For many people, the image of Elvis Costello on the cover of his 1978 album This Year’s Model—bowlegged stance, slight sneer on his face as he points a camera back at us ready to document all our hypocrisies and foibles—is definitive. And if you only know him for his first few albums with his crack band The Attractions, when his verbal spitfire dovetailed perfectly with the band’s full-speed assault, that image does indeed say a lot.
But the complete picture has been filled in over the last 40 years. Costello’s restless musical spirit couldn’t be satisfied by his original fusion of New Wave color and punkish energy. Country, soul, classical, lounge pop, jazz, even quasi-rap: You name it, this guy has done it in his career, which now encompasses over 30 studio albums and countless collaborations, live releases, videos and other bits of recorded ephemera.
Not all of the detours from his rock and roll wheelhouse have been winners, but his batting average is such that it was a difficult chore narrowing down his finest efforts to just 10. Since it’s the 40th anniversary of his debut album and he’s currently in the midst of a somewhat elongated hiatus since his last major release (during which time he delivered an unsurprisingly witty, erudite and moving memoir), now is as good a time as any to take stock of this fearless, fascinating catalog. After all, how long will it be before Costello takes us down another unexpected musical avenue and shows us how much he’s grown from that Angry Young Man stance he once so effortlessly and effectively inhabited?
After hounding the founders of the nascent London label Stiff Records for a while with his homemade demos, Declan MacManus was rechristened Elvis Costello and thrown into a studio with some San Francisco studio pros and producer Nick Lowe. The result was one of the few debut albums where an artist arrived with a fully formed persona and writing and performing chops. The penultimate song swears that “I’m Not Angry,” but perfectly pitched diatribes like “Less Than Zero” and the reggae noir “Watching the Detectives” suggest otherwise. Alert listeners should have been able to tell that Costello had more tricks up his sleeve, however, as the wounded-heart ballads “No Dancing” and “Alison,” which would become a signature song, attest. Costello also dropped the pristine pop morsel “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” as if to prove just how true that aim could be, no matter his chosen musical target.
How fortunate was Costello to stumble into a band as talented as The Attractions, especially considering they were essentially culled from blind auditions? Well, the answer is all over This Year’s Model: Bruce Thomas’ whirling dervish bass, Pete Thomas’ frenzied finesse on drums, and Steve Nieve’s watercolor keyboards. Along with Costello’s spiky lead guitar, the chemistry which would grace Costello albums for another 20 years or so was born here. This is Costello at his hyperverbal best. Songs like “Lipstick Vogue,” “No Action,” and “The Beat” barely allow the listener time to breathe, but the singer never wavers. Even when the references were too specific to register with international audiences (“(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea”), just the thrill of hearing him go full-tilt behind the band’s assault was enough. And in “Pump It Up,” which found a way to both parody and revel in rock excess, the band stumbled into an unlikely arena-sized anthem.
After 1979’s Armed Forces found Costello diving headlong into social commentary with impressive if not always revelatory results, he changed course with a kind of homage to Motown and Stax/Volt musical simplicity. Lowe, once again producing, brought out the warmth in the band, and Costello trotted out punny wordplay worthy of Holland/Dozier/Holland on songs like “Love For Tender” and “King Horse.” At 20 songs long, however, it made sense that Costello would spread his wings a little bit. As a result, you can find the countryish weeper “Motel Matches” and the baroque pop of “New Amsterdam” as you dive deeper into the album. Costello also combines a romantic plea with a savaging of his critics on closing track “Riot Act,” hitting new peaks of songwriting complexity and emotional profundity along the way. And, if you were worried about it, Lowe’s promise on the back cover that there would be no loss of sound quality due to the amount of songs on a single LP is backed up by the potent aural evidence.
After stumbling somewhat with an album of country cover songs (1981’s Almost Blue), Costello found his footing again by embracing the production flourishes of his favorite band. The one-time card-carrying member of the Beatle Fan Club enlisted former Fab Four engineer Geoff Emerick to produce Imperial Bedroom and rose to the occasion with one of his finest sets of songs. On tracks like “Beyond Belief,” “Almost Blue” and “Town Cryer,” Costello showed newfound vulnerability while addressing romantic pitfalls and his own personal malaise. “How wrong can I be before I am right?” he asked in “Tears Before Bedtime,” and begged for the mercy of “Human Hands.” The highlight is the stunning “Man Out of Time,” which is bookended by wild screaming rock and roll and centered by one of the most elegant performances The Attractions have ever delivered. Costello is basing his current run of live shows around this album, so he clearly has as much affinity for it as his fans do.
