A remarkable performer with a cutting voice and a hugely original songwriting mind, Elvis Costello has charted a consistently fascinating course in an intensely productive career and shows no sign of fatigue. He’s arguably the most significant individual creative voice to emerge in rock’n’roll since Bob Dylan, and definitely one of pop music’s most unforgettable characters. Although the onetime punk pioneer has hung in long enough to mellow into adulthood and become part of the pop furniture (just what the world needs: another Randy Newman), Costello has never lost his youthful enthusiasm for making albums of extraordinary ambition, complexity and expression. Despite unwavering audience ambivalence — in North America at least — Costello keeps churning it out, a brilliant musical novelist who has more intriguing and original ideas per album than most artists muster in a lifetime. Regardless of what people make of his idiosyncratic singing (crooning now a specialty) or stylistic peregrinations, the fact is that no other rock-rooted songwriter can match Costello in terms of consistency, volume, imagination and variety. In a time when the genius appellation is slapped on everyone with three salable ideas, Declan Patrick Aloysius McManus should be able to fill a couple of mantles with the statues he deserves.
My Aim Is True quickly established Elvis as an angry young man armed with cleverly worded insults and taut melodies. Although the backing (by American band Clover, sans future star Huey Lewis, the group’s harmonica player) lacks his intensity, the bespectacled one’s passion comes through full force. Many of the songs are already standards: “Watching the Detectives,” a sizzling, disorienting excursion into reggae (not included on the original UK version of the LP); “Alison,” a searing romantic ballad, and “Less Than Zero,” Elvis’ first single and a wry attack on one of his preferred targets, fascism. The overall effect is that of an updated Buddy Holly, neurotic and tormented by sexual insecurity. For more information, consult “Miracle Man” and “No Dancing.”
This Year’s Model improves significantly on a stunning debut by winding the music uncomfortably tight. Elvis gained confidence from the addition of an outstanding permanent backing band: Bruce Thomas on bass, Pete Thomas (no relation) on drums and Steve Nieve, whose piano and organ, rather than Elvis’ guitar, generally fill in melodies. The album finds Costello’s anger and insecurity grown harsh and nasty. The surging “No Action,” “Pump It Up” (something of a rewrite on Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”) and “Lipstick Vogue” bristle with ingeniously stated, hard-rocking vitriol. “Radio Radio” (not on the UK edition) became Costello’s unofficial theme song, a daring and snotty attack on the powers that rule the airwaves.
Costello avoids sneering himself into a dead end on Armed Forces, with the help of producer Nick Lowe. The prettier, less demanding and more varied sound still allows him freedom of expression. The lyrically potent “Oliver’s Army” borrows from Abba’s pop lushness; “Accidents Will Happen” mixes a beautiful melody with a driving arrangement; Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” offers an unironic, unexpected and agitated plea for tolerance. Armed Forces was the “nicest” of Costello’s first three LPs. (Early copies came with a bonus 7-inch of three songs recorded live at Hollywood High.)
Get Happy!! marks the beginning of Elvis’ concerted stylistic fiddling and his first serious attempt to shift the emphasis to the music and away from the overpowering persona. The watchword here is simplicity, with 20 short songs and borrowings from such soul greats as Booker T & the M.G.’s and Sam & Dave, whose “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” gets disheveled but earnest treatment. Other highlights include “Motel Matches,” an early flirtation with Nashville country; the moving “King Horse”; and a rip-snorting version of the Merseybeats’ “I Stand Accused.” By lessening the intensity somewhat, Elvis comes up with a most personable LP. (The three non-LP tracks on the New Amsterdam 7-inch, billed to Costello alone and also available as a picture disc, later appeared on Ten Bloody Marys.)
Reflecting Costello’s prolific nature, Taking Liberties collects an amazing 20 previously non-LP odds and ends in wildly divergent styles. (The UK counterpart, Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How’s Your Fathers, is altogether different, part of a consistent plan to enforce alternate international releases. Originally issued only on cassette, it appeared on vinyl four years later and subsequently on CD.) Despite a few dull entries, there’s plenty of remarkable stuff. The classic “My Funny Valentine” is a harbinger of Imperial Bedroom; “Talking in the Dark” gaily recalls “Penny Lane”; “Stranger in the House,” dating from the period of This Year’s Model, masterfully reflects his growing obsession with country music. Chaotic and marvelous.
