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Costello on Record: When Elvis Was King


Why was Costello the great rock and roll savior? I might claim he was my savior because he was the first rock start to look like me but he didn’t really, he was better looking than me in 77 and he is fatter than me in 09. And his love life wasn’t mine -he may have been getting fucked over but he was getting fucked anyway unlike, well, certain unfortunate 18 year olds. But that Costello, the 77 Costello, with his knock knees and his myopic stare, and his spattering of words wounding like the sting of an electric guitar: he, that guy, was the man behind the man, the image behind the image of rock and roll: its secret face peering out at the world pointedly pointing it all out. “I’m the one you see at night,” he said, “and I don’t want to do it all in vain”.
 

Whatever it meant to be a teenage boy in 77, and whatever it means today, it has this in common: the earth shattering and wholly consistent and constantly occurring sexual rejection by girls who want to feast further up the food chain. When Mick Jagger was a pimply nineteen year old singing “Little red Rooster” it was an unspoken joke: taking the mantle of the sexually aggressive, if not straight up superior, black man as his own. It was, how you say, unbelievable, and it was the rock and roll script for the following decade: a daydream of potency of pasty faced white boys at the cost of an electric guitar.
 

 
But while it started as a cry of sexual freedom, it ended as a get pussy free card for unscrupulous pop performers and yet another reason for teenage boys to feel inadequate. Costello connected to us, his audience, as one of us, in ways even Strummer and Rotten didn’t. Though he didn’t really look like us he dressed in such a way as to represent us, and in his first album his sexual bravado was doing little to hide him from an assault on his ego of unprecedented proportions…
 
 

The Honky Tonk Tapes (1975)
This is the earliest of Costello’s recorded works I’ve ever heard. Includes a country “Living In Paradise” and a Byrdsy cover of “Third Rate Romance” –ps he already had that rasp in the voice. Grade B
 
Aim to Please (1976)
Another early demo memorable for two of the best lost Costello songs: “Imagination” and “Radio Soul”. Several years later”Radio Soul” would be revised and released to great effective as “Radio Radio” with one of the great codas of all times added on, but “Radio Soul” itself was a dream song about a magical radio station that played all your favorite songs: MacManus dream of radio play as a youth would later morph into “inches on the reel to real”. “Imagination” is Costello’s first straight up sucker masterpiece and deserved a place on My Aim Is True: it is a polysyllabic (any other kind with EC?) rant about a girl whom he simply doesn’t trust and is watching her leavelo. In one version I have the lyric catches up with him and he gasps out a “Phew, made it” at the end. The chorus goes like this: “A needy imagination is a powerful deceiver when you want to believe her just a little too much, a needy imagination is a powerful deceiver…” OK are you ready for Costello’s very first sing as you cry end of song breakalong??? “I’LL GO OUT OF MY MIND IF I’M LOSING YOUR TOUCH”!!! It’s available on the 2001 Rhino extended reissue though it isn’t a great version. Grade: A
 
 
My Aim Is True (1977)
In 1977 I was at home watching a Granada TV show called “What’s On”. Elvis Costello was introduced as a singer whose first album was to be released the following week and who was playing as part of the Live Stiffs tour at the Free trade Hall. Costello sang “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” solo on electric guitar and my pal and I got up, got in the car, and drive an hour to manchester to see him live. My Aim Is True is one of the greatest albums of all time; the shake down is it coulda rocked harder. Maybe but I don’t see how. From the cover (with “ELVISISKING” emblazoned all over it) to the “still got a long way to go” end of the first side thru the opening of the second side “I used to be disgusted…” to the end of the world ending, the album is a unified piece of romantic and political disgust BUT it is a musical sleight of hand pretending to be brethen to the early punk movement but much closer in spirit (and song -try “Alison”) to LA singer/songwriters like Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon. He talks tough but only because it wants to “get right through the way he feels for you”. Costello was an instantaneous rock archetype and pop star. And married with a son… Grade: A+
 
 
This Year’s Model (1978)
In which Steve Nieve rocks the keybs with a concentrated ferocity that matches Costello seething self-loathing song for song. It starts as a series of sexual rebukes ends as a political nervous breakdown and on “Lipstick Vogue” and “Living In Paradise” marry them together. “Radio Radio” is the ending of the American version but the anti-National Front “Night Rally” is the true conclusion. Impeccable and simple rock songs tied to impenetrable and abstract lyric. PS? I almost called this blog Dangerous Amusements. Grade: A+
 
