Elvis Costello defined a lot of what I both like and value in music. Thought I should get that out of the way early.
I bought other bands/acts/artists before I heard him, and I gave up on his career long before he did – and for frankly stupid reasons – but, at least since high school, I have never not owned a at least one Elvis Costello album, and I have most of them in a minimum of two formats.
Those two thoughts seem related.
To pull a thread on a thread in the second paragraph, I have owned an album by Elvis Costello & The Attractions since high school. And that’s what this volume will focus on: Elvis Costello & The Attractions. And with only one, small cheat. Just My Aim Is True. It’s clean after that, promise. Elvis Costello put out some great albums with The Attractions – before, as he notes in his autobiography, they started playing “in spite of each other, or even to spite each other” – Armed Forces, This Year’s Model, and Imperial Bedroom, the album he hinted might have been the band’s peak.
I posted a playlist – one in the “Judge My Playlist” series – titled “The Toast of Elvis Costello.” Like a lot of the stuff I burned onto a CD, my selection included personal favorites as well as songs I worried about forgetting – e.g., “Uncomplicated,” “Riot Act,” and “Shipbuilding” – the latter because it’s on the only one of their albums that I simply don’t care for (Punch the Clock; then again, that one has what was probably his all-time best pop song, “Every Day I Write the Book”). That doesn’t mean they’re not good songs – or great ones, even – so much as it means you just don’t hear those songs unless you get off your ass and play ‘em. Then again, I don’t have a great perspective on where Elvis Costello fits into the popular culture, especially with both he and his fans getting old. For instance, what cross-section of the population would hear “Oliver’s Army (of which...some regrettable choices in that video), ” “Radio Radio” (and the famous moment when he went off-script on SNL) or “Pump It Up” and know who played it?
The one song I think most people know happens to be the song/visual combination that hooked me, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding.” Having just watched the original video, I can still see all the things in it that translated – and, with the benefit of hindsight, I see the unconscious stuff. I went through a “hippie phase” during high school, if one worn lightly, in that I believed the ideals and slogans about people looking out for each other, as well as the basic, rational thought that peace, love and understanding feel like pretty all right things.
It went deeper, though, down to aesthetics. I loved the sound, for one, but Elvis Costello’s unconventional look and manner (and, yeah, probably drunk while filming that video), the props and scene choices that probably look more random/shitty than they are, just…how they looked, unplanned, individualistic, consciously everything other than “a la mode.” Just personalized. I think that's the word I'm after. That spoke to me. The cable system in my hometown picked up MTV early, so I saw this video pretty close to when it played on the airwaves. I would have been only 10-11 when MTV launched, but I remember thinking to myself, “yes, this is cool.” Not that I announced that sort of thing, not till high school.
When I look at the video today, with years and decades between me and the “wee me” of the early 1980s, nothing about that video looks objectively cool. It’s not hip, and it sure as hell ain’t sexy. The music/lyrics wouldn’t upset a parent (though it would if they listened closely to the lyrics and have wronged anyone ever, or been wronged), it didn’t glorify sex or drugs (though he wallows in the fallout); nothing in the music put out by Elvis Costello & The Attractions served some immediately obvious market. He's just a guy with a mic and a band behind, saying what he wants to say.
I think that’s why I like it so damn much.
There was plenty I didn’t get – the brilliance (or even the fluidity) of some lyrics – and more I get with every passing year. In a half-assed attempt to put a bigger frame on the subject, I spent (some time) this week reading Elvis Costello’s autobiography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. I love it, but, if you neither know nor care about him, it’ll probably read as a succession of name drops (Paul McCartney and Joe Strummer make appearances, for instance). For a somewhat geeked-up life-long fan, however, it has this Rosetta Stone feel to it. Actual lyrics to songs, for instance, and they’re always better than the mush I translated them when I wailed along in the shower, the car, or in front of the computer with earbuds screening out the rest of the world.
For perspective, someone somewhere once ranked Elvis Costello with John Lennon and Paul McCartney in terms of lyrics (couldn’t find it). The way he litters Unfaithful Music with his favorite lyrics suggests he’s very proud of his writing, even if he’s unaware of the comparison (doubt it). They’re all over – and I’m only part way through the book – but rather than reference a dozen, or even half dozen examples, here’s a smart snipper from Trust’s “New Lace Sleeves”:
“Bad lovers face-to-face in the morning with shy apologies and polite regrets;
Slow dances that left no warning of outraged glances and indiscreet yawning;
Good manners and bad breath will get you nowhere.”
First, it’s 100% worth your time to listen to how he sings those lines, because that, as much as anything, gets at his mastery at putting words to music. Second, I’m going to let how I’ve heard those lines, and for years, die the quiet death it has earned. Still, that’s a bad one-night stand in just three lines. Ah, screw it, one more. This is from “Shabby Doll” from Imperial Bedroom:
“He’s the tired toy that everyone’s enjoyed;
He wants to be a fancy man,
But he’s nothing but an antsy boy;
He’s all pride and no joy.”