Trust exhibits new self-confidence, blending some of the polish of Armed Forces with the straightforward delivery of This Year’s Model. Though few tracks stand out individually, the LP packs a powerful, coherent punch. “Clubland” is an impassioned lament while “Lovers Walk” overlays a Bo Diddleyish motif with Latin piano and heaps of anxiety. On the fierce “From a Whisper to a Scream,” Costello engages in a spirited dialogue with Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook, reaffirming his presence in the real world.
Elvis was bound to goof eventually, and Almost Blue is a dud. This album of country cover versions, recorded in Nashville with veteran producer Billy Sherrill (Tammy Wynette, George Jones, just about everyone else), is surprisingly clumsy in light of Costello’s previously demonstrated ability to come up with fine originals in the same genre. Curiously, he succumbs to the urge to over-sing instead of finesse the vocals, a mistake his obvious model, the late Gram Parsons, never made.
Imperial Bedroom is a resounding return to form, and indicates Costello’s interest in becoming a classic tunesmith in the Tin Pan Alley tradition instead of just a venerated rocker. This is certainly his most subdued LP, with songs such as “Beyond Belief,” “Kid About It” and “Town Cryer” more suitable to a cocktail lounge torch singer than a garage band. How time flies.
Punch the Clock is yet another tour de force. Produced by Madness architects Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, the disc continues in the pop vein of Imperial Bedroom, but with considerably more attention paid to mixing up styles and textures. Hence you get politically motivated ballads like the brooding “Pills and Soap” and the ethereal, desperately angry “Shipbuilding” (co-written with Clive Langer), as well as swaggering raveups (“The World and His Wife”), classic Costello angst (“Charm School”) and much more. Best of all is the lilting “Everyday I Write the Book,” a winning tune worthy of being sung by Aretha Franklin (and the closest Costello had ever come to a US hit single).
By contrast, Goodbye Cruel World seems awkward and forced. The playing’s overly baroque, the melodies mild and too much of Costello’s edge is sublimated by the Langer/Winstanley cushion of sound. (On “The Only Flame in Town,” for instance, they bathe a fine song in swanky saxophones and duet vocals by Daryl Hall, watering down Costello’s individual power.) However, “Sour Milk-Cow Blues” has a cranky charm, “The Deportees Club” has old- fashioned Attractions’ bite and “Peace in Our Time” brilliantly captures the chilling madness of nuclear politics. Otherwise, Costello sounds like he needs a vacation.
Perhaps the 19-song Best Of (the similarly extensive UK counterpart of which — initially offered via TV advertising on a discount label but later reissued by Costello’s real record company — has only a dozen tracks in common) did the trick. Or maybe it was the decision to shelve the Attractions temporarily. Then again, maybe his burgeoning romance with (soon-to-be-ex-)Pogue bassist Cait O’Riordan was the reason.
In any case, the extraordinary King of America — billed as the Costello Show and recorded with co- producer T-Bone Burnett and a clutch of top American sessioneers, including sidemen from another Elvis — returned him to masterful top form. MacManus (as he then wished to be known) banged together fifteen intelligent, mature creations in a variety of idioms, many recalling styles he had already tried and abandoned (C&W, R&B, nightclub sophistication) and some (folk, blues) not so familiar. The sound often recalls the Band in its unique blending of country and urban traditions; elsewhere, it’s latter-day Elvis Presley, played by his own musicians; on the monumental “Suit of Lights,” it’s the Attractions. As articulate and clear-headed as he’s ever been, MacManus dissects several major themes — the British perception of America, alcoholism, his own stardom — each from more than one vantage point. Not only do all these forays work individually, the songs fit together with surprising ease. In addition, he’s never sung better, with such subtlety and control. A career highlight.
Released before the same calendar year’s end, Blood & Chocolate brought the Attractions fully back into the picture, joined on a few tunes by guest vocalist O’Riordan. (More nomenclatural absurdity: while the name Elvis Costello appears on the front cover, the composer of all but one track is MacManus and the vocalist/guitarist is named Napoleon Dynamite.) Although the LP has no characteristic sound, overall theme or discernible organizational logic, the individual songs are quietly excellent — simply played gems performed with restrained enthusiasm, if little color. Eschewing any new stylistic statement, Elvis the unnameable ambles back into personal commentary with subdued eloquence. A bit underwhelming at first, but substantial nonetheless.