Armed Forces (1979)
First called Emotional Fascism, Costello continued to try and unify political and sexual turbulence culminating in the terrifying and terrifyingly quotable “Two Little Hitlers” and a date becomes a night rally. The music has Nick Lowe’s fingerprints all over Costello’s imagination, a power pop reworking of Costello’s increasingly intricate and even fussy song constructions; EC might have written “Oliver’s Army” but have no doubt Nick Lowe was the Neil Sedaka fan. The first chinks in three years appeared here with minor stuff like “Mood For Moderns” and extended bouts of anti-police paranoia like “Goon Squad” disappointing on a less than perfect Side two. In England, Nick Lowe cheekily released Elvis Costello’s cover of his “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Lowe, And Understanding” under Lowe’s name; in the States it fit untidily at the end of side two. Grade: B+
 
 
Get Happy!! (1980)
The deeply ironic title of this my favorite album of all time lets you into a world of exile while the Attractions make like three kinds of Temptations in the back and Costello speaks as fast as the cocaine will let him till he has admitted to so many sins he seems like a gnomish and ghoulish rock superstar in exile from everything and mostly in exile to his deepest feelings. Whether throwing punch(lines) a girl can feel or drinking himself to dry dock or calling to a dying Sam Cooke or breaking secret laws as he reels from claws to clause and staggers reel to real he wears his heart on his sleeve because all these words are off the cuff. By the time he manages to tell the girl he is effected in the face of her affection the case is closed and her case is packed. A sustained work of genius. Grade: A+
 
 
Trust (1981)
A deeply flawed masterpiece which seems informed by his continuing friendship with Squeeze (he would produce Squeeze’s superior to Trust, East Side Story, though Costello blew em off stage at the Palladium). The pieces don’t seem to quit fit right: Armed Forces suffered from a gravitational pull on Side two, Trust is unsettled from the git go, it is a musical meander where East Side Story was a unified dive into pop form. At Trust‘s its peak on the Diddley shave and a haircut two bits swipe “Strict Time” and the deadly ballad “Shot With His Own Gun” is a teetering move onto its hind legs but all too often falls back on country stuff like “Different Finger” and failed London bovver pop “Clubland”. Grade: B+
 
 
 
 
Almost Blue (1982)
Costello’s version of Bowie’s Pin Ups doing for country what Bowie did for 60s pop. BUT it is harder to cover Hank Williams and George Jones than the Merseybeats. Costello’s “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Use To Do” was an embarrassment but everything else was revelatory to me and started me on a long term country jones. “Brown To Blue,” “Color Of The Blues,” “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”: for a fan of pure songwriting these were awe inspiring shocks to the system. Grade: B+
 
 
 
 
Imperial Bedroom (1983)
The kick against this one is Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick overproduced it and I guess that’s true unless you’re in the market for choirs of Costello’s harmonizing are crunk rock segues or strings over strings over strings… all in support of Costello’s strongest set of songs before or since as he forego’s the objective entirely to detail disillusion in romantic relationships. Grade: A+
 
 
Punch The Clock (1984)
The first Costello album I didn’t actively worship at the time of its release. A conceptual coup d’etat sticking anti-war fodder such as the magnificent “Shipbuilding”and “Pills And Soap” along side pretty pop confection the equally magnificent “Everyday I Write The Book”. That it works only intermittently is due solely to the spotty quality of the songwriting. Grade: B+
 
 
 
Goodbye Cruel World (1985)
I infamously and stupidly began my review of this album back when it was released with the legend: “The late Elvis Costello’s latest suicide note…” I was acting more like a jilted lover than a record reviewer. Maybe it was the horror of seeing EC crooning with antichrist Daryl Hall on “The Only Flame in Town”. I guess I failed to notice what a terrific song “Flame” was -a punning masterpiece. And talking about biting the hand that feeds you? “Worthless Thing” attempts to kill MTV in its crib. “Inch By Inch” is as good as “Stranger In The House” and “The Comedians” is so good Alan Moore quoted it in his graphic novel Watchmen. Grade: A
 
 
 
King Of America (1986)
A country-rock masterpiece about the dream and nightmare known as America. The album splits on personal-political mind melds like “America Without Tears” about the lives the WW2 GI Brides lived with, then kisses off one wife (“Indoor Fireworks”) before embracing a new one (“Jack Of All Parades”). It was a fine idea at the time… and thus ends the EC story Act One Grade: A+
 
