Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Matt Melis celebrates 40 years of Elvis Costello with 10 albums all Elvis newbies should check out.
“Oh, I just don’t know where to begin,” laments a young Elvis Costello in the opening line of “Accidents Will Happen”, the first song on 1979’s Armed Forces. Nearly 40 years later, newcomers to the songwriter’s daunting catalog might feel the same. Costello falls into a strange category of rock star. If his name doesn’t quite ring familiar, then his iconic Buddy Holly spectacles and faithful pork pie hat usually peg him. In addition to putting out 30-plus studio albums and touring rigorously, he’s filled in for Letterman, hosted his own television show (Spectacle), cameoed in several films, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and even performed at the White House. And yet, your average American walking down the street — even the Alisons and Veronicas — probably can’t name a song by him. Ironically, Elvis Costello is more or less a household name (and face), but his music can’t quite claim that same ubiquity.
For those familiar with Costello’s work – including legends or collaborators like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, T Bone Burnett, and Burt Bacharach – one of the great mysteries remains how more people don’t know his catalog by heart, especially his inspired, out-of-the-gate string of biting records with producer Nick Lowe and eventually The Attractions. Forty-one years ago this past July, Costello released arguably the greatest debut in rock and roll history, My Aim Is True. Already a young father and husband, Costello’s recording process consisted of writing songs late at night sotto voce (as to not wake his family) and calling in sick from his job as a computer jockey processing invoices next door to a lipstick factory so that he could record. Six four-hour sessions and a new, more regal name later and Elvis Costello as we know him from that iconic album cover was born.
Four decades later, and with the swank, sophisticated Look Now out this week, we’re here to do our best to make sure newcomers to Costello’s music know exactly where to begin. So, scoot ahead and get the lowdown on 10 albums, including his debut, where Elvis Costello’s aim was indeed true. To quote the songwriter himself, “I hope you’re happy now!”
My Aim Is True (1977)
Miracle Man (Producer): Nick Lowe
Every Elvis Has His Army (Band): American country rock band Clover, sometimes billed in press materials as “The Shamrocks.”
Chained to family life and ignored by every label in London, Nick Lowe and new label Stiff Records finally took a chance on a young Declan MacManus, first as a songwriter and then eventually as a recording artist dubbed Elvis Costello. The genius of My Aim Is True stems from Costello’s deep love and knowledge of all types of music, instilled in him by his musician father. Each song rings of a familiar style that Costello adapts for himself, mixing these sounds with a preternatural sense of melody and lyrics drawing from the frustrations of daily life. From the pain of pre-record deal Monday mornings (“Welcome to the Working Week”) and stress of being a provider (“Miracle Man”) to regretting the girl who got away (“Alison”) and fumbling on the couch as the disturbing politics of the day unfold (“Less Than Zero”), Costello spins the mundanity of young married life into a punk record that actually relates to the average listener.
Truest Aim (Best Song): “Watching the Detectives” — Nothing on the telly, honey? How about a little reggae-flavored film noir? Fucking brilliant.
Poison Fountain Pen (Most Scathing Lyric): “Oh, I said, ‘I’m so happy, I could die’/ She said, ‘Drop dead,’ then left with another guy” from “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”
Elvis Says: “Something was supposed to be changing. I spent a lot of time with just a big jar of instant coffee and the first Clash album, listening to it over and over. By the time I got down to the last few grains, I had written ‘Watching the Detectives’. The chorus had these darting figures that I wanted to sound like something from a Bernard Herrmann score. The piano and organ on the recorded version were all we could afford.”
This Year’s Model (1978)
Miracle Man: Nick Lowe
Every Elvis Has His Army: The Attractions (Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas, and Bruce Thomas), in their studio debut
Outfit an acerbic young songwriter coming into his own with the greatest backing trio in rock history, and you get an album like This Year’s Model. From the opening seconds, Costello’s contemptuous snarl leaps off the record, as does the one-of-a-kind whirlwind of Steve Nieve’s emphatic keys, Pete Thomas’ rhythmic pounding, and Bruce Thomas’ pumping bass lines. Again, Costello’s musical dexterity allows him to start a rave on “Pump It Up” and mellow things to a slow dance a song later on “Little Triggers”, his irresistible melodies belying a far more cynical artist than a record ago. Maybe most impressive of all is Costello’s knack for spitfire wordplay on biting songs like “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and “Radio, Radio”. If a put-down comes and goes before anybody realizes, does it count?
Truest Aim: “Radio, Radio” — So much for a slow, cool-down denouement. Has a record ever ended on more of a starter’s pistol song than this?