The 1987 Out of Our Idiot crypto-compilation serves up a brace of singles, B-sides, outtakes and side projects employing enough different monikers to justify the record’s “various artists” billing. Besides assorted undertakings as Costello variations, the hodgepodge of good- to-incredible tracks credit such ensembles as Napoleon Dynamite & the Royal Guard, the Emotional Toothpaste and the Coward Brothers. Besides alternate versions of “Blue Chair” and “American Without Tears,” and familiar-to-fans collaborations with Jimmy Cliff, T-Bone Burnett and Nick Lowe, the record’s highlight is “So Young,” an infectious bluebeat bouncer borrowed from Jo Jo Zep and evidently omitted from Armed Forces. The 21-track CD adds another E.C. & the Attractions outtake (1982’s “Little Goody Two Shoes”) as well as cuts by the MacManus Gang (from the Straight to Hell soundtrack) and the Imposter. (In another piece of film work, Costello — as Declan MacManus — scored, produced and played music for The Courier, in which O’Riordan has a starring role. His dramatic instrumental efforts occupy nearly a side of the soundtrack album.)
Costello bills himself as The Beloved Entertainer — stuffed and mounted — on the front cover of Spike, his first new album since Blood & Chocolate. Following King of America‘s blueprint, each of the fifteen tracks employs a different assortment of players, from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (on “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” and “Stalin Malone”) to Paul McCartney (on the tender and touching “Veronica,” one of two songs he and Costello co-wrote). Regardless of which sort of tasteful arrangement (Irish folk, acoustic pop, jazz, rock, jagged noise) or star collaborator (Chrissie Hynde, Christy Moore, Benmont Tench) he chooses for any individual song, however, the record is a testament to Costello’s complete mastery. For most of the record, Costello is in rare form, conversing with the deity (“God’s Comic”), ripping the lynch-mob mentality in a fact-based tale (“Let Him Dangle”), sending a withering blast at Margaret Thatcher (“Tramp the Dirt Down”) and wallowing in romantic regrets (“Baby Plays Around,” whose joint marital authorship lends a reassuring fictional sense to its troubled lyrics). For concerned Attractions fans, Pete Thomas puts in an appearance on one solitary song.
The two EPs taken from Spike contain four songs each. On 12-inch and CD-3, Veronica adds the album’s CD bonus track (“Coal-Train Robberies”), a B-side (a cover of Clint Ballard’s “You’re No Good,” on which E.C. plays kalimba and drum machine) and “The Room Nobody Lives In.” Likewise, Baby Plays Around has “Almost Blue” (from Imperial Bedroom), “My Funny Valentine” (originally on the flip of “Oliver’s Army”) and “Point of No Return.”
Taking discographical perversity to new extremes, the Girls + £ ÷ Girls = $ & Girls compilation (covering 1976-’86) was originally issued in the UK in four formats: as a 31-track double album, two individual cassettes with a combined 51 songs, a double-CD with 47 songs and a digital audio tape containing 31 songs. To compound the confusion, the different configurations aren’t simply related: not all of the CD tracks, for example, appear on the cassettes. The American release skipped DAT and vinyl and stuck the cassettes together in a cardboard longbox, but preserved the alternate tape and CD programs. Building on a common — albeit not entirely logical — core of 36 familiar songs (selected by the artist, who also provided amusing liner notes), the tape and CDs offer two different views of the Costello catalogue, neither of them entirely fair or complete.
After that bravura blowout, however, Mighty Like a Rose was a disappointing retrenchment; despite their verbose complexities, the unwieldy songs — most given lush, glib arrangements — suggest creative fatigue. A remarkable simulation of the Band (“Playboy to a Man”) is oddly effective; other highlights include the boppy “Georgie and Her Rival” and the solemn piano-with- horns ballad, “Sweet Pear.” But the album is too often strikingly self-derivative, recalling the Attractions’ era right down to the vintage Steve Nieve piano and organ quotes. (Check the bass thrusts at the end of “Harpies Bizarre.”) Indeed, two of the most immediately engaging tracks (“The Other Side of Summer” and “How to Be Dumb,” a devastating slam at Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas for his tacky play-and-tell “novel,” The Big Wheel) return Costello to his sound of the late ’70s. The raucous massed-drum “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)” doesn’t go quite that far, alighting on a revisit to Trust‘s “Lovers’ Walk.”
