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Class ?

Main Category: Singer-Songwriters
Also applicable: Smart Pop, Art Rock
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of an Elvis Costello fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Elvis Costello fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Postponed until the page is more comprehensive.



Year Of Release: 1977
Overall rating = 11

Pretty sure poor Elvis didn't give a damn about the whole punk thing at this point...


Track listing: 1) Welcome To The Working Week; 2) Miracle Man; 3) No Dancing; 4) Blame It On Cain; 5) Alison; 6) Sneaky Feelings; 7) (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes; 8) Less Than Zero; 9) Mystery Dance; 10) Pay It Back; 11) I'm Not Angry; 12) Waiting For The End Of The World; 13) Watching The Detectives; [BONUS TRACKS:] 14) Radio Sweetheart; 15) Stranger In The House; 16) Imagination (Is A Powerful Deceiver); 17) Mystery Dance; 18) Cheap Reward; 19) Jump Up; 20) Wave A White Flag; 21) Blame It On Cain; 22) Poison Moon.

Since it is by now a well-known fact that Costello's first album had been lumped in with the whole "punk" schenanigan just because it happened to come out in 1977 (and it could have come out at just about any time, except that, of course, in 1977 the record companies were more benevolent towards such stuff than, say, in 1973), I won't prattle too much about the cultural background of the epoch and stuff. Instead, let me just tell you this is one excellent album - although it takes a little time for it to sink in, well, just like about everything from Mr Resuscitated Buddy Holly.

Elvis was just a plain simple working man, programming in some retarded firm under his original McManus name, and quietly composing short, simple tunes to put under his pillow - like you and me, I guess, like the plain simple working man is supposed to. The big difference is that he got to actually fulfill his dream and release some of these songs on an actual LP. Of course, he hadn't yet had a chance to assemble a stable backing band, and for My Aim Is True he is joined by the American band Clover which I don't know that much about; seems like a pretty ordinary rockabilly band to me. Actually, Elvis' first attempts at recording (in particular, his demos and early outtakes, included on the CD re-release as bonus tracks) veered closer to country and Randy Newman than rockabilly; but the resulting product turned out to be somewhat more rocking, and thus, with stark, minimalist arrangements and an obvious neglection towards "complex", it's no wonder Mr Costello got branded as a "punk" by those who were thus branding everything new that the year 1977 had produced.

So how are these songs? Simple, yes, simple and obviously derivative, yet not so simple. Rockabilly, Buddy Holly and proto-pop are obviously the direct influences for My Aim Is True, but there are two things one should always keep in mind. One: the lyrics - mature, always interesting, intelligent and far more meaningful and poetic than, say, Bruce Springsteen's ramblings. And if "updating" Buddy Holly for the Seventies with classy lyrics is not enough for you, then there's the second factor: good melodies. Most of this stuff is not just catchy, like any solid Buddy Holly-penned song would be; it's catchy in its own special way, with certain unstandard chord changes, unexpectable twists and codas and melodies that even sometimes border on dissonant - of course, it's a big question if this is a testimony to Elvis' genius or his unprofessionality at the time, but that's up to the serious fan to think about. Of course, there are a couple of exceptions - like 'Mystery Dance', the fastest track on the album, which is just a mindless clone of just about any Fifties' rocker imaginable (except for the lyrics, of course) - but in general, listening to this record gives me a clear indication of one fact: this record, even with a simplification of the lyrics, could not have come out in the Fifties. And "blame it on Cain, don't blame it on me", but it's pretty obvious that the level of songwriting displayed herein seriously superates any true "punk" record made in 1977, yes, even including The Clash. Elvis just doesn't get to mask any of his supposed "weaknesses" with the wall of anger, distortion, loudness and plain noise that the punks so often abused. Here, if the song is good, it's obviously good; if the song is bad (which is rare), it is just as obviously bad. Really hard to deceive oneself.

The 'simpler' songs on My Aim Is True just chug along, producing a good effect nevertheless. Out of these, 'Miracle Man' and 'Blame It On Cain' are my favourites; nothing particularly outstanding here, but I just like to think of them as nice Fifties' tributes with a very personal feel - the first one deals with the problems of relationships between, you know, 'Her and Me' (Elvis' take on 'It Ain't Me Babe', I guess), while the second one carries a deep philosophical message of "we need somebody to burn", which is really as deep as Elvis' life philosophy goes, but that's not too shallow either. And Elvis' lonely ballad on the album, 'Alison', is pretty heartfelt, although the ending sure seems extended to me (actually, this is a general problem of the record - most of the songs are so short that Elvis and Clover for some strange reason thought they had to pan 'em out with extended codas, sometimes longer than the songs themselves!).

