Elvis Costello: The Lost Classics

Elvis Costello’s latest album, National Ransom, opens with the song of the same name; it’s an old-fashioned rock and roll song, fueled by wordplay, indignation, and Steve Nieve’s kitschy farisfa organ. It almost could have fit on one of Costello’s classic albums like Trust or even Get Happy!! But the pace changes pretty abruptly from there; the following song is a country number about a British cowboy. The rest of the album is devoted to stringband tunes, jazzy torch songs, R&B as it might have sounded half a century ago. The last song, “A Voice in the Dark,” could have been a staple of any nightclub in the 1930s.

I happen to think it’s a tremendous record, one of Costello’s best; all of the above, however, gives me a sinking suspicion that it will be written off, by a certain stripe of Costello fan, as so many of his latter-day albums are, for the simple reason that it isn’t another My Aim is True or This Year’s Model. Never mind the fact that Costello is a pop musician of almost unparalleled ambition, or that National Ransom is not just a more satisfying record than last year’s Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane, but even, I might argue, the culmination of Costello’s decades-long dance with American roots music.

I choose now to give Costello the “Lost Classics” treatment that I gave U2 a couple years back partially as a celebration of the excellent new album– which I’ll be writing a great deal more about, rest assured– but also because I happen to think that the second half of his career has been far more rewarding than it’s often given credit for being, something that National Ransom really exemplifies. I say this as a true apologist for the early, angry Costello; honestly, there aren’t very many rock and rollers who can boast as many stone classics as EC can– my favorites, among those earlier Costellos, are Get Happy!!, This Year’s Model, Trust, and My Aim is True; I also dearly love Almost Blue, but ah, we’re already getting away from the rock stuff, aren’t we?– but then, I’m not sure that there are any rock and rollers who have moved so expansively or so convincingly into the realms of classical and jazz, country and R&B.

This is the Costello who I love every bit as much as the angry young man of This Year’s Model: Older and wiser, still capable of gettin’ riled up and full of piss and vinegar but marked more by a genuine curiosity, a spirit of exploration and invention and a love of musical craft for its own sake that makes the back half of his career consistently fascinating, and frequently brilliant. These five records here are all culled from what I consider to be the second act of Elvis Costello– though one of them pushes that distinction a bit, and even those earlier albums betrayed a songwriter whose interests were too varied to stick with straight-up pub rock for very long. However one classifies them, if indeed one even feels that classification is necessary, these are five really terrific albums by any standards at all– not necessarily my five favorite Costellos, but five that always tend to remind me of how special he is, certainly five that could, I dare say, stand a reappraisal, as they are too often written off as minor works or diversions when truly they are anything but.

All This Useless Beauty
with The Attractions, 1996

I admit a bit of a sentimental bias here, as it was this fine set that made me a lifelong Costello fan; from here I worked my way backward into the vintage stuff and forward into the experiments, and in a way this album seems like a good doorway between the two; its footing is in rock, and the presence of the Attractions makes it feel somewhat akin to the earlier works (albeit much heavier on ballads, lighter on punkish mayhem), but it also shows a certain bookish devotion to the craft of songwriting that hints at the more overt forays into classicism and formalism that followed. (Again, I am being a bit reductionist; he was a craftsman from the very start, and what is Get Happy!! if not a devotion to form?)

I do have a lingering complaint about this one, which is that the production is perhaps just a tad too genteel where something more spontaneous might have impressed even further; I would have no objection whatsoever to Costello re-cutting this one with someone like Joe Henry to bring a lighter touch. But oh, please, keep every one of those songs; for my money, they are simply the best, as a bunch, that Costello ever recorded. That they were written at different times and for different occasions is somewhat astonishing, as they seem to fit together so well as a lovely, elegant, witty and wise account of grace and virtue, beauty and vice. Purely on the terms of its songwriting, I’d stack this against anything else Costello has done– often funny, sometimes melancholy, pissed off in just the right moments, heartfelt and timeless and utterly classic.

Painted from Memory
with Burt Bacharach, 1998

I don’t know that many albums make so compelling a case for craft as an exciting and involving thing in its own right; I know plenty of folks who don’t care for Burt Bacharach or his style of pop, but this collaboration is a pitch-perfect affair, Bacharach keeping things simple and Costello spiking the punch with typical wit and a dark undertow. These are melancholy pop songs that really tug at the heart, and I’d make a case for at least two of them as all-time Costello classics: “I Still Have That Other Girl” is simply priceless, and “God Give Me Strength” the epically anguished cornerstone on which this sterling collection is built.

North
2003

I readily confess that this inwardly-focused, downcast set of classically-minded pop and torch songs is a little difficult, but patience reveals that, here again, we have occasion on which to note just how elegant and deft this man’s craft is, and how what might have been a rather stuffy, scholarly affair is in fact quite moving as an album-length journey from darkness into light, from bitterness into romance. And it is not without its moments of instant gratification: Check the magnificent swell of “Still,” one of our man’s most ravishing love songs, and any arguments that these genre explorations are devoid of visceral pleasures immediately go out the window.

The River in Reverse
with Allen Toussaint, 2006

Another unexpected collaboration, and this one on very different terms, Costello’s partnership with Allen Toussaint (and Joe Henry) is a bewitching, one-of-a-kind record that succeeds wildly on a multitude of levels. As a politically-charged tirade against the Bush administration’s handling of Katrina, you won’t find many records more bristling with rage–in fact, 2006 Costello gives his younger incarnation a run for his money in the aggression department; as a celebration of the city of New Orleans and everything it represents, you won’t find many records that are more spirited, more full of joy.

It’s true that this one is set mostly on Toussaint’s terms– both musically and geographically speaking– but I’d make an argument for Costello as every bit the equal player here; some criticized him, upon the album’s release, for oversinging this stuff, and that might be true if this were intended purely as a straight Toussaint primer, but my feeling is that Costello’s handling of this material is pretty flawless; it’s forceful and angry where it needs to be, mournful elsewhere, joyful when it’s appropriate. He hammers it pretty hard, but this one isn’t about subtlety; it’s pure dynamite, and Costello brings much of the spark.

Momofuku
with The Impostors, 2008

We end with a curveball; this one, as much as anything Costello has done in the past fifteen years or more, is a Costello rock and roller in the classic sense– it’s loose and limber, full of ragged performances and songs that are built from puns and howling anger. But there’s more to it than that; Costello’s perspective hasn’t softened, but it’s widened, his anger tempered with compassion, self-deprecation, and empathy. The songs are more sophisticated than they were in the early days; clearly, his time spent outside the rock and roll club gave him plenty to absorb in terms of composition and craft, and there are traces of everything from country and folk to jazzy torch songs here. There’s a sense of inclusion– combined with the looseness of the performances– that make this one more appealing, at least to my ear, than the other rock albums he’s made semi-recently, certainly more than the relatively stiff When I Was Cruel and the uneven (but at times really terrific) The Delivery Man.

My argument for these records is not necessarily that every single one of them deserves a place in the highest echelon of the Costello canon, so much as that each of them individually, and all of them taken as a group, makes a clear call for the canon to be re-evaluated. I suspect that my argument for a canonical shake-up will only be made more aggressive once we come to National Ransom in earnest, early next month.

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