The Juliet Letters, on the other hand, is without precedent in Costello’s career. Writing and recording (live in the studio, without overdubs) a theatrical concept album of fantasy correspondence with an open-minded classical string quartet, Costello threw himself completely off the tracks, leaving his guitar home to venture into previously untested compositional and vocal realms. Did he succeed? The mere fact of his newly developed arranging skill is impressive; that he can unhitch himself from rock and make credible chamber pop suggests a grand mastery of music’s possibilities — as if a photographer had suddenly unveiled skill as a sculptor. Is it easy on the ears? Generally. Does it make for an engrossing, stimulating hour’s worth of entertainment? No. For all the exquisite pop bowing and Costello’s careful vocal exertions, the melodies sound like afterthoughts, rambling ups and downs of operatic convenience that spark memories of an eighth- grade music-appreciation teacher attempting to make Don Giovanni meaningful to a class full of adolescents. (Besides “This Sad Burlesque” and the tender “The First to Leave,” which actually sounds like an ordinary Costello item given an uncommon rendering, the album’s most striking song, “I Almost Had a Weakness,” reworks a familiar cartoon theme, which obliterates its power.) The lyrics are curioser and curioser, too oddly canted to create any forward narrative motion. Good for you, Elvis, now can we have something else we might actually like to hear?
Good as done. Brutal Youth proves that even aging sophisticates can visit old haunts without being sucked in by nostalgia. In a byzantine sequence of coincidences — that included Costello’s desire to try something quick and dirty straightaway after The Juliet Letters, his running into ex-Attractions keyboard ace Steve Nieve at a Sam Moore session, Wendy James asking drummer Pete Thomas if he could persuade his sometime employer to write her a song and Nick Lowe’s disinclination to play tricky bass parts, thereby necessitating a differences-settling phone call to Bruce Thomas — the Attractions were reassembled.
Like an old lover who breezes back in the door after a protracted absence with no more than an indolent shrug and a sly smile, Brutal Youth pulls the angry twentysomething bile-spewer out of mothballs to meet his thoughtful, accomplished adult self. Wielding all the creative energy of Armed Forces with a far more skilled hand, Elvis, the Attractions and Nick Lowe (who might as well have been an official member for his pivotal production role on those early records) light a fire under his mature sensibilities; few albums that sound so simple are the result of such commanding artistry. Armed with a set of top-shelf tunes designed for uncomplicated small band assessments, Costello works across his entire dynamic range, waxing gorgeously romantic on “Still Soon to Know” and “All the Rage” but ripping up the floorboards on “Sulky Girl” and “20% Amnesia” (which, recalling the worst public- relations disaster of Costello’s brutal youth, renders the phrase “strip jack naked” as if it were something far less innocuous). Besides taking brisk strolls down My Aim Is True lane for “Clown Strike” and “Just About Glad,” he stirs up a breathtaking chorus for “Pony St.,” crosses a soulful generation gap in “You Tripped at Every Step,” uses genial folk-rock to express amazement at the diminishing Englishness of his hometown in “London’s Brilliant Parade” and kicks tremoloed aggression to decry a military rape and its cover-up in the cinematic “Kinder Murder.” Throughout, deft instrumental touches, superb singing and the easy confidence of a still-competitive athlete returning to the scene of his greatest triumph make this another effortless win.
Recorded before Mighty Like a Rose, Kojak Variety brings Costello’s typical taste and craft to the task of making a covers album. Ignoring those artists who reach for the Top 40 book in the hopes of getting mileage out of recognizable songs, he dredges up an amazing array of choice items from the R&B, country, soul and pop-standard cabinets of his evidently vast record collection. Backed by a small combo of skilled professionals, Costello whips up generally reverent interpretations that (to their abundant credit) sound like live band blows after a few quick run-throughs. The well- known (Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away,” Little Willie John’s Beatles-covered “Leave My Kitten Alone,” Little Richard’s “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” the Kinks’ “Days”) and the obscure (Walter Hawkins’ “Strange,” Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Crying Mercy,” Holland/Dozier/Holland’s “Remove This Doubt” and Bill Anderson’s “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face,” which segues into the James Carr-popularized “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man”) alike benefit from Costello’s enthusiastic ministrations. More than a curio, Kojak Variety puts the unmistakable Costello imprimatur on songs that he might well have written, while undoubtedly encouraging curiosity about their actual sources.
