Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: Elvis Costello, broken down by the songs that define his themes and styles, and five albums that every serious rock fan should own.
By the time Elvis Costello released his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True, rock ‘n’ roll radio on both sides of the Atlantic was mired in an identity crisis, torn between the snooty bloat of progressive rock and the heavy thud of glorified bar bands. Meanwhile, in New York and in the UK, the pub-rock, art-rock, and punk scenes were providing an outlet for musicians and audiences looking for something smarter and more tuneful than what the major labels were paying DJs to play. But like Tom Petty in the U.S., Costello didn’t really want to become a cult act or an obscurantist. He was writing catchy songs pitched directly to the pop charts. My Aim Is True’s ”(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” is a perfect case in point: With the American country-rock band Clover loping behind him, Costello delivers a jaunty, hummable song that calls back to doo-wop, Buddy Holly, and The Byrds, while painting a picture of romantic abandonment that anyone can relate to. Much of the material on My Aim Is True is moody, pained, and even downright dark, but “Red Shoes” exemplifies how Costello turned that disgruntlement into something snappy.
For Costello’s second album, 1978’s This Year’s Model, he assembled The Attractions, the backing band that would be with him steadily through the next decade. A tough, tight, melodic outfit, the Attractions served as able interpreters of Costello’s songs, with This Year’s Model serving as an especially fine showcase. Keyboardist Steve Nieve and bassist Bruce Thomas deliver lines that could practically be melodies for other songs, but it all works anyway. This Year’s Model arrived at a time which almost demanded that musicians declare their allegiances to punk or new wave. The song answered the question by refusing to answer it, apart from combining punk energy with the best new wave’s attention to songcraft, a fusion never more pronounced than on the show-stopping “Pump It Up.”
Following the compressed, punchy near-punk of This Year’s Model, the more florid pop of 1979’s Armed Forces was a relief, even though more than ever, Costello’s lyrics were preoccupied with the impossible choice between human cruelty and a lifetime of loneliness. (The album was originally going to be called Emotional Fascism—and with good reason.) Armed Forces’ MVP is Steve Nieve, who fleshes out arrangements by Costello and producer Nick Lowe, helping them realize they could attempt more ambitious song structures without losing any essential catchiness. Just listen to Nieve’s work on “Oliver’s Army,” a catchy mid-tempo number that satirizes British empire-building. While Costello spits lines like “Only takes one itchy finger / One more widow, one less white nigger,” Nieve’s piano ripples elegantly behind him, linking the arrogance behind colonialism to cocktail party chatter.
With 1982’s Imperial Bedroom, Costello tried to channel Beatles-esque ambition into sonic reality, swapping longtime producer Lowe—who had overseen all of Costello’s albums apart from the Nashville side trip Almost Blue—for Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. A strangely hesitant promotional campaign featured the word “masterpiece” followed by a question mark, and though time hasn’t quite removed that punctuation, it remains one of Costello’s best albums. The sonic boundary-pushing meshes nicely with a set of songs united by the themes of doubt and romantic insecurity, nowhere more spectacularly than on the mini-suite “Man Out Of Time.”
Taking a break from the soon-to-disband Attractions, who appear on one track, Costello paired with producer T-Bone Burnett for the 1986 album King Of America. A love letter to American roots music as filtered through the record industry in the middle of the 20th century, the album finds Costello playing beside top-tier session musicians like James Burton and Jerry Scheff (both best known for playing with another Elvis) and keyboardist Mitchell Froom (later to serve as Costello’s producer). It also continued the deepening of an emotional palette that he once limited to, as he told journalist Nick Kent, “revenge and guilt.” King‘s songs range widely, from a soulful cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”—which is more Nina Simone than The Animals—to the romantic lament of “Indoor Fireworks” to “American Without Tears,” a melancholy waltz filled with images of cross-cultural attraction and romantic imperialism. Mature in the best sense, it’s the sound of a songwriter realizing he doesn’t have to prove himself any more.
Following the buoyant swell of his first three albums, Costello seemed to be in position to become the generation-defining pop star he’d always wanted to be—even though he still hadn’t scored a big hit in the U.S., and even though his albums sold relatively modestly in the era of corporate-rock blockbusters like Boston and Frampton Comes Alive. Then one night on tour in 1979, Costello ran into Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett in a hotel bar, and in the middle of a drunken argument about traditional rock and soul vs. the emerging new wave, Costello—who had appeared on behalf of Rock Against Racism in the UK—referred to James Brown and Ray Charles as “niggers.” The incident got a lot of play in the rock press, where Costello’s nerdy persona and “angry young man” arrogance already made him suspect in some circles. In his first two and half years as a recording artist, Costello was a critics’ darling. From 1980 on, he lost that edge.