But, of course, it's the "less trivial" stuff that ultimately serves as a rating-defining factor for the record. 'Welcome To The Working Week', for instance, a one and a half minute lament over the lack of soul in today's busy technological world, which takes the traditional boogie structure and turns it upside down while still preserving the catchiness and memorability (not to mention the "message" - what a perfect anthem for the 'man of office labour'! Sums up in one and a half minutes everything that Ray Davies wanted to tell over the course of an entire Soap Opera). Likewise with '(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes'; likewise with the excellent two tracks that close out the record. Out of these, 'Waiting For The End Of The World' is my favourite, and strange enough, it might be the closest thing to something 'punky' on the album - speed it up, add some extra distortion, and voila. What a drive, what power, what a message. Groovy.

It is indeed an interesting thing that the album begins to "solidify" itself near the end - after the rockabilly sendup 'Pay It Back', we witness at least one richly arranged track, the thunderstormy 'I'm Not Angry' (punk? When he's naming his songs like that?), then 'Waiting For The End Of The World', then the reggae-influenced 'Watching The Detectives'. This intelligent 'record construction' actually works as a bonus - you start out with the 'lightweight' tunes and then, the more the record progresses, the more you get the feeling it's been penned by a really serious and talented artist. Thus, I'm quite content to give it an 11 despite all the 'tribute' factors; it is certainly far from Costello's peak (no matter what Rolling Stone tells you, acclaiming this as a peak for Elvis is akin to considering Please Please Me the Beatles' finest hour), but it's nevertheless a consistent, engaging record which you're bound to love if you can get over Elvis' lack of good singing voice - and you should.



Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating = 12

Pretty sure poor Elvis did give a damn about the whole punk thing at this point...


Track listing: 1) No Action; 2) This Year's Girl; 3) The Beat; 4) Pump It Up; 5) Little Triggers; 6) You Belong To Me; 7) Hand In Hand; 8) (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea; 9) Lip Service; 10) Living In Paradise; 11) Lipstick Vogue; 12) Night Rally; [BONUS TRACKS:] 13) Radio, Radio; 14) Big Tears; 15) Crawling To The USA; 16) Running Out Of Angels; 17) Greenshirt; 18) Big Boys.

Elvis' second album is a real treat and one of his finest hours, maybe even the finest hour. For This Year's Model, he had finally managed to assemble a stable backing band - the Attractions, dominated primarily by Steve Nieve on keyboards (oh, and Elvis Costello on vocals, guitar and songwriting, of course). They, however, had nothing to do with rockabilly, sticking to a far more modernistic, slightly paranoid brand of... err... 'soft punk', should we call it, with New Wave elements such as poppy hi-tech synthesizers thrown in, and so This Year's Model sees Elvis relinquishing the role of Buddy Holly for the new generation and climbing on the Clash pedestal instead (by the way, Mick Jones is featured as a guest player on one of the bonus tracks).

Does it work? Definitely. Now I wouldn't agree with diehards that claim there ain't no filler on the album. There certainly is, and mind you, Costello was never a Beatles-quality songwriter - most of his material sounds rushed and hurried in comparison with the elaborate, meticulous work of the Fab Four and certain other superior bands. I'm pretty sure, for instance, that at least half of these songs could have worked better with more thought-out arrangements. And is it just me or do Costello's acoustic demos sound just as good as the later band arrangements? Because his early demos of 'Greenshirt' and 'Big Boys', also present as bonus tracks, sound just as good to me as the later so-called "polished" versions on Armed Forces (and, by the way, we will disregard the fact that the main riff and vocal melody of 'Greenshirt' are ripped off from the Kinks' 'Powerman', because that's another story altogether).

Anyway, that's just me whining. Another - very minor this time - complaint is that it takes a bit of time to get used to Elvis singing this stuff; his voice obviously worked better on the rockabilly material of My Aim, but for a bouncy pop record you'd expect something, eh, nicer than his nasty whine which really annoys me at times. Off-key, overemoted singing on catchy pop songs? Hmm... Then again, sometimes it does work out to his advantage, particularly when the song needs some complaintive, depressed intonation, like 'The Beat', for instance.