Although it’s predominately originals, the brief Deep Dead Blue seems like a covers record (or at least somebody else’s record), as it finds Costello — backed on a London stage by American guitarist Bill Frisell — indulging his vibrato-laden crooneristic desires to their slushy hilt on Charles Mingus’ “Weird Nightmare” and Lerner/Loewe’s “Gigi” (never imagined that one in his repertoire), as well as Spike’s “Baby Plays Around” (the only number that really soars in this setting), Goodbye Cruel World‘s “Love Field,” “Poor Napoleon” and co- compositions with Frisell and Ruben Blades. Tenderly rendered but hard to swallow, Costello’s suave aspirations have a pinched, square-peg feeling, and Frisell’s cocktail lounge arpeggios (and volume-knob wiggles) don’t humidify the arid environment enough to make it cozy.
All This Useless Beauty, a full-fledged reunion with the Attractions, was originally mooted as a collection of songs written for or with other artists. It would have done well to have stayed that way. The prismatic enlightenment of “You Bowed Down” (originally recorded by Roger McGuinn and riffled here in unmistakable 12-string flourishes), the cagey rock’n’roll summit of “Shallow Grave” (co-written with Paul McCartney), “All This Useless Beauty” (an over-reserved, under-melodic stab at pop standard-hood), “Why Can’t a Man Stand Alone?” (a torchy soul tune penned for Stax legend Sam Moore), the ill- conceived “Complicated Shadows” (at least for its intended singer, Johnny Cash) and “The Other End of the Telescope,” an oil-and-water Aimee Mann collaboration cut by ‘Til Tuesday, would have stood as a footnote sort of album, a minor but respectable elaboration on one aspect of Costello’s work. But the inclusion of some fine (“It’s Time,” “Little Atoms”) and foul (“Distorted Angel” and “I Want to Vanish,” a wan ballad accompanied by the Brodsky Quartet) new numbers that don’t fall under that category queers the deal. Forced to be considered as the successor to Brutal Youth, All This Useless Beauty is too dainty to hold that honor.
On the soundtrack front, Costello forged a ’90s partnership with composer/conductor Richard Harvey, adding two full orchestral scores for British Channel 4 TV films to his cinematic résumé. The exact nature of his role in penning the swelling dramatic atmospheres of G.B.H. is hard to reckon, but, really, it’s the achievement and exercise that count here, not the music.
Other artists sit back and let labels reissue their back titles for an ego stroke and a quick buck. Not Costello. He took the opportunity to reassess and refurbish a decade’s worth of work, annotating each album with illuminating explanations and amplifications, resolving willful US/UK repertoire disparities and adding copious amounts of contemporaneous (or otherwise related) material as bonuses. As potent as a written autobiography — and ironic, considering how journalistically tight-lipped he was for so long — the overhauled albums are obligatory for anyone with more than a casual interest in Costello’s universe.
In its reincarnation, My Aim Is True — the here-comes-the-nerd pub-rock debut produced by Lowe on the computer-operator’s days off with members of California’s Clover and others — gains nine tracks, including pre- album demos, a circa-’75 track by the band Flip City and early country leftovers, “Radio Sweetheart” and “Stranger in the House.” This Years Model, his groundshaking introduction to the Attractions (who didn’t receive cover billing), is presented in its original English configuration and augmented by solo acoustic demos for the next album’s “Green Shirt” and “Big Boys” (as well as the otherwise undocumented “Running Out of Angels”), the soundtrack contribution “Crawling to the U.S.A.,” the B- side “Big Tears” (with Mick Jones of the Clash providing nearly inaudible lead guitar) and “Radio Radio,” a single that was added to the US edition and became the group’s bitter calling card to the unfriendly American media outlets that shunned the surly foreign snots.
