Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pointless List : 5 (Somewhat Neglected) Elvis Costello Songs

I once read an interview with Paul Weller in which he compared his career's entire output favourably with that of his contemporaries. He meant the songwriters who had emerged in the UK in the immediate aftermath of Punk in the late 70s - Andy Partridge of XTC, Sting, Bob Geldof, Kevin Rowland and Elvis Costello. He actually singled out Costello and said that his own stuff had far more variety than Elvis'; and from the Jam's post-punk rock to the Style Council's jazz-lite soul rock to his solo stuff's Dad-rock, his point could really not be any more wrong.

Costello has never stood still. His first two albums are punky affairs, sure, but by Armed Forces, his third, he was already branching out, with more keyboard sounds and pop shadings entering the equation. Within five years he would be changing his style on every single album; from country, to Stax soul to Beatles pop, slices of music hall and folk, and back to Punk. In the decades since he has made chamber pop records, written operas, returned to country (albeit in different styles of that genre), made an easy listening album or two, collaborated with a string quartet, dabbled in jazz, written some pure pop stuff, done soundtracks, written a solo album for Wendy James of Transvision Vamp and written songs with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. Maybe Weller was joking...?

For all that, Costello has never really been "Big". Not as big as Weller, say. He has a devoted fanbase, his records obviously sell respectably, he goes on long, sold-out tours. But he has never really been a Pop or a Rock Star. In that sense, everything he has ever done has been somewhat neglected. I think he is a genius, and easily the greatest songwriter of his generation. His back catalogue is an awesomely impressive and consistent series of records, each stuffed with brilliant songs. But some are more celebrated than others. Anything that is really likely to be played on Classic Rock radio is obviously not neglected. Anything that would make a Career-spanning 2CD "Best Of" compilation (and those songs are pretty easy to pick out) is not neglected. Everything else is fair game.

Charm School (from Punch The Clock)
Punch the Clock (1983) is possibly Costello's poppiest album. Produced by the duo of Langer and Winstanley, who were responsible for some of the most popular records of that era - by Dexy's Midnight Runners, Madness and the Teardrops Explodes, among others - it is slicker, glossier and more nakedly commercial than his previous records (his previous album, the Beatlesque Imperial Bedroom, is perhaps his strongest record) and reflects his constant need to experiment and reinvent the wheel. As such, its an underrated album. Costello can write a great pop song, as Every Day I Write the Book proves, and the sugar of all that lacquered production, bright horn section and plastic soul backing vocals is leavened somewhat by the sourness of the lovely, moving Shipbuilding and the deadpan Pills And Soap. Charm School, on the other hand, is pure pop. Like most of the pure pop moments on the album it succeeds splendidly, its just not what Costello fans wanted him to succeed at. Based on a fluid, surprisingly funky bass part - as were many of the Attractions records - and a simple keyboard figure, it showcases a trademark bitter Costello lyric: "You and I as lovers/Were nothing but a farce/Trying to make a silk purse/Out of a sow’s arse" that culminates in a wounded chorus: "Didn't they teach you anything/Except how to be cruel/ In that Charm School?" He could always write a hook and this one is given punch by the backing vocals by the duo Afrodiziak (Caron Wheeler, of Soul II Soul, and Claudia Fontaine), who also give life to the rising keyboards on the middle eight. But like many of Costello's best, its a really simple, classically composed pop song.