Costello insists that “the incident” had nothing to do with his decision to make his fourth LP, Get Happy!!, an homage to the loose, exuberant music of the classic Memphis soul label Stax/Volt, but there’s certainly a sense in which the album is driven by a man seeking redemption by hanging out in a recording studio and banging out songs quickly. The Costello of My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces wouldn’t have released a song as seemingly slight as “B Movie,” and yet what makes that song so wonderful is that it doesn’t seem beholden to any particular genre or tradition. There are nods to ska, dub, and Beat poetry—and a typically magnificent performance on bass by Bruce Thomas—but pieces of the song seem to be missing, as though Costello cobbled it together from unused verses and bridges. This is no longer the sound of a man looking to make hit records; this is a man a little stung and ashamed by his brush with fame, and eager to retreat into the margins.
But maybe not deep into the margins: The disjointed 1981 album Trust sounds like 14 different attempts to figure out where Costello’s music fit in the pop landscape. It was the most uneven album he’d released to date. Its weak spots anticipated some of the dilettantism to come, but highlights like the beguilingly paranoid “Watch Your Step” smoothed over the rough spots, and breakneck numbers such as “Strict Time” and “Lovers’ Walk” recalled the full-steam-ahead approach of “Pump It Up.”
After Punch The Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, a pair of flawed LPs that, somewhat perversely, featured some of his biggest hits, Costello returned to critical respectability with a pair of 1986 records: King Of America and Blood And Chocolate. (It’s hard to believe now that these two were cited as “comeback” albums, given that they came a mere half-decade after Costello’s most popular work.) Blood And Chocolate marked Lowe’s return to the producer’s chair, and it was also Costello’s final album with The Attractions for a long stretch, and his final album for CBS/Columbia in the U.S. Though hailed at the time as a welcome return to the edgy rock sound of This Year’s Model, Blood And Chocolate now sounds messy, as if Costello couldn’t reconcile his increasingly abstract song structures with his band’s straight-ahead bash. Still, it’s an invigorating, tuneful mess, and a hard record to dislike. Naturally, one of the album’s best songs is also one of its shortest: “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” which keeps Costello’s absurdist, Dylan-esque imagery to a minimum (well, aside from “like a matador with his pork sword… in his turquoise pajamas and motorcycle hat”), while keeping the rhythm punchy and the vocals slightly wrecked. And as always, the hero of the song is Nieve, laying on an organ that sounds like it was sampled from a horror movie projected inside of a roller rink.
Costello brought Nieve and the rest of The Attractions back eight years later for Brutal Youth, by which time he’d developed a better notion of how to use his old friends to bolster his new songwriting style, which leaned heavily on moony ballads and freeform rock. Brutal Youth relies too much on the former, but it also contains one of Costello’s all-time best fist-pumping stingers, “13 Steps Lead Down,” a snarky take on addiction and recovery that features what’s easily Costello’s most blazing guitar solo. When The Attractions performed the song on David Letterman, the host—long a Costello booster—was so knocked out by the performance that he booked the band again just a couple of months later, and urged the audience to “watch that fella play guitar.”
Even Costello diehards tend to pick and choose tracks from the basically solid 1983 album Punch The Clock and its downright dodgy ‘84 follow-up Goodbye Cruel World, both of which continue Imperial Bedroom‘s pop ambition without really building on it. Punch features some of Costello’s surest pop efforts, such as “Let Them All Talk” and “Every Day I Write The Book,” but its claim to immortality comes from the devastating eve-of-the-war song “Shipbuilding,” a songwriting collaboration with producer Clive Langer, featuring a heartbreaking Chet Baker trumpet solo.