Armed Forces, the even-better successor to This Years Model, incorporates three trenchant live tracks (a suave pre-LP “Accidents Will Happen,” “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives,” from a ’78 Hollywood High show originally issued as a bonus single), “Wednesday Week” and “Talking in the Dark” (from a giveaway 45) and three non-disposable B-sides: “Tiny Steps,” “Clean Money” and “My Funny Valentine,” the first intriguing evidence of his Sinatraesque aspirations. The breathless, soul-gauged and amazingly gem-packed Get Happy!! — which already contained 20 fragmentary tracks in 50 minutes and really needed the mastering tune-up that relieves the original’s weird, thin tone — is expanded by another eleven tunes, including the three that filled out 1980’s New Amsterdam EP, such B-sides as “Girls Talk” (an EC original done to better commercial effect by Dave Edmunds), “Getting Mighty Crowded” and “Hoover Factory,” as well as outtake versions of the album’s “Riot Act” and “Clowntime Is Over” and an unlisted demo of “Love for Tender.”
The uneven Trust has a firm, multi-leveled production grasp on such excellent songs as “Clubland,” “Strict Time,” “New Lace Sleeves” and “Watch Your Step” (as well as “From a Whisper to a Scream,” a duet with Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook) but contains too many weak numbers, making it Costello’s first notable creative stumble. The nine bonus tracks, most of them never previously released, are as inconsistent as the album itself, although the creative process illustrated by the swell piano demo of “Boy With a Problem” (recut for Imperial Bedroom) and the progress of the so- what “Twenty-Five to Twelve” into the sweeping “Seconds of Pleasure” (a song Rockpile didn’t bother recording for the album they gave its title) is as ear-opening as the songs.
Almost Blue, an album of reliable country ballads (from the catalogues, if not the pens, of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, George Jones and Merle Haggard, as well as Gram Parsons), was produced in Nashville by local legend Billy Sherrill. Time has found the record a more organic place in Costello’s creative stream; the eleven stylistically connected bonus tracks come from a 1979 Los Angeles club date, a 1981 Scottish show, a 1982 London concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Sherrill sessions.
After that vocally centered record, Costello pursued the Tin Pan Alley side of his personality with mainstream pop producer Geoff Emerick on Imperial Bedroom, a complex, classy and heavily worked-over collection that fortunately has the songs (“Man Out of Time,” “Almost Blue,” “Human Hands,” “Kid About It,” “Beyond Belief,” “The Loved Ones,” “You Little Fool”) to carry the extra instrumental load, finessing ballads between bouts of grandiose, atmospheric rock. Among the nine added numbers are non-LP singles (all covers: “From Head to Toe,” “The World of Broken Hearts,” “Night Time”), demos for “Shabby Doll,” the unused “Imperial Bedroom” and the final rendition of “Seconds of Pleasure” — before it was cannibalized for Punch the Clock‘s “The Invisible Man.”
Punch the Clock, produced by the commercially minded but more stylistically agile Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, coincided with Costello’s return to the immediate reality of his surroundings, and politically potent poetry like “Shipbuilding,” “Pills and Soap” and “TKO (Boxing Day)” balance such neutral pop achievements as “Everyday I Write the Book” and the brassy “Let Them All Talk.” While the arrangements invariably benefit the songs, a certain distance and dryness in the writing prevents okay-to-great numbers from coalescing into a truly estimable album. Brisk pre-album live versions of “The World and His Wife” and “Everyday I Write the Book” join an edgy cover of Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice” and four more significant studio items as bonus tracks.
Costello’s other Langer/Winstanley album, Goodbye Cruel World, is similarly troubled; the artist’s liner notes blame the dissolution of his marriage and a general lack of spirit for what he calls “our worst album.” In fact, the quiet protest song, “Peace in Our Time,” is absolutely brilliant; with the vocal presence of Daryl Hall, “The Only Flame in Town” is presentably slick soul- pop. In between those bookends, however, there’s a little good (“Home Truth,” “Inch by Inch”) and a lot of just-OKs, shouldn’t-have-beens and nice tries, many of them inexplicably afflicted by electronic percussion and keyboards. In other words, the uneven album is not altogether different in effect from the two that precede it. The ten (one of which is unlisted) bonus tracks — including the acrid and angry pairing of “Get Yourself Another Fool” and an unreleased early version of “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” a quiet studio duet with Lowe on the Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You” and a handful from Costello’s extraordinary 1984 solo tour — are embarrassingly better than the album they augment.
