In An Elvis Costello Mood
From 1977 through 1982 Elvis Costello had few peers. He released 7 near perfect albums (and one live one), growing with each successive release in creativity and maturity. The fine folks over at Allmusic suggest that he is perhaps the most important songwriter since Bob Dylan. I’ll go one further: I think he’s better than Dylan, if not more important.
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 very beginning. Backed by Clover (Huey Lewis’ backing group!) and not the Attractions, he turns out classic song after classic song including, of course, 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.
1978’s This Years Model is even better, partly because he is now backed by The Attractions who up the ante considerably in the musicianship department, and partly because Costello’s songwriting prowess remains on fire. Before all you Elvis aficionados slam me, I am aware that this album is compiled of leftovers from the My Aim Is True sessions and I could give a shit. Ok? It’s still fantastically coherent. Pump It Up, Lipstick Vogue and the single Radio Radio (added later) are the highlights of a highlight packed album. Oh, and it didn’t hurt that Nick Lowe produced this album, either. His pop genius is utterly apparent here.
In 1979 Elvis Costello released Armed Forces. It’s my personal favorite out of all his albums, possibly because it’s the first Elvis album I heard, but probably because it contains some of his finest compositions to date. It is more detailed and sophisticated but hardly less affecting and urgent. 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 sonic beauty of the music alone; 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 the definitive one. Sorry Nick, but it’s true. This is an 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.
Costello’s output after this became spotty at best. To tell the truth, I lost faith and pretty much ignored everything he did after Punch The Clock. I still listen to each new release hoping for a return to form, and I am still waiting. But at least I have these perfect records to fall back on. If I had to rank them, It’d look like this:
#1. Armed Forces
#2. This Year’s Model
#3. Get Happy.
#4. My Aim Is True
#5. Imperial Bedroom
#7. Almost Blue