Costello took a couple of years off and switched record labels, following the one-two punch of King Of America and Blood And Chocolate. He made a high-profile return with Spike, a solo effort featuring a rotating cast of guest stars (Chrissie Hynde, Roger McGuinn, The Dirty Dozen Band, and Paul McCartney, who served as Costello’s songwriting foil for a stretch in the late ‘80s). The album suffers from a lack of focus and a bit too much of the production sheen so in favor at the time, plus some duds so deadly that it’s hard to reckon why they were included in the first place. It also sports the heartbreaking hit single “Veronica,” inspired by Costello’s grandmother’s dementia, and enough gorgeous songs like the sad, cybersex-anticipating “Satellite” that it’s easy to forgive the skippable tracks. All that goes double for Spike‘s 1991 follow-up Mighty Like A Rose, home to three of Costello’s best songs (The dark-side-of-the-Beach Boys “The Other Side Of Summer,” and the devastating ballads “So Like Candy” and “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4”) and some of his worst. (The title “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)“ pretty much says it all.)
When All This Useless Beauty was released in 1996, it was pitched as a collection of older songs that Costello had never gotten around to recording—some of which he’d written for other artists to perform—so it was dismissed in some quarters as underbaked and somewhat dreary. But it’s actually a linchpin album, featuring Costello’s most eclectic, accomplished set of material since the early ‘80s, as well as marking a clear transition toward Costello becoming primarily a torch singer working in collaboration with others, as opposed to a fiercely independent, rock-minded singer-songwriter. As Costello ballads go, few can top “The Other End Of The Telescope,” written with (and for) Aimee Mann, and built around the central image of smallness as a way of expressing how it feels to be jilted. The song’s repeated phrases and lilting melody represent Costello’s then-fullest homage to the work of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, whose songs he’d been covering since his earliest days on the stage. (This was also the apparent end of the line for The Attractions. Drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve have continued to play with Costello, but tensions between Costello and bassist Bruce Thomas developed into full-blown estrangement.)
Also in 1996, Costello actually collaborated with Bacharach on the song “God Give Me Strength,” the centerpiece of the Grace Of My Heart soundtrack. Then in 1998, Costello and Bacharach released a full album of co-written/co-produced songs, Painted From Memory, which conveyed Costello’s ‘90s preference for balladry with refreshing sophistication, aided by Bacharach’s airy, aching orchestrations. Freed from having to think in conventional pop structures, Costello cooked up songs like “This House Is Empty Now,” which eschew rhyming and hooky choruses in favor of something more impressionistic. Painted From Memory is a difficult album to enter, but the deeper listeners get into it, the harder it is to leave.
Following Painted From Memory, Costello worked on offbeat projects with Bill Frisell and Anne Sofie Von Otter, then released his next solo album, When I Was Cruel, in 2002, to much ballyhoo and talk about how the rollicking Costello of Blood And Chocolate was back. But like Blood And Chocolate, When I Was Cruel is fairly scattershot, and not as immediately engaging. Even worse was the album that followed, North, a set of unmemorable jazz-inflected ballads written under the influence of Costello’s new wife, chanteuse Diana Krall. But Costello came back strong in 2004 with The Delivery Man, his second album to feature “The Imposters”—basically The Attractions minus bassist Bruce Thomas—and his most consistent foray into roots-rock since King Of America (or maybe even My Aim Is True). The album features some clunkers, and its dark shadings keep it from being much “fun,” but songs like “Country Darkness,” “Nothing Clings Like Ivy,” and the title track are haunted by spiritual unrest and deep twang. In “The Delivery Man,” Costello sings about the arbiter of divine justice and ends with these two repeating lines: “In a certain way, he seemed like Jesus / In a certain light, he looked like Elvis.” But which Elvis?
Of Costello’s ‘70s and ‘80s work, only 1984’s aiming-for-the-charts effort Goodbye Cruel World now sounds like a failure, albeit one with some good songs held back by overly aggressive production, like “Love Field,” “The Comedians,” and “Peace In Our Time.” Even Costello has his doubts about it, once referring to it as “the worst album of my career.”
Newcomers have to be more selective when choosing albums from the ‘90s on. For every highlight like Brutal Youth and Painted From Memory, there’s a North or The Juliet Letters, a collaboration with the acclaimed string ensemble The Brodsky Quartet that produced chin-stroking appreciation at best, puzzlement at worst. Even worse: Kojak Variety, a largely lifeless covers set (though it does feature a nice take on The Kinks’ “Days”) and Il Sogno, a ballet score. We get it: You like all kinds of music. But that doesn’t mean you can write and perform them all equally well.
The first sign of Costello’s reckless eclecticism came with 1981’s Almost Blue, a cover set of Nashville favorites that puzzled fans at the time, but now sounds like a harbinger of the alt-country movement that took off in the following decade. But Costello had country music on his mind from the start. The 1978 single “Stranger In The House” was unabashed with its twang. It fell between the cracks of My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model, but was revived by Costello as a duet with George Jones, and memorably covered by Stiff Records’ Rachel Sweet.