Maybe I was also doomed to fixate on lyrics – big fan of words and fitting them together, obviously – but it’s worth wondering if heavy listening to someone with this much command/control didn’t set a certain bar for everything that came after. Before letting this section alone, it bears pointing out that Elvis Costello can face up to the few opaque clunkers he’s written, as he does in in the notes to the Girls, Girls, Girls anthology – e.g., “smoking the everlasting cigarette of chastity” from Trust’s “Strict Time.”
As must be asked when talking about a poet who ranks with The Doors’ Jim Morrison…I’m kidding. Morrison’s a hack! Anyway, The Doors’ music rescued some mediocre lyrics. At some point in time, I might have argued that Elvis Costello’s lyrics rescued some of his songs, but some mix of experience and a need for variety in sound argues that judgment said more about how I thought music should sound at a certain time of life (say, high school to my late 20s) than anything about the quality of what The Attractions laid down behind those lyrics. Stray notes from Unfaithful Music make clear that The Attractions had plenty to do with that (Steve Nieve features heavily in the notes read so far, and Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas rounded out the group).
In my younger years, I got it in my head that each album they put out somehow “starred” a certain instrument – e.g., My Aim Is True was the “guitar album,” This Year’s Model the “synthesizer album,” Armed Forces…again, somehow the synthesizer album (dropped the quotes as a nod to the silliness of this thought), while the piano anchored Trust. Picking up the variety in their sound between albums came pretty easily; I only missed the reasons why; he played each album within a certain sound and picked the instruments to fit that - e.g., piano for Trust's lounge-y vibe. Some artists listen to and explore music as much as they make it, adding touches from other genres to expand their sound across successive albums – to name a (sorta) contemporary performer, I’d argue Beck fits this mold, too – but, according to both his autobiography and the tonal shifts between the albums from Elvis Costello’s time with The Attractions, it’s clear he did too.
When Elvis Costello went solo, I know he continued to dabble, or even play, in other genres. In the years since I stopped buying his albums, he’s paired with artists as diverse as Burt Bacharach and (holy shit) The Roots. The man was hyper-adventurous from Day 1, and I think that’s another root, if not the whole goddamn taproot, to a life-long appreciation for his music. On a related note, I have a third and final volume on Elvis Costello planned, one where I’ll go into everything he did from Spike (1989) till today. I’ve only listened to Spike at this point, so that’s one hell of a lot of work cut out (fuccckkkk......).
To stick with a theme from those last two paragraphs, the albums I like best by Elvis Costello & The Attractions evolved over time. During high school, I defaulted to either This Year’s Model or Armed Forces - the latter for no higher, smarter reasons than it having the bigger hits (“Peace, Love & Understanding” and “Oliver’s Army”). Then again, one line from “Chemistry Class” – “She throws back her hair and shows you her mouth; the breath that awaits trying to ruin your your life” - latched onto a small, highly-relevant cluster of nerves for as long as it took me to lose my virginity (again, the man writes vivid lyrics). Even within that album, other songs spoke more clearly as I got older – “Accidents Will Happen” and “Party Girl" (old live film; this is fucking cool), in particular. In the middle passage between those two periods, I went in heavily for “Green Shirts” and “Two Little Hitlers.” All that just goes to show that a really good album – and however it arrives at that rarefied distinction, whether by music, lyrics, sensibility, whatever – works something like your better diamonds: there’s always another way to hold it to the light and see something new.
I’m not sure what my favorite album by Elvis Costello & The Attractions would be now. If the “me” that existed across all periods of my life had to recommend an album, it would probably be Trust. Then again, Blood & Chocolate, an 11-track ode to wearied bitterness, ranks way the fuck up there now that I’ve lived long enough to go through some shit. Elvis Costello’s notes on Imperial Bedroom in Unfaithful Music don’t feel so far off either – as in he calls the best, most harmonic work they did as a group - because that’s one hell of an album.
However, of all the albums I revisited over this past week, Goodbye Cruel World feels like the most overlooked, the one I overlooked without good cause. And, to return to what I said about the musical choices The Attractions made (and, yes, Elvis Costello), this one snuck deepest into my personal, stupid, blind-spot for how much “rock” I needed in my music. Utter waste of time, I tell you – and I only need songs like “The Comedians," “Joe Porterhouse,” and “Home Truth” to drive that home.
To drive that last point home (sorry, almost done), if you listen – really listen – to what a band/artist is trying to do, the sum of it between sound, tone, lyrics…just everything – you’ll probably like a lot more of what you hear.
By the time this post goes up, I’ll have recreated/re-posted The Toast of Elvis Costello playlist (which, as it happens, includes close to all the songs I still like off of Get Happy), along with a second playlist of songs recommended by the past week of listening to Elvis Costello & The Attractions. As always, I hope that anyone who finds them enjoys them, but there’s no point in expecting that, because art goes where it’s accepted. In the end, what I love and respect most about Elvis Costello – and this is just him this time, and with all due respect to Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas –was that he gave the world what music played in his head and asked them to love it as much as he does. And, to pick up on a thought from way the hell up in the first paragraph, he created something of a template for what I want and respect from any musician/band – forever trying to find the next thing to keep things lively in his music. There were also all those lovely, lovely words, of course, and that’s keep me interested until my eyes fail.
One of the greats in my book. Nothing else to it.