But generally, this is an excellent record. Some people also complain about the lack of diversity, claiming that on this record Elvis and the Attractions simply burned the house down with their speed, anger, and paranoia, and never give us a chance to truly soak in everything. Well - the same accusation can be thrown at The Clash, but I think that for TYM this is but half-true. Sure there are speedy angry rockers, but there are also moderate, mid-tempo gloomy pop songs like 'The Beat' and 'This Year's Girl', and that bit of silly soul in 'Little Triggers', and the album never really comes across as monotonous.

The first five songs, in fact, could all qualify as patented Costello classics. 'No Action' greets us with a two-minute fury of catchy vocal melodies and pretty backing vocals set to a truly punkish rhythm (but remember that Elvis never sets his guitar tone too low or overabuses distortion, so don't expect any Ramones buzz on here). 'This Year's Girl' is Elvis' vicious attack on... no, not on girls, rather on the "commercial decline" of the modern world, replete with a groovy drum pattern, courtesy of the trusty Pete Thomas, and directly influenced by the Stones' 'Stupid Girl', but different. But I far prefer 'The Beat' and its wonderful end-of-the-world atmosphere, like a 'straightened out' Police, but with a deep human touch. The 'just the beat, just the beat' coda is simply wonderful. 'Pump It Up' with nasty sexual hints is the album's most gruff and menacing track - don't you love that gruesome cynical rap that Elvis is 'pumping out', heavily accentuated by Pete Thomas' smashing beat? Throw in an ultra-catchy riff in between the verses, and you get the album's most memorable track. And 'Little Triggers' is a groovy, but at the same time deeply emotional attempt at doing something more soulful, this record's 'Alison'.

The album loses a wee bit steam after that, with a couple of misplaced hooks - 'You Belong To Me' and 'Hand In Hand' don't seem to be so distinctive, but still, the former bops along nicely with infectious synthesizer bleeps and the latter... the latter bops along nicely with... with... whatever, I'm not good at describing this kind of stuff. But then another smash in the form of '(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea', this time directed at the excesses of film industry, and again, the rambling, 'broken' melody is ideally fit for Elvis' voice here, as the strain he demonstrates only helps to accentuate the tension and suffering of the 'protagonist'. Plus, it features a wonderful 'tension release' with that synth/guitar interplay letting out steam after each of Elvis' hyper-strained '...I don't w-anna g-go to Chelsea-ea-ea...'. And then there's the infectious, gracefully upbeat 'Lip Service', the corny, but hilarious reggae send-up 'Living In Paradise', and another unabashed, spiteful rocker in 'Lipstick Vogue' - all three at the top of Costello's game in each of the three genres (pop, reggae, rock). Unfortunately, the album ends in the dull and pointless 'Night Rally', one of Elvis' first songs dealing with Nazism (that theme would flourish on the subsequent record), but if you're smart and you got the Rykodisc reissue like me, this will definitely be not the end, because there are bonus tracks. 'Radio Radio' is the best of these, but like I said, I also enjoy the heck of Elvis' acoustic demos and I suppose you probably will, too.

The Court's Decision: this is definitely worthy. A 'justified purchase', as some advisors might say. Getting past Elvis' raspiness and the Attractions' paranoia, there is no return - you'll be forced to love this. With a few reservations, probably, but as far as pure, unadulterated, unhindered songwriting goes, this is Mr Costello's moment of true stellar glory; melodically, he would hardly ever top this.



Year Of Release: 1979
Overall rating = 12

New Wavey pop with a conceptual edge and a diversifying variety of various diversity. Gee, I hate the army too.

Best song: OLIVER'S ARMY

Track listing: 1) Accidents Will Happen; 2) Senior Service; 3) Oliver's Army; 4) Big Boys; 5) Green Shirt; 6) Party Girl; 7) Goon Squad; 8) Busy Bodies; 9) Sunday's Best; 10) Moods For Moderns; 11) Chemistry Class; 12) Two Little Hitlers; 13) (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?; [BONUS TRACKS:] 14) My Funny Valentine; 15) Tiny Steps; 16) Clean Money; 17) Talking In The Dark; 18) Wednesday Week; 19) Accidents Will Happen (Live); 20) Alison (Live); 21) Watching The Detectives (Live).

