From 1977 through 1982 Elvis Costello had no peers. He released 7 near perfect albums (and one live one), growing with each successive release in creativity and maturity. Allmusic states that he is perhaps the most important songwriter since Bob Dylan and after listening to these 7 albums in succession I am at a loss to disagree.
77’s My Aim Is True is pure punk/ pub rock nastiness on the surface but it is evident that his songwriting chops were fully formed from the beginning. Backed by Clover (Huey Lewis’ backing group!) and not the Attractions, he turns out classic after classic, including the lauded Alison, Welcome To The Working Week, (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes, Less Than Zero. But it’s Watching The Detectives, the album closer, that’s the most astonishing song here. A better and more affecting pop song during 1977 you will not find.
78’s This Years Model is even better, partly because he is now backed by The Attractions who up the ante in the power and angst department, but mostly because it seems his songwriting has reached a new level. Before all you Elvis aficionados slam me, I am aware that this album is compiled of leftovers from the My Aim Is True sessions, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it sounds different, more mature but no less urgent. Pump It Up, Lipstick Vogue and the wonderful Radio Radio are the highlights of a highlight packed album. Oh, and it didn’t hurt that Nick Lowe produced this album, either.
In 1979 Elvis Costello released Armed Forces. It’s my personal favorite, possibly because it’s the first Elvis album I heard, probably because it contains some of his finest compositions to date. It is more detailed and sophisticated but hardly less affecting. The original working title, Emotional Fascism, will give you a hint on the lyrical content of this album. It’s his most politically charged album to date, but that doesn’t take away from the pure beauty of Costello classics such as Two Little Hitlers, Oliver’s Army, Accident’s Will Happen and Party Girl. His cover of Nick Lowe’s What’s So Funny (‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding) is also his most passionate vocal on the album, rivaling Bowie’s Heroes, in my opinion. Absolutely perfect album from start to finish.
The genre exercise that was 1980’s Get Happy is a textbook lesson in white boy angst infused soul. 20 songs, the longest clocking in at 3:36, move by so fast that their charms may not be evident on the first couple of listens. But after many spins this will reveal itself as one of his most consistently enjoyable albums, and it contains one of his very best tracks in I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down.
Almost Blue, released in 1981, is often chided for being his most self indulgent record. Consisting entirely of Country and Western covers, this album is not for everyone. The ghost of Gram Parsons haunts this album and Elvis covers two of his songs here with How Much I Lied and I’m Your Toy. Like most of Costello’s albums you need to keep an open mind, but once you get it you get it. It’s a very good album, but probably his weakest of this period.
Also released in 1981 was Trust. This is where Elvis began to stretch out, stylistically speaking. Infused with elements of Jazz, rockabilly, soul and straight out balls-to-the-wall rock (From A Whisper To A Scream), it sounded a bit fractured upon it’s release. It’s an album of transition, his very own crossroads, and the next album would see him reaching his creative peak.
1982’s Imperial Bedroom is Elvis Costello’s Sgt. Pepper. It’s a concept album in the sense that each song follows a stylistic theme, and the production is the most lavish up to this point. Geoff Emerick, who engineered some of the Beatles most ambitious records, produces here, and his presence is extremely evident, especially on tracks like Beyond Belief, Man Out Of Time and Town Cryer. He’s less bitter here, more comfortable with his songwriting abilities. Imperial Bedroom is an ambitious listen all these years later, and the end of Elvis Mach I, his most fertile and rewarding phase.