Costello’s back catalog has been well-handled by Rykodisc, Rhino, and now Universal’s Hip-O Select, but in all the multi-disc sets with all their bonus tracks, none of those labels has bothered to re-release the second album that Costello released in the U.S. in 1980. That would be Taking Liberties, a 20-song collection of B-sides and previously unreleased recordings that has since formed the backbone of all those CD reissues’ supplementary material. On its own, Taking Liberties is a marvelous record, neatly summarizing the changes Costello went through from 1977 to 1980, via a largely unfamiliar (but stellar) set of songs. Only a songwriter as prolific as Costello then was could essentially throw away a song as lovely and inspired as “Hoover Factory,” which uses a crumbling building as a metaphor for the way styles come in and out of fashion. The subject obviously means a lot to Costello, even though he admits, “It’s not a matter of life or death / But what is? What is?”
A not-quite sequel to Painted From Memory, the 2006 album The River In Reverse found Costello collaborating with New Orleans veteran Allen Toussaint for a set of songs more genial than memorable, but still worth a listen.
1. Get Happy!! (1980)
Though often cited as Costello’s R&B; record, Get Happy!! is more a compendium of his interests and influences, from the half-Dylan/half-Beatles “New Amsterdam” to the simmering country gospel of “Motel Matches.” It’s also Costello’s most generous album, bopping quickly through 20 smart, tuneful songs, and it contains some of his cleverest lyrics, as on “King Horse,” where Costello delivers a semi-monologue in the voice of a woman who turns down sex because she has too much respect for the song on the radio, and doesn’t want to taint its memory.
2. This Year’s Model (1978)
Costello’s debut album, My Aim Is True, was beholden to proto-rock and roadhouse country, but the jumpy, punk-informed dynamic of This Year’s Model confirmed that Costello was a rare talent, able to work competently in a variety of styles. It’s unmistakably an Elvis Costello album—evidenced by the clean, long-line melodies and the lyrics that paint a picture of a status-obsessed, undersexed modern world—but the peppery rhythms and minimalist blare of Costello’s new backing band, The Attractions, creates a buzz of its own. Neither Costello nor any other rocker has ever made an album that sounds quite like This Year’s Model.
3. King Of America (1986)
King Of America was significant back in 1986, because after two straight albums of hit-and-miss material, Costello showed that his creative well hadn’t yet run dry. By billing himself as “The Costello Show featuring The Attractions and Confederates,” Costello shrugged off some of the burden of expectation, and delivered a set of songs that went back to basics, growing from his folk and country roots. There’s a thematic consistency to King Of America, too, as all its songs seem to take place in a country populated by liars, hucksters, and disappointed lovers. And only Costello could come up with lines like this one, from “Brilliant Mistake:” “She said that she was working for the ABC News / It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use.”
4. Imperial Bedroom (1982)
Sprawl seems to suit Costello’s post-1980 aesthetic much better than concision, and no album better exemplifies this than Imperial Bedroom, where Costello makes himself over as a cabaret singer with a massive collection of Beatles albums. There’s something valedictory about Imperial Bedroom, as Costello sums up life in England from World War II to the Swingin’ London era, by dealing with how the social changes that rocked the British Empire affected people at home. It’s an intentionally ambitious, expansive, inviting record, and one that in some ways stands apart from the rest of Costello’s discography in its richness.
5. Armed Forces (1979)
Calling Armed Forces a dry run for Imperial Bedroom isn’t meant to be dismissive, but still—there’s a maturity to the later record that the cocky 24-year-old of 1979 couldn’t yet conceive. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for immaturity, too. Armed Forces sees Costello starting to move out of his own flat, looking for subject matter, and his first extended take on contemporary soul-sickness is bracing in its anger and cynicism. The album is packed with uptempo songs, but it would be tough to call “Senior Service,” “Green Shirt,” “Busy Bodies,” or “Moods For Moderns” uplifting, given their portrait of people being used and discarded by the culture at large. The American version of Armed Forces ends on a fairly positive note, with Costello’s rollicking cover of producer Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding,” but the record is really better summed-up in its UK edition, which ends with “Two Little Hitlers,” a song about how when two bad impulses fight each other, nobody really wins.