Taking a one-album trial separation from the Attractions (who back him on “Suit of Lights” anyway), Costello — billed as The Costello Show — made King of America, a staggering return to folk-shaped rock form rich with moving, articulate and memorable songs and inspired, passionate performances using a couple of crackerjack American pickup bands. His first undeniable classic since Get Happy!!, the album contains almost as many highlights as tracks. Try these on for instant recognition: “Brilliant Mistake,” “American Without Tears,” “Indoor Fireworks,” “The Big Light” and a searing slow cover of “Don’t Let Be Misunderstood” that nearly challenges the Animals for rights to the song. Overflowing with extras, the package adds five studio tracks (including a pair by the Coward Brothers, a duo with King of America co-producer T-Bone Burnett) and a short second disc from Costello’s 1986 Broadway concert stand with the Confederates, most of them King of America veterans, performing “The Big Light” and a half-dozen obscure covers.
Blood & Chocolate, a tumultuous, tough-hearted rock record with lots of great songs given ripping, live-in-the-studio renditions, tends to get overlooked, probably because of the casual, forbidding tone of the performances. But the album has a spiny integrity and a tense feel of bad feelings being fed into lively playing. “Uncomplicated” and a lethal version of “I Hope You’re Happy Now” open it, with further testimony taking such form as “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head,” “Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind?” and “Blue Chair.” Turning anger into obsession, Costello unleashes seven minutes of “I Want You,” a hypnotic mash note that has undoubtedly replaced the unrelated Bob Dylan song on countless flirty mix tapes. Bonuses include alternate versions of “Blue Chair” and “American Without Tears” (a fascinating lyrical sequel to the King of America song), film soundtrack work for Straight to Hell and Club Paradise (“Seven Day Weekend,” with Jimmy Cliff) and two more studio tracks, one unreleased and the other a B-side. Initial quantities included a bonus interview disc.
Costello’s discography is heavy with compilations and other repackages. 2 1/2 Years puts a box around the first three albums (My Aim Is True, This Years Model, Armed Forces — an essential collection if ever there was one) with a bonus disc of Live at the El Mocambo, the frequently bootlegged fourteen-song radio broadcast from 1978. The Very Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions one-ups The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions by subtracting five and adding eight with significantly better packaging and sound. Neither, of course, is any sort of a match for Girls + £ ÷ Girls = $ & Girls, a double-length retrospective that sports a maddeningly different (and not in the simple food-chain way one would expect) set list on CD, cassette and vinyl. All of the B-sides and other non-LP leftovers that make up the respective US and UK rarities sets, Taking Liberties and Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How’s Your Fathers, have since become bonus tracks on the ’90s reissues of the first four albums. Likewise, all but a couple of the 21 outtakes, soundtrack ventures and outside collaborations (under a stultifying variety of names, hence the various-artists designation) that fill Out of Our Idiot have subsequently been redistributed, with chronological and creative logic, among the reissues.
On their own in 1980, the Attractions sound more like Nick Lowe than their then-boss. The sixteen snappily executed ditties on Mad About the Wrong Boy feature bright, breezy surfaces and very little depth, which isn’t so bad in light of the cheerful atmosphere. The title cut, “La-La-La-La-La Loved You” and others offer agreeably washed-out harmonies reminiscent of UK flower-power pop of the late-’60s.
Keyboardist Steve Nieve first stepped out of the Attractions for a 7-inch EP of four brief, relatively straightforward piano (plus tasteful electronic accents) instrumentals, ostensibly (but not really) drawn from a film soundtrack. If not for titles like “Sparrow Crap” and “Page 1 of a Dead Girl’s Diary,” no one would blindly attribute these efforts with a rock musician. Likewise, Keyboard Jungle is a cute set of miniatures crafted at the keyboard of a Steinway: fake film and classical music, none of it taken (or given) particularly seriously. Quite agreeable.
The cover of Playboy shows Nieve, dressed to the nines, looking a bit like Bryan Ferry; the solo acoustic piano record mixes suave originals with uniquely conceived versions of standards, just like Ferry’s first solo efforts. The material in receipt here of Nieve’s straightfaced (and, therefore, hysterically funny) cocktail- lounge treatment includes Sting’s derivative and trivial “Russians,” Bowie’s overwrought “Life on Mars,” 10cc’s weepy “I’m Not in Love” and the Specials’ nearly tuneless “Ghost Town.” (X and Wham! also get their comeuppance in Nieve’s graceful hands.) The eleven other short pieces display the artist’s wit, compositional talent and instrumental agility.