Fie on you, Elvis. See, this could be Costello's masterpiece - undisputed masterpiece, that is, since even in this form Armed Forces manages to garner more or less the same rating as This Year's Model - but somehow it isn't. Somehow? I know how! It's his singing, consarnit! On no other record does his singing constitute such a major throwback as on this one. Okay, so I could disregard that problem on the first album (do you need to have a good voice if you're a rockabilly guy?); it bothered me significantly on the second album, but I got over it (after all, it was more punk rock than anything, and do you need to have a good voice if you're a punker guy?). But Armed Forces is another huge step forward for Costello musically, as he plunges deep into the world of complex New Wave music, often forgetting angry rock for subtle poppy structures, and heck, if you're into mature pop, you need a good voice. Okay, so not everybody can have a good voice; but what actually bothers me more is that in more than a few cases Elvis drastically overrates his voice. Don't your eardrums nearly burst at his off-key croaky chanting in 'Accidents Will Happen'? Particularly in the stripped-down piano-only version presented here as a bonus track, where his ugly (or should I say 'intentionally uglified?' voice) isn't obscured by anything. Ugh, I nearly had a fit here. And what about the hilarious Nick Lowe cover that ends the album? It's almost as if Elvis tries to 'press' his voice down, falling on it with all his weight, but it still rebounds back and the produced effect is almost gross. (Then again, John Alroy did call that vocal 'outstanding' - so I guess it's all a matter of subjective tastes. Gotta root it out, gotta root it out).

One point off the rating because of that, please, and because some of the songs seem to be underarranged - I feel that a bit more slickiness couldn't have hurt this nearly-perfect album of New Wave/dance pop (and sure, some of these songs can easily fall into the category of 'dance pop', which is not necessarily a bad thing at all - some complain about the album being way too 'generic New Wave', but that's all right by me as long as the melodies are memorable). But now that I vented myself, I can state with equal ease that melody-wise, Armed Forces is not an iota worse than its predecessor. Thirteen songs on here, with a minimal amount of filler - okay, I have never understood where's that famous hidden hook residing in 'Big Boys', and a couple other tunes are a bit duller than the rest, plus, 'Chemistry Class' rather blatantly gives us a re-run of 'Accidents Will Happen', but everything else is classic, not to mention the bonus tracks on the new re-issue, which just might be the best bonus tracks on any given Costello album.

So what's up with the album? It's rather easy to see that it's a conceptual one, with Elvis selecting the Army as his primary goal and making it one of the most powerful anti-militarism statements since... well, since at least the Kinks' Arthur, I'd say. I wonder if the elephants on the cover are supposed to be a metaphor, and if yes, a metaphor for what? So far, the album cover has only induced me to misspell the title of the first song as 'Elephants Will Happen' a few times. Speaking of which, even despite the creeky crooky vocals, 'Accidents Will Happen' is a perfect pop number that leads us in with the trademark Costello feature - a short accapella start that leads in the band. And from then on, it's just one mini-triumph after another.

'Senior Service' is wonderful and boppy (isn't that ascending keyboard line a marvel?), but perhaps the best thing in it is the unexpected shift from soft and boppy to angry and raunchy, with Elvis rapping out the lyrics in the 'Pump It Up' tradition. Then there's 'Oliver's Army'. This one was certainly written under serious ABBA influence (Elvis himself stated that, so I'm not imagining things) - the opening pompous piano chords are pretty much lifted off 'Dancing Queen', but the song itself is not, although I think ABBA would make a good job trying to reproduce it. Hear that, snubby ABBA bashers? This band has served as an influence for more of your favourite artists than you could possibly imagine... 'Green Shirt', as I already mentioned earlier, rips off the melody of the Kinks' 'Powerman', but it's still a great catchy number that arguably superates the 'original'. And 'Party Girl' introduces Costello the 'power balladeer', with a heavy rhythmic beat and a thick, pounding rhythm guitar (not to mention more ABBA-esque sparkling piano lines) that give the tune a steady epic feel.

The second side kicks off with the spooky 'Goon Squad', the centerpiece of Costello's concept - a song written in the form of a paranoid letter written home by a soldier who complains that he 'never thought they'd put me in the goon squad'. Watch out for that arrangement! Do you hear the faint organs in the background? That's subtlety for you! Plus, it's the side that's most diverse - after that spookiness, you'll also get the weird waltz 'Sunday's Best', the irresistable robotic dance 'Moods For Moderns', the humble reggae of 'Two Little Hitlers', and, of course, that Nick Lowe cover, '(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace Love And Understanding?' Again, despite the forced vocals, it's a true Costello classic - booming, raging, epic, and oh so true. I mean, really, what's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding? I do wanna know that too, especially considering all those cretinic hippie-bashers ridiculizing 'peace vibes' everywhere. It's because of those people that Elvis had to put out Armed Forces, you understand. Keep it up, Mr McManus!