Costello went adrift during the peak of the MTV era searching for hits; “Congratulations! You’ve just purchased our worst album,” he only half-joked in the liner notes to the reissue of 1984’s Goodbye Cruel World. Tensions within The Attractions led him to his first “solo” album, but King Of America was much informed by a new musical kindred spirit in then-fledgling producer T Bone Burnett. Burnett and Costello assembled some studio legends to play on a set of story songs, many with long and winding narratives and a rootsier approach. “Poisoned Rose” and “Indoor Fireworks” proved once again that nobody is better at detailing the broken promise of love, while “American Without Tears” makes for a travelogue both nostalgic and heartbreaking. Even his hoarse cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which Columbia released as a single much to Costello’s shagrin, works in this context. Costello frets about being a “Brilliant Mistake” in the shimmering lead-off track, but this album is an unmitigated triumph.
Spike is often shorthanded by critics as being Costello’s collaborative effort with Paul McCartney, when in actuality only two of the songs on the album were co-writes with the former Beatle. One of them, Costello’s moving tribute to his dementia-afflicted grandmother “Veronica,” includes Macca’s Hofner bass and became an unlikely hit single. But the bulk of Spike features Costello following the King Of America template by pulling together musicians of all different stripes in an effort to best serve the wide-ranging subject matter on the album. The mélange of styles can be jarring at first listen, but you soon hone in on the individual highlights on the LP, such as “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” which sounds like a forgotten track by The Band, “Satellite,” which enlists Chrissie Hynde on a tale of romantic obsession, and “Tramp the Dirt Down,” Costello’s vicious broadside of Margaret Thatcher that makes Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War” seem like friendly joshing.
The ’90s were somewhat of a mixed bag for Costello. There were a couple of solid if not spectacular reunions with The Attractions and an admirable foray into classical music with The Juliet Letters. His finest musical moment of the decade came when he collaborated with Burt Bacharach on Painted From Memory. The two initially hooked up on the towering ballad “God Give Me Strength” for the forgotten music picture Grace Of My Heart, and they realized the results were too good to stop there. Hence a full album of Costello’s meditations on lost love embellished by Bacharach’s one-of-a-kind pop arrangements (and flugelhorns, of course) was in order. Any concerns that Costello’s wordiness might clash with Bacharach’s sensibilities are laid to rest the moment you hear the elegant, eloquent sorrow of songs like “Toledo,” “This House Is Empty Now” and the title track. Even up-tempo numbers like “The Sweetest Punch” and “Tears at the Birthday Party” leave a lasting impression on this rare bold-faced musical pairing that exceeds the sum of its parts.
Costello’s deteriorating relationship with bassist Bruce Thomas ended the hopes for any further Attractions’ reunions. But he re-enlisted Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas and added new bassist Davey Faragher to move into the new millennium. They would eventually be named The Imposters, but When I Was Cruel is technically a solo Costello release featuring these musicians. And it’s a good one, returning him to a rocking posture even as he dabbled in atmospheric electronica. Even though the soaring opener “45” referenced Costello’s age when the song was written, he sounds just as fierce and probing as ever. Highlights include the fuzz bomb “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution),” originally written for The Bangles, and “Episode Of Blonde,” a typically trenchant piece of commentary set to a flamenco beat. On “When I Was Cruel No. 2”, a noirish sampled rhythm is the perfect setting for Costello’s takedown of a high-society wedding from the perspective of the world-weary performer on the stage. It’s one of the great hidden gems of his catalog.
"The absence of much advance notice or information might seem a little strange and perverse but the record was made so quickly that I didn't even tell myself about it for a couple weeks," Costello announced wryly to Billboard upon the release of Momofuku. Even though the album was created hastily, Costello’s lyrics are as acrobatic as ever here, as evidenced by how effortlessly he summons up the old bile on tracks like “No Hiding Place” and “American Gangster Time.” What’s refreshing about the album is how it allows The Imposters to flex their considerable musical muscles in the service of these twisting narratives. “Stella Hurt” and “Go Away” rock as furiously as anything in the man’s estimable catalog, while “Song With Rose” and “Pardon Me Madam, My Name Is Eve” are nuanced mid-tempo efforts. And, with the sweet “My Three Sons,” Costello’s sardonic sneer turns winningly into a paternal smile. Twelve songs here, and not a clunker among them.
When it was announced that Costello was teaming up with the esteemed hip-hop collective The Roots, the knee-jerk assumption that he would be clumsily trying to rap was understandable. What emerged instead from this unlikely hookup was endlessly inventive sound and fury that’s as thrilling as it is thought-provoking. At times the songs are built from older Costello lyrics and melodies that are reimagined amidst Questlove’s rhythmic ingenuity. But the originals are the most compelling numbers: “Walk Us Uptown” suggest that the societal lambs being led to slaughter are conscious of just how badly they’re being screwed over; “Tripwire” takes a quieter approach while tiptoeing through a perilous battlefield; and the title track features The Roots bringing a cinematic mélange of sounds to the table while Costello urges an army of apparitions to an uprising. One can only hope that a sequel to this project is either in the works or at least in the backs of its creators’ minds.
Jim Beviglia hails from Old Forge, PA and is a freelance writer of several books and countless articles about the music he loves. Before writing for this site, his most momentous interaction with vinyl came at age nine when he accidentally burned his older brother's prize Billy Squier album beyond recognition.