 
 
Blood An Chocolate (1986)
And here is EC Act two. If all you knew from EC was Blood And Chocolate on, you would think sure he is a clever lad but he is only a clever lad, a musical dilettante skipping merrily from one genre to another but only to prove he can. “I Want You” is a ridiculous rethinking of the Lennon classic, “Crimes Of Paris” the best song ever written about abortion from a man’s point of view and “Tokyo Storm Warning” a Dylanesque wordfuck almost deserving of its length. The Attractions sound a bit snoozy. Grade: B+
 
 
 
Spike (1989)
And here he starts composing instead of writing songs. Everything on this fucking album is over written and way too smart for its own good. Despite the success of “Veronica,” he gave Macca the best songs in their collaboration, “God’s comic” is an endlessly unfunny funny song, “Let Him Dangle” based on the murder based on the court case, “Any King’s Shilling” English folk with an e for people who have never heard english folk with an e… The music is so tasteful in dissolv
es in your mouth (it took me YEARS to take Mitchel Froom seriously again) and “TAKE THAT CHEWING GUM OUTTA YOUR EARS” which was great but only one song. Altogether it was the beginning of the end of EC as rockgod. It stinks. Grade: B-
 
 
Mighty Like A Rose (1991)
In which EC grows a beard just like his newly formed bff Jerry Garcia though these baroque pop compositions remind me of the Pretty Things circa s.f. sorrow if the Pretty Things were a bunch of pompous assholes. EXCEPT the inspired ecological threatened Brian Wilson lift “The Other Side Of Summer”. “There’s magic and there’s malice in every season” EC warns and it’s almost worth buying this godawful train wreck for that one sentiment alone. I said almost. Grade: C-
 
 
The Juliet Letters (1993)
The Brodsky Quartet, eh? Is this high culture or what. Well, the string quartet are much better when playing the standards and these suite of songs written to Juliet and found at the dead letters department of Italy’s post-master general is a fine idea at the time and as brilliant a mistake as you ever want to miss. Costello is almost besides himself with ambition but his musical chops betray him and the songs fail to click. An honorable misfire. Grade: B-
 
 
 
Live At The Mocombo (1993)
I owned this as a boot back in the day and as part of the first four album remasters which at least had the manners to include extended song listings. From a snowy concert back in 78, Costello thanks the Canadians for coming out in a storm and plays a mix of the first two albums. Around this time I have a boot of “(I Don’t Wanna Go To) Chelsea)” where he nixes the instrumental chorus bridge till the very end so the entire song is a word speed rap till the addictive guitar lick repeated and repeated; it’s like he got an apple pie with cream and separated em so at first you eat the pie and than you eat the cream. Grade: A-
 
 
 
 
Brutal Youth (1994)
His first album with the Attraction since Blood And Chocolate was his best album with the Attractions since Goodbye Cruel World and the very last time he was able to take off the McManus songwriter and put on the Costello rocker mantle but one last time on swirling word drenched rockers Costello managed to pull it off. Grade: A
 
 
 
Kojack Variety (1995)
Here’s an oddity, the original odds and sods cover songs was a bit of a snooze but the 2004 extended album with a bonus disc is really wonderful.l It includes Hoagy Carmichael’s “My Resistance Is Low” (he is opening with it on his 2009 tour), Gram Parson’s “Still Feeling Blue”, Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise,” “Lennon’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and Van Morrison’s “Full Gale force” among others. Costello morphed himself into the ultimate cover artist. Grade: A
 
 
 
All this Useless Beauty (1996)
Another odds and sods compilation but this time of songs he wrote himself. What can you say about “The Other End Of The telescope” co-written with Aimee Mann. How about: Mann makes a much better Costello foil than fellow LA songstress Jenny Lewis ever will? And nothing Costello has written this decade with Lewis comes close to this. How about the Roger McGuinn covered “You Bowed Down”. After so much dithering, how did Costello come up with the best song the Byrds never covered? If it has a problem it is that it doesn’t hang together very well. EC tried to fix this by playing a string of concerts at the Beacon before going into the studio to record but didn’t quite pull it all which is why it is only a Grade: A
 
 
 
