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A Look at Elvis (Costello)

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Elvis Costello is very deservedly going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next Monday. Jon Friedman has an interesting profile in CBS MarketWatch:

    What separates Costello, who records for Vivendi Universal labels, from the pack is that he has endured so admirably. He has had a real career, which started when he began cutting 45s (yes, it was, sigh, long ago) back in 1976. He released his landmark debut album, “My Aim Is True,” in the fall of 1977 in the U.S. Costello has always tried to make interesting music, even when his musical experiments cost him opportunities to make millions instead of taking the main chance and sticking to the same musical style, album after album.

    Achieving longevity in the music business is, indeed, a rarity. It’s even more unlikely, perhaps, when you remember that Costello has never had a No. 1 album or single record (He hit No. 2 in England with the single release of “Oliver’s Army” in 1979 and was ever-so-briefly, a certifiable pop star).

    Costello’s trademark has always been making music on his terms. He has shifted joyfully from one musical form to another. He made his mark in the late 1970s with a loud, intense burst of organ-guitar driven music, characterized by such classic albums as “This Years Model,” “Armed Forces” and “Get Happy!!”

    Then he broke with his nervy image for a little while. Enamored of American country music, he even traveled from his base in London to Nashville during the height of the New Wave scene in 1981 and recorded an album of country music standards called “Almost Blue” with the Attractions. It was a daring, commercially disastrous move.

    In 1986, perhaps his greatest year, he released two brilliant albums. “King of America,” recorded in Los Angeles, featured acoustic guitar-tinged masterpieces made by Costello and L.A. studio musicians. “Blood and Chocolate” followed it and featured wild, bashing dance music made by Costello, back on a howling electric guitar, and the Attractions in London.

    In the fall of ’86, Costello toured the U.S. in small halls, with both groups of musicians in tow, and featured the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook.”

    It was actually a colorful wheel, which listed the titles of his songs. He invited audience members to come on stage and spin the wheel and select the songs. The concerts produced a lot of laughs and memorable music and Costello lost money by doing it.

    To this day, he continues to follow his muse.

Um, no. Frankly, Costello hasn’t come close to the glory of those first three albums ever since: a run through of his excellent 2-CD career retrospective The Very Best Of makes this very clear. Elvis did very well with last year’s When I Was Cruel, finishing in the top ten of the Critiquees, and his balls-out performance of the Clash’s “London Calling” at the Grammys was a hopeful sign that he can still rock with a vengeance.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.morethings.com/music/costello Al Barger

    Frankly, Costello hasn’t come close to the glory of those first three albums ever since

    Oh, Eric you are SO wrong. He has perhaps mostly not been as consistently pursuing specifically loud rock and roll beat music since the first five or so albums, but that’s something different.

    The King of America album rates high on the Elvis list. Many days I would pick Imperial Bedroom as his best album. All votes for Spike [his biggest American hit], however, will be counted, and The Juliet Letters album with the Brodsky Quartet runs right up there.

    In short, Elvis has released many great albums in an ever changing yet somehow consistent kaleidoscope of styles. You might personally be more attuned to the more narrowly defined “rock and roll” stylings more prominent in his early work, but that doesn’t mark his other work as being in any way inferior.

    Having seen him live several times, I will report that his most recent show was his best. Particularly, his vocal performances have absolutely gotten better with age. He was an outstanding singer in the ’70s, but today he can hold his own with any singer on the planet.

    Clearly he has chosen the right path in his career, trying new things. He’s made This Year’s Model already, so there is no need for him to keep making the same record again and again. Frankly, he’d look pretty stupid in his late 40s still playing the “angry young man” of the punk rock era.

    PS Lots o’ Elvis at http://www.morethings.com/music/costello

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom

    I’m going to agree on the disagreeing here: Elvis may not quite be the “angry young man” he was in 77, but damn, he’s certainly kept following whatever muse he feels like. Even his worst lows (ahem, Goodbye Cruel World) have good things on them. But there are things like Blood And Chocolate, King Of America, Brutal Youth, and even All This Useless Beauty that prove the man still has something unique and meaningful to say. Hell, I even enjoy Painted From Memory and Mighty Like A Rose because they are so different. Any artist who can so willingly jump from one style to another like that so confidently has my attention, at the very least. That he pulls it off so often is truly astounding – and that’s why he’s up there as one of my very favorite artists.

  • Eric Olsen

    I knew I’d hear from Al – I didn’t say there’s nothing good after the first three, just that they are his best. Certainly his “catchiness” became much less consistent after those, and I like catchiness most of all. I don’t care if he’s angry and all of that, I just want the great pop-rock songwriting – ick to the standards approach. People can rock at any age.