Album Audit: Elvis Costello
Ahead of A Day On The Green ANDREW P STREET scans Elvis Costello’s expansive back-catalogue to rank a handful of the singer’s shiniest gems.
Elvis Costello, it’s fair to say, makes a lot of records. Excluding live efforts, collaborative albums and compilations, there are 20-something Elvis Costello albums; with them, the number jumps to 40-plus. He’s a man who likes to jump from genre to genre and project to project; fans of his work with the Attractions are probably not going to fall in love with his operatic collaboration with Anne Sofie Von Otter.
Even the most ardent admirer has to admit that among the core canon there are still some discs that really aren’t up to scratch. For example, 1983’s Punch the Clock is destroyed from the horribly dated and insanely fussy production by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. As is its follow up, 1984’s little-loved Goodbye Cruel World, about which Costello’s reissue liner notes accurately begin “Congratulations! You’ve just purchased our worst album.”
So, several albums that are worth grabbing have been left out to streamline this process, such as the first Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach album Painted from Memory (which is absolutely worth getting, although you definitely shouldn’t listen to ‘This House Is Empty Now’ if you’ve just had a breakup), or the flawed-but-interesting collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters. But if you’re wondering where to start, here’s our top ten picks.
10. Momofuku (2008)
It gets overlooked a lot, this album. It was first available digitally as a result of Costello’s short-lived decision to try to sidestep the dying music industry, it has a truly awful cover and it was recorded more or less live with the Imposters as an exercise in making rough and ready albums with tiny budgets and no overthinking. And it’s pretty great. A lot of it is loose and messy, but there are moments where Costello’s vocal keen and Steve Nieve’s trademark Farfisa organ evoke the energy of the ‘70s Attractions, as on ‘American Gangster Time’.
9. Almost Blue (1981)
The difficult gestation of the Trust album earlier in the year had been draining, and this album of country covers seemed impossibly indulgent in comparison. It was savagely panned at the time, but has since been hailed as one of the few genuinely worthwhile covers albums of all time – and signposted some of the directions that Costello would move in further down the track. It’s unlikely to be anyone’s all-time favourite Costello disc, sure, but the versions of Merle Haggard’s ‘Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down’ and Jerry Chestnut’s ‘A Good Year for the Roses’ are necessities. They also get props for the album’s warning sticker: “WARNING: This album contains country and western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners.”
8. My Aim Is True (1977)
The first Elvis Costello album is a classic for good reason: it shows off just how great a writer the man was from day one: ‘60s tinged songs like ’(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes’ and ‘No Dancing’, the prickly ‘Welcome To The Waking Week’ and, of course, the timeless ballad ‘Alison’ from which the title is drawn. However, while the songs are great the arrangements and performances are drab in comparison with what was to come when Costello formed the Attractions: here he was backed by US band Clover, most of which would later morph into Huey Lewis and the News, and the tinny production does the album no favours either.
7. The Delivery Man (2004)
This country album put Costello back on the map and really demonstrated what Costello’s newish band the Imposters were capable of doing. It helped that it was the Attractions minus bassist Bruce Thomas, whose notoriously fractious relationship with Costello had finally crumbled, replaced by former Cracker bassist Davey Farragher. It did nothing to dissuade those who increasingly saw Costello’s album in terms of genre exercises, not least since it came out on the same day as the little-loved opera Il Sogno. Still, ‘Monkey to Man’ is an enduring rocker, the Cait O’Riordan co-write ‘The Judgement’ is made all the more poignant for having been written by a former husband-and-wife team, and the leering title track is possibly the most carnal thing Costello has ever written. 2009’s bluegrass-flavoured effort Secret, Profane and Sugarcane almost acts as this album’s little brother.
6. King of America (1986)
Costello left his country and his band for this one, decamping to the US and leaving The Attractions behind in the wake of Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, as discussed above. It allowed him to work with touring buddy T-Bone Burnett, who recruited a band for the album which they nicknamed the Confederates. The Attractions played on one song, ‘Brilliant Mistake’, leading to the album being given the ludicrous artist credit of “The Costello Show featuring the Attractions and the Confederates”. The cover of the Animals’ ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ is nothing to write home about, but ‘Indoor Fireworks’ is among Costello’s most beautiful songs and ‘Brilliant Mistake’ one of his great openers.