Whew, there's the bonus tracks, too. 'My Funny Valentine' is Costello doing accappella goth. That's either an unprecedented case of audacity or just kinky. You decide - I still can't. But the following four tracks are all minor delights which I won't mention one by one because I'm tired, plus there's a live rendition of 'Accidents Will Happen' that's atrocious, a live rendition of 'Alison' that's funny because the audience all goes wild each time Costello blurbs out 'my aim is true...', and a live rendition of 'Watching The Detectives' that's extended and experimental. Don't worry, the record is anything but boring.

Sure takes some time to get used to, though - I hated it at first listen, and I can easily see why some fans rate it as a slight fall-off from the level of This Year's Model: the hooks are less obvious, and the serious energy is replaced by a colder and subtler New Wavish approach. But oh boy, does it grow on you. It does it does it does. Give it a chance.



Year Of Release: 1980
Overall rating = 13

Now how come they constantly blast Mick Jagger for putting on blackface and this guy keeps staying clean?..

Best song: RIOT ACT

Track listing: CD I: 1) Love For Tender; 2) Opportunity; 3) The Imposter; 4) Secondary Modern; 5) King Horse; 6) Possession; 7) Men Called Uncle; 8) Clowntime Is Over; 9) New Amsterdam; 10) High Fidelity; 11) I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down; 12) Black & White World; 13) 5ive Gears In Reverse; 14) B Movie; 15) Motel Matches; 16) Human Touch; 17) Beaten To The Punch; 18) Temptation; 19) I Stand Accused; 20) Riot Act;

CD II: 1) I Stand Accused (alt. version); 2) So Young; 3) Girls Talk; 4) Human Touch (alt. version); 5) Temptation (alt. version); 6) Motel Matches (alt. version); 7) Clowntime Is Over No. 2; 8) B Movie (alt. version); 9) Girls Talk (alt. version); 10) Getting Mighty Crowded; 11) From A Whisper To A Scream (alt. version); 12) Watch Your Step (alt. version); 13) Dr Luther's Assistant; 14) Ghost Train; 15) New Lace Sleeves (alt. version); 16) Hoover Factory; 17) Just A Memory; 18) I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down (alt. version); 19) New Amsterdam (alt. version); 20) Black & White World (demo); 21) Riot Act (demo); 22) 5ive Gears In Reverse (demo); 23) Love For Tender (demo); 24) Men Called Uncle (demo); 25) King Horse (demo); 26) Seven O'Clock (demo); 27) High Fidelity (live); 28) Opportunity (live); 29) The Imposter (live); 30) Don't Look Back (live).

This entire album is a self-imposed penalty - after the infamous Ray Charles-related debauchery which nearly cost Elvis his hard-earned good reputation (I suppose everyone is already familiar with the story, so I won't get into details) he had to somehow state it loud and clear that racism and New Wave have nothing to do with each other. One possible way of demonstrating this could be to sing a duet with Michael Jackson, but upon careful consideration this was rejected, as the consequences of such a hazardous superposition of sonic waves were much too unpredictable and could involve, among other things, tornadoes, tsunamis, and the abolition of ethnic and sexual minority rights.

Thus a much less risky approach was chosen, the main point of it being as follows: Elvis would continue doing his usual thing, but this time the 'thing' would be made to sound like a soul/R'n'B album with echoes of Stax/Volt, Motown, and whatever else comes to mind in the 'cool black music' department. (No blues or jazz, though - not the kind of genres the Attractions would be ready to handle well). In order to accomplish that, some of the modernistic New Wave trends of the last two albums would have to be cut short, but, of course, Get Happy!! would never really pretend to be a full-scale imitation of classic American R'n'B all the same. It's still a Costello album first and foremost.

And it's good, because, in all honesty, if there's anything to let me down here, it's the "soul" aspect of the record. Or, to be more precise, Costello's singing in those moments when everything depends on the voice rather than on the music. The "squeaky door" aspect has always been a problem, but on Get Happy!! it's more than a problem, it's like a disease. In Elvis' own words, 'I can't stand any more of that mechanical grace'. In all honesty, it took me quite a few listens to get past the negative shock of the opening lines of 'Love For Tender'. It's phenomenal, yes, that Costello can take the style of Martha & the Vandellas and write a song almost every bit as good as 'Heatwave', but it's also moments like these that make me think he'd have been much better off as a backstage corporate songwriter.