Party Girl from Armed Forces
Costello really is the poet laureate of the bitter, angry love song. I Want You, from Blood & Chocolate (1986) is probably the finest and most celebrated example (Michael Winterbottom's film of the same name seems to have been built around it) of this strain of his writing. It has also given rise to many accusations of misogyny, and the level of hatred and pain he levels at anonymous women who have hurt him in his work can be disturbing. But it is also what gives it such potency. It feels real and true. Failed relationships can be agony, and he reflects this. He reflects it from a male point of view, through anger and bile and sarcasm and repressed violence. This is why a large chunk of his audience are men of a certain age. They know he gets it, because they've heard proof. They have the proof at home, on vinyl, with his face on the front. Party Girl , off Armed Forces (1979) sounds like one of those songs, too. For years, the general consensus among Elvis fans was that it was about Bebe Buell, famed former super-groupie, lover of Steven Tyler and Todd Rundgren, mother of Liv Tyler, ex of Elvis. But he claimed it was instead a defence of a student he met on tour in the US who tabloid journalists caught him with in a car, proceeding to smear her reputation to some extent. And the lyrics are more complex than first impressions suggest. The first line holds the key: "They say you're nothing but a Party Girl". This is a man preparing to defend a girl from accusations, and in doing so he lets rip with some sharp lines in the direction of "They": "But I have seen the hungry look in their eyes/They'd settle for anything in disguise of love/Seen the party girls look men over/Seen em leaving when the partys over" before the protective chorus which seems to express some regret that this relationship can only be a fleeting thing: "They cant touch me now/You say you don't mind/We're so hard to find/I could give you anything/But time".
Costello is famed for his clever-clever, often very witty wordplay, but in many of his more nakedly emotional songs he abandons it in favour of plain declaration. Here the funniest line is a throwaway "I'm the guilty party and I want my slice/But I know youve got me and I'm in a grip-like vise" and the emotional intensity he is aiming for is evident in the songs instrumental choices. For this is basically a power ballad, with big guitar chords and cascading piano and lots of high hat and very melodramatic rising and falling passages. Armed Forces was really the commercial peak of Costello's early career, featuring the singles Oliver's Army and Accidents Will Happen, and his band, the Attractions, always tight and muscular, ever-versatile, were in their best form. Every song sounds perfectly played and honed to perfection, and this one is no exception.

Impatience from North
North (2006) is Costello's attempt at a torch-song, lounge singer, cocktail hour album. Its mainly just him, a piano, and a load of strings. The songs are mainly crying-in-my-gin ballads of lost love and slowly drunken misery, with a few tales of new love to lighten the suicidal mood. I think he got the idea from a tour he did in 2000, where he played Opera Houses and concert halls accompanied only by the Attractions keyboard player, Steve Nieve, on piano. He seemed to fancy himself as a sort of Sinatra figure, dressed in a suit, selling prepared patter and gags, enjoying a newly-discovered versatility in terms of his own voice (which so many people seem to abhor) and reinventing half of his back catalogue. I saw him in Dublin on that tour and he was so brilliant (particularly the closing Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4, in which he got the crowd to perform the orchestral part, acapella, to beautiful effect) its no surprise he wanted to do an album in the same vein.
Impatience is only a bonus track on the European edition of North, and I can see why. Not down to its quality - its better than anything on the album proper, but because of its tone. The album chronicles the death of one relationship and the birth of another, but it is always sombre, sorrowful, melancholy, somewhat muted in its search for an authentic lounge feeling, even at its hopeful conclusion.
Impatience, meanwhile, is a jubilant piece of latin pop, with bongos and (fizzy rather than funky) wah-wah guitar and a rude horn part under the vocal. It builds as it goes, elements folding in. For once, the lyric seems almost throwaway. This is a silly love song about a man wanting to tell a woman how he feels but knowing he should wait; and it sounds like he wrote it in five minutes. All the better for that, as some trademark dazzling wordplay might debase the purity and simplicity of the song. Instead we get some corny rhymes that suit the naive, excited tone: "My pulse is racing still/I'm secretly thrilled/By the laughter that tumbled/And the tears that were spilled/As far as I know no one ever got killed/By impatience".