 
Painted From Memory (1998)
Co-written with Burt Bacharah it is Costello’s finest and most satisfying attempt at recording perfect pop compositions. With a full orchestration behind the precise execution of every vocal put the lie to Costello’s histrionics and proved that given the right collaborator he could use self-control to his own ends. If there is a more complete pop song than “Toledo” I have yet to hear it. Grade: A+
 
 
The Sweetest Punch (1998)
With jazz guitarist Bill Frizzle, that most obsessive of chord players, at the helm, Costello reimagines Memory as a series of jazz instrumentals and thereby allows us to appreciate the exquisite melodies all the more. Grade: B+
 
 
 
For The Stars (2001)
With Mezzo-Soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter, Costello achieves the meeting of classical and pop he had simply failed in time after time in the past. Is there a lovelier moment in his entire oeuvre than his backup singing and harmonizing on “Broken Bicycles/Junk” ? Indeed, has Tom Waits ever been heard to better advantage? Just perfection. Grade: A
 
 
 
When I Was Cruel (2002)
So what if Costello wrote a Costello album and discovered he couldn’t write Costello albums any more? Using what amounts to the Attractions with a different bass player because Bruce Thomas, probably accurately, portrayed Costello as a spoiled little egomaniac in a novel, they didn’t miss Thomas and the problem with the album wasn’t Costello and wasn’t the back up band, it was a dozen godawful songs with “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)” leading the pack in the worlds worst Costello songs Olympics and “Episode Of blonde” which seemed to be half a truly great song and half a half baked rap based piece of confounding garbage. Grade: C-
 
 
Cruel Smile (2002)
Then he had the audacity to hammer out the outtakes. Grade: D
 
 
North (2003)
Fake jazz for his Canadian bride Diana Krall and it is so heartfelt and sweet. I personally adore the sucker once he actually falls in love, around track eight’s “Let Me Tell You About Her”. It ends with a perfect Manhattan song “Hail to the taxi’s” he sings “they go where I go” before cheering on we madhatters from Manhattan because he is in the mood again. Who wouldn’t be with a wife as lovely and talented as his? Grade: B+
 
 
 
The Delivery Man (2004)
This isn’t the disaster the Smile duplex was, for one thing it include his best song of the oh ohs in “The Scarlett Tide’ -an American folk tune written with T Bone Burnett who knows a thing or three about American folk. But the next big song on it is “Monkey to Man” and it is about as good as its title suggests. Grade: B-
 
 
Il Sogno (2004)
A pretty good stab at a classical music suite but I bought it at the time and haven’t heard it since… Grade: B-
 
 
 
My Flame Burns Blue (2006)
A live jazz orchestra adds not much to the Costello catalogue though the Mingus cover is pretty good and the reworking of “Watching the Detectives’ a highlight. Grade: C+
 
A River Runs Through It (2006)
Jazz keyb from New Orleans Allen Toussaint was the best thing about Spike where he rocked “Deep dark truthful Mirror’ and is the best thing about this bland piece of jazz orleans flecked agitprop. Toussaint’s “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” includes Costello’s best vocal performance in years. “Did it really ding dong?” Toussaint asks about the bells of freedom . “It didn’t ding long. It musta dinged wrong.” Grade: B
 
 
Momofuku (2008)
You know all those new music cats who hang together in L.A. genuflecting at the altar of Jenny Lewis and Jonhathan Rice M. Ward and members of the new hollywood crossover royalty like Scarlett and the chick in “Elf’ while toking on ganj and sharing the guitar? Yeah, pretty perfect shit, and Costello gives em his seal of approval on this dreadful album. Grade: B-
 
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009)
Wow -this didn’t last the summer. Another piece of regurgitated clap trap from the over extended Costello who should shut his fucking mouth and work on his fucking songs before hoisting more over wrought, under written clap trap. It isn’t selling and except for the kiss asses at Stone nobody is impressed. Grade: B-
 
Costello is fifty-four years old. He has had a long and lustrous career. But he brings out average to bad album after average to bad album, and tours behind em playing half material from the 70s/80s and half the latest album which disappears never to be heard from again once the tour is over and deserves to be forgotten. EC should take a breather, enjoy Diana and the twins, write slower and more patiently -like sex it can take a little longer when you’re older, he needs to write more thoughtfully, more thoroughly, and with more quality control, and then decide where he wants to take his music. Because this jumping from one style to another isn’t working.

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