Which is not to say that his singing is always atrocious, mind you. From time to time, he finds a perfect groove across which his phonations slide easily and gracefully, be it the human tenderness of 'Secondary Modern' or the intelligent melancholy of 'Clowntime Is Over'. And he also hits it on the head when the time is ripe for desperation ('Riot Act'). It just sort of frustrates me that, being endowed with what is definitely not the worst set of vocal cords in the world, he so frequently makes me believe the opposite. And I cannot subscribe to the philosophy that he's being 'special' with this approach. It was ugly on Armed Forces, it's even uglier now, and it's not artistic ugliness, it's just ugliness. Don't do it if you can't do it.

However, any complaining on my side stops short when we get down to the actual songs. Twenty of them, over the course of fourty-eight minutes, and this ain't the Ramones or Wire, either: not a single tune really flaunts its minimalism at the listener. They're just... short. Short, like a normal short pop single ought to be, like back in those times when you had, uh, 'Please Please Me' clocking in at 2:03 and no one ever complained about it being way too brief. Yet back in those days you also had, at best, 14 of them; with the current 20, it provides plenty of ammunition for the DJ in the radio ad tacked at the end of the bonus disc, including dubious 'pearls' like 'there are three kinds of people who like the album - people under 21, people over 21, and people who turned 21 during the record'.

I certainly will not go over each one of them track by track because it's one of those worst albums ever... for reviewing purposes, that is. What am I expected to do - comment upon the particular chord sequences and vocal hooks that constitute the primary focus of every song? Forget it. Just believe me when I say that the only track on here that still sounds completely hookless to me is 'B Movie', and even that one isn't really bad, it's just that it's "ska-funky" flavor, which is technically pulled off pretty well - the bass line alone is priceless - sort of bereaves it of general memorability. Everything else is at least interesting, and at best written so perfectly that... ah well, if not for the voice...

I do have to specially commend the Attractions for basically breaking their necks with the sole aim of becoming Britain's tightest, best-oiled, and most perfectly motivated four-pack ensemble of the moment, if only for that one particular year. Nick Lowe's production leaves a lot to be desired, with the sound being neither too rough nor too clean, but the band more than make up for it by sounding like they really really mean it. Bruce Thomas' bass is a joy to behold, and I'm not really Mr Bass Guy - but his lines on many of the tracks usurp the melody so boldly and rule it so wisely you'd think he was the leader of the pack or something. Listen to 'Love For Tender', for instance, which is sort of pop-punk in essence, but the bass is one hundred percent jazz, and so does the whole song become weirdly jazzy when you least expected it. Pete Thomas seriously gets into the DIY spirit, as if the idea of cramming 20 songs into one album actually converted into "we're going punk!" somewhere inside his head, and the result is the most energetic drumming ever captured on an EC record.

The most overwhelming presence, however, is unquestionably Steve Nieve's. His riffs, solos, textures, atmospheres are everywhere, and stylistically he pushes apart the limits of Armed Forces and shows that be it New Wave, Motown or traditional Britpop, it's all capturable with just a pair of hands and a pair of dusty keyboards. Elvis himself, on the contrary, steps back as far as playing is concerned - it's hardly a coincidence that he has his hands buried deep in his pockets on the front cover - and lets Nieve rule the world even tighter than he did on Armed Forces. And although I'm not really Mr Keyboard Guy either, I'm not complaining; in fact, I'm not even sure the opening riff of 'Clowntime Is Over' could have been theoretically played with more feeling on a string instrument.

Lyrically Get Happy!! is, as far as first impression goes, sort of a step back from the socially conscious sneer of the two previous albums: lots of these texts sound smart and educated but ultimately turn out to be of the usual girl-and-boy variety. Still, kudos to E. C. for still being able to find new unpredictable twists on the same old story and then again, the lyrics aren't this particular album's driving point. This particular album's driving point is, how do I say it? Exquisite brute force, well calculated spontaneity and sincerely faked energy. (And that's not denigrating, it's just to distinguish this from simply "brute force, spontaneity and sincere energy", which describes Motorhead).

