrong
You took the breath right out of me
Now you’ll find it in the early hours
In a lover’s song
I lay my head down on fine linens and satin
Away from the mad-hatters who live in Manhattan
The Empire State Building illuminating the sky
I’m in the mood, I’m in the mood, I’m in the mood again.
The Delivery Man (2004) was Costello’s second album in three years with the newly formed Imposters (keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Davey Faragher) and the first to actually use that name. There is allegedly some story line linking the songs, but that aspect of the album is almost impossible to fathom. The unity comes more via Costello’s interest in American roots styles, including country and Southern soul. Overall, the album represents a big improvement, I think, over 2002’s When I Was Cruel, with a lot more clarity in the songwriting and ingratiating looseness in the performances. It even included a song, “Monkey to Man,” that could have been a big hit single, but wasn’t.
In May 2003, Costello appeared on Marian McPartland’s NPR show “Piano Jazz,” and in 2005, he released the recording (of both the music and the conversation) as an album. He sings on all tracks and plays guitar or piano on some; McPartland plays piano, and Gary Mazzaroppi is on bass. The album contains two of Costello’s own songs (“Almost Blue,” “I’m in the Mood Again”) and six standards; among the latter is his solo guitar-and-vocals take on the bleak but beautiful “Gloomy Sunday.”
My Flame Burns Blue (2006), like many of Costello’s albums, represented something he had never done before. It’s a live album, mainly featuring songs from his own repertoire, recorded with a large jazz ensemble (the Netherlands-based Metropole Orkest) at a 2004 jazz festival. Here’s the album’s biggest surprise, a swinging take on his breakthrough 1977 single, “Watching the Detectives.”
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