All the Rage from Brutal Youth
"The twitching impulses to speak your mind/I'll lend you my microscope and maybe you will find it/Is it in that ugly place that's just behind your face/Where you keep my picture still despite the fact/That you had me replaced."
...Thats just the opening verse. One of his most brutal, vengeful, hateful lyrics set against a slyly jolly mid-tempo stroll with acoustic guitars and wurlitzer organ giving off a whiff of the fairground, this is the penultimate track on Brutal Youth (1994). That album was marketed (and perceived) as a comeback after his two "solo" records on Warners and his excursion with The Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters). Here he was reunited with the Attractions on a set of rock songs, that old trademark anger back alongside the beautifully lyrical pop of a song like London's Brilliant Parade. It was his best record in some time, containing a clutch of classic Costello compositions and covering a myriad of sub-genres under the pop-rock umbrella. All the Rage gets by on its vigour, a sharp hook, and those lyrics. This is the chorus, devoid of any emotion but anger and sarcasm: " Say 'Goodbye'/Baby, can't you act your age?/You know why/I'm going to give it to you straight/Although I'll never be/Unhappy as you want me to be/Still it's all the rage".
Then the final verse feels more clinical and determinedly cruel: "Alone with your tweezers and your handkerchief/You murder time and truth, love, laughter and belief/So don't try to touch my heart/It's darker than you think/And don't try to read my mind/Because it's full of disappearing ink."
As if that wasn't enough, it starts off with a count-in, as all songs would in an ideal world.

Complicated Shadows from All This Useless Beauty
Costello writes a lot of songs for other people. He writes a lot of songs, period. Sometimes those other people don't like them or never get around to recording them. This song was written for Johnny Cash, which makes sense when its starkness and the sense of morality play and allusions to violence are considered. All This Useless Beauty (1996) is an album composed partly of songs written for other people, among them Aimee Mann and June Tabor. What is surprising then is how well it all holds together. In his late phase work, Costello seems to be able to channel all of the styles he has ever worked in almost at will. His mature "rock" records (as opposed to the albums like North or The Delivery Man where he picks on style and more or less sticks with it throughout) therefore become bewilderingly eclectic stylistic tours with Bacharachian pop songs, skiffle, post-punk, lots of alt country and bluegrass, bits of soul and jazz and chamber pop all featuring, which remain basically widescreen rock records. His melodic sense, lyrical virtuosity and the fluid, energetic interplay his band always seems to have - be it either the Attractions or his current outfit, the Imposters - gives these records consistency and unity. Complicated Shadows is the heaviest, most "rock" song on this record, distinguished by a pounding band performance that halfway through switches seamlessly from a studio recording to a live version, all the better to hear those slashing guitar chords. You can see what Costello was thinking pitching the song to Cash - it is a warning to young men ("All you gangsters and rude clowns") on the perils of violence, and needs to be sung by somebody with Cash's biblical authority (or as the lyric puts it: "In a voice like a John Ford film"). But it is almost too savage, too malicious, too Elvis Costello for Johnny Cash. So Costello sneers through it, and theres a sense of anger and vengeance to his version you imagine Cash could not have approached, no matter that his version would have been better in other ways. But Costello's version rocks in a way he seldom aims for, and the lyrics are atypically serious in their pitch black attempt to lure Cash: "Though the fury's hot and hard/I still see that cold graveyard/There's a solitary stone that's got your name on." David Chase used this version to conclude an episode of The Sopranos a few years later, which puts it in good company. And Costello himself included a new, inferior version on his most recent album, the mediocre acoustic country Secret, Profane and Sugarcane this year. But this 1996 version is the one.

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Blogger Beezer B said...

I'm gonna properly listen to these to see if I get into them. He's always someone I've been pretty ambivalent about but a couple of his more party numbers have slipped into my record collection in the last few years. Also if Paul Weller underrates him then he must be good. Paul Weller. Paul Weller.

11:51 am  
Blogger David N said...

I wouldn't necessarily recommend anybody start with these tracks. They're more for the committed listener or casual fan. For a beginner, much as I hate to say it, one of his best of collections would be advisable.

For you though I say "Get Happy". Or "This Years Model" if you want something rockier.

12:52 pm  
Anonymous Bondus said...

some good choices there. Impatience is certainly an unsung hero in the EC back catalogue.
Some more hidden gems: Basement Kiss, Unwanted Number, Tiny Steps, Heathen Town, Taking My Life in your hands, When I was Cruel No.1 and Song With Rose.

4:32 pm  

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