Okay, highlights that should be in everybody's collection: 'High Fidelity', 'The Imposter', 'King Horse', 'Clowntime Is Over', 'Temptation' - all impeccable power-pop songs that show Elvis in firm command of the 'big sound', even if it doesn't really sound like Motown at all. But he really breaks away from that winning formula only once, with the demo-quality (and therefore self-produced) ballad 'New Amsterdam' where the keyboards are, for once, relegated to the background in favour of a soft, lulling acoustic guitar rhythm. It's probably not an acoustic masterpiece, but it's a very nice conclusion as far as side closers go. As for the 'authentic' stuff, he really 'goes Motown' only once - on an upbeat, vivacious rendition of Sam & Dave's 'I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down'.

It's also a lot of fun for 'classic rock' lovers to trace the guy's subconscious influences and all; for instance, the guitar break at the end of '5ive Gears In Reverse', which is so very much Keith Richards in his Aftermath period, or the frantic rock'n'roll of 'Beaten To The Punch' which does not differ much from the basic melody of 'I Saw Her Standing There', and I think there was a bit of Kinks ripping-off somewhere out there in the jungle, but I'm too exhausted to dive into it again and besides I've lost my pith helmet. But whatever be the case, there's so much real creativity out here that holding any of this against him would be the acme of ridiculousness.

It all culminates in 'Riot Act', the most delicious little bit that Elvis was wise enough to save for dessert - and knock you off your feet with one last punch when you were instead waiting for just one more harmless kick. This is the album's most soulful moment, yes, but also Costello's crowning vocal achievement as he accumulates enough bitter sarcasm and artistic desperation to get over his limits and make you stand in awe at the sound of his voice. A few additional, perfectly placed backup vocals complete the picture and provide even more epic flavour. The entire album, want it or not, gives the impression of superbly lightweight - but it is 'Riot Act' that completely turns the tables on that impression, much like 'A Day In The Life' does for many people.

In short (yeah yeah I know), I do not believe that there is a better album than Get Happy!! if you want to have a convincing audio illustration of the "Elvis Costello is a really talented son of a bitch" principle. And there's really not much more you can say about Elvis Costello, or is there?..

[The actual release I am reviewing is the recent 2-CD one, including a whoppin' 30 bonus tracks, but nobody except a pedantic Costello historian really needs more than just a few, namely, B-sides and select rarities from the epoch, such as 'Girls Talk' and 'Getting Mighty Crowded'. On the other hand, even if I'm the farthest person from a Costello historian, it was interesting to check out some of these early demos and witness how much more "soul" (and also "ska") it was initially intended to be - 'I Can't Stand Up', for instance, is three times as slow and 'passionate' as the final version and sucks quite drastically, and practically the same goes for 'Clowntime Is Over'. Whaddaya know - speed does matter.]



Year Of Release: 1981
Overall rating = 11

Very formulaic and monotonous for the Attractions, but just keep digging for the hooks...


Track listing: 1) Clubland; 2) Lovers' Walk; 3) You'll Never Be A Man; 4) Pretty Words; 5) Strict Time; 6) Luxembourg; 7) Watch Your Step; 8) New Lace Sleeves; 9) From A Whisper To A Scream; 10) Different Finger; 11) White Knuckles; 12) Shot With His Own Gun; 13) Fish 'n' Chip Paper; 14) Big Sister's Clothes; [BONUS TRACKS:] 15) Black Sails In The Sunset; 16) Big Sister; 17) Sad About Girls; 18) Twenty-Five To Twelve; 19) Love For Sale; 20) Weeper's Dream; 21) Gloomy Sunday; 22) Boy With A Problem; 23) Seconds Of Pleasure.

My Costello catalog has yet to grow, but I'm pretty sure that no other album in the Elvis legacy is actually more difficult to appreciate than this 1981 offering. See, after such high points as the New Wave-ish This Year's Model and Armed Forces, and then after the soul-ska-power-pop of Get Happy!!, Costello retreads to a style that could be called something like 'Basic Attractions', i.e. simple, undemanding bandwork with virtually no interesting or innovative ideas at all. The entire album is based on the band getting together and, well, getting it on. Which means they just hack away at their instruments without really bothering to make the music go in any particular direction - I can't even pinpoint the style they're using because it lacks any distinctive features at all. They try out different rhythms, for sure (all of them generic), but the instrumentation is so monotonous it's hardly existent at all: crucial emphasis is put on Steve Nieve's keyboards, and they quickly become tedious. And the guitars? They do nothing but provide some, er, 'musical' backup. It almost seems as if Elvis was just keen on penning lyrics and blurting them out this time, without paying attention to whatever surrounded his vocal workouts.

And to tell the truth, even the vocal workouts aren't all that hot. Much too often, it seems like Elvis is just getting out of trouble through exaggerated vocal modeling and pathos (and the band replies by making drummer Pete Thomas bash out on his cymbals as if the world depended on it). Needless to say, this creates a rather phoney feeling, and sometimes it stays with me to the very end, like in the case of the much overrated 'White Knuckles' - a song that has nothing going for it apart from a sloppy monotonous beat, or the filler bit 'Fish 'n' Chip Paper' (at least, that one has got the only guitar solo on the whole album), or the somewhat lame retro rocker 'Luxembourg', where the Gene Vincent-style echoey production can't really compensate for lack of ideas. In short, Trust obviously shows the Attractions on the verge of stagnation, and the public wasn't amused either, dropping the album off the charts rather quickly. No wonder Elvis had to undergo such a radical change of style soon afterwards.

Still, repeated listenings still bring out the power and intricacy of Costello's vocal melodies - and the album still gets a weak overall rating of eleven because more than half of the songs have at least something to make them stand out. It goes without saying, of course, that you have to grow yourself a real fondness for Elvis' 'clumsy' way of vocalizing and rough-going hooks to get through to the essence, so be prepared for numerous repeated listenings; I had to keep listening to this stuff for a whole week on end to break through, for instance.

The first side of the record qualifies in its entirety, apart from the misstep of 'Luxembourg'. 'Clubland' is a perfect introduction, powerful and pathetic and socially biting and so on - if your heart isn't tightly squeezed as Elvis wails 'they leave you half way to paradise, they leave you half way to bliss', you're probably a Kiss fan. 'Lovers' Walk' is one of the few musically interesting songs on the album, playing some cool tricks with the traditional Bo Diddley rhythms (Steve Nieve's piano impersonation of Bo Diddley is really something!). 'Pretty Words' has a really catchy vocal melody - in the traditional sense of the word, not the 'warped Costello sense' of the word. 'Strict Time' is the second musically interesting song on the album, sounding like something of a hybrid between calypso and Bo Diddley once again. And 'Watch Your Step' is clumsy, for sure, but kinda cute...

However, the very best of the bunch, and a true Costello classic, should be considered 'You'll Never Be A Man', the only song that impressed me from the very beginning. A complex structure, a beautiful classical piano introduction, a wonderful flow of the many sections of the song with incredible alternations of moods, and an equally incredible drive that beats all competition on the part of other songs from the album into the ground. Classic and classic again.

The second side, unfortunately, doesn't have as many memorable moments - songs like 'New Lace Sleeves' and the Squeeze member Glenn Tilbrook duet 'From A Whisper To Scream', often hailed as classics, both have good choruses (especially the dreamy, atmospheric chorus of 'Lace Sleeves'), but both of them would probably have worked better in the context of a better written song. 'Different Finger' is a strange attempt at country balladeering - predicting Elvis' 'country period'. It's not bad, but it's hardly something to wave your flag about. 'Shot With His Own Gun' is the highlight here (gloomy, almost pseudo-goth ballad), together with the dark, sarcastic 'Big Sister's Clothes', i.e. the second side is more attractive when it comes to softer material, which means either that Elvis really didn't have enough inspiration to write a sufficient number of rockin' tunes or that these rockin' tunes are actually so monotonous that it's an impossible task to properly evaluate the second side because your energy is completely spent on the first one. Whatever.

The bonus tracks on the Rykodisc re-issue don't help matters much - I think that 'Black Sails In The Sunset' is a very good song, but that's about it. What really bugs me is that Trust can in no way be called a 'global failure': it's obvious that Costello still had a lot of things left to say at this point, it's just that he didn't manage to find the correct way to say them. You also have to consider the liner notes, where Elvis states that the recording sessions for the album were a real mess, not to mention that many of the songs were older outtakes (and it seems like it, because the 'clumsiness' of some of the tunes really make them far more similar to the material on My Aim Is True than to anything that followed). Despite all this, Trust is a must: the lyrics have never been better, and, well, if you're a Costello fan, you'll hardly be bored with this stuff like I was for a very long time. It's just hardly essential.


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