Poison Fountain Pen: “Every time I phone you, I just wanna put you down” from “No Action”
Elvis Says: “For a brief, improbable moment the horrified children of Britain were offered magazines featuring pop pinups of myself and the most handsome band in the world, right alongside Debbie Harry and those other blonde beauties, The Police. Thankfully for all concerned, I was just about to screw it all up completely.”
Armed Forces (1979)
Miracle Man: Nick Lowe
Every Elvis Has His Army: The Attractions
If This Year’s Model saw Costello and The Attractions forging their sound, Armed Forces captures a band doubling down and daring to find even more hooks and intricate pop moments. For every model that came off the line firing like “Goon Squad” or the Nick Lowe cover “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”, there’s a “Big Boys” or “Party Girl” that builds into an unexpected, album-stealing moment or an “Accidents Will Happen” or “Oliver’s Army” that bears so many stamps of Costello and The Attractions that nobody else could’ve pulled it off. Because Costello is the only billed vocalist on many of his albums with The Attractions, it often goes overlooked how much his voice actually appears harmonizing, echoing, and interjecting. These songs are just absolutely worked and molded to perfection — naive politics and misadventures be damned.
Truest Aim: “Big Boys” — A march that keeps surprising itself, including a lyrical cataloging that slips effortlessly into one of Costello’s best vocals on the record.
Poison Fountain Pen: “But you tease, and you flirt/ And you shine all the buttons on your green shirt/ You can please yourself, but somebody’s going to get it” from “Green Shirt”
Elvis Says: “At the time, it seemed as if we were making an impossibly sophisticated leap from the sound of This Year’s Model, but listening now there are very few production devices that sit between the listener and the songs. The confidence and cohesion of The Attractions’ playing is the product of 12 months of intense touring. The sessions were not without dissent and tension, but we probably never had quite this level of consistent musical agreement again.
“This album was originally to be called Emotional Fascism. Two or three half-formed notions collided uneasily in that title, although I never would have admitted to having anything as self-conscious as a ‘theme’ running through the songs. Any patterns that have emerged did so as the record was completed or with the benefit of hindsight. Personal and global matters are spoken about with the same vocabulary; maybe this was a mistake. Betrayal and murder are not the same thing. The first of them only deadens the soul. Some of the highly charged language may now seem a little naive; it is full of gimmicks and almost overpowers some songs with paradoxes and subverted clichés piling up into private and secret meanings. I was not quite 24 and thought I knew it all.”
Get Happy!! (1980)
Miracle Man: Nick Lowe
Every Elvis Has His Army: The Attractions
Having spent the last two albums helping to introduce a more agitated type of pop music, Get Happy!! saw Costello and The Attractions turning back to the songwriter’s appreciation of R&B, an influence that saved many of the songs on this album from the rubbish bin. While some argue this shift came as a reaction to the “where do we go now?” success of Armed Forces along with an attempt to make amends for drunken racist comments Costello had made about James Brown and Ray Charles, the songwriter chalks it up to just following natural instincts and passions. In an era before sampling, Costello borrowed from his encyclopedic music knowledge of songs to find ways to rev up a handful of cuts that had previously seemed unable to turn over at all. Get Happy!! isn’t Costello at his best, but it shows a musical dexterity and curiosity that he’d put to great use throughout the latter half of his career working with collaborators as varied as string quartets, Allen Toussaint, and The Roots.
Truest Aim: “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” — Costello turned a slow soul ballad by Sam & Dave into an upbeat dance track. It’s one of the early hints of his miraculous genre-hopping ability.
Poison Fountain Pen: “Now you’re sending me your best wishes/ Signed with love and vicious kisses/ You lack lust, you’re so lackluster/ Is that all the strength you can muster?” from “Possession”
Elvis Says: “Much of the music that had come out in the previous three years appeared not to have any obvious precedent. The best of it happened in the moment, the worst of it could make minutes seem endless. I had begun listening again to the R&B records, filling in the gaps between the compilations of my teenage years, Atlantic’s This Is Soul and Motown Chartbusters Vol. 3, with stacks of Stax singles purchased in Camden Town. The first trips to America had yielded still more riches: whole albums by someone like Garnet Mimms, who had previously only been the name on a single track of a ‘various artists’ collection. Drawing on all of these sources, we set about re-arranging the songs using an R&B motor.”
Imperial Bedroom (1982)
Miracle Man: Geoff Emerick
Every Elvis Has His Army: The Attractions
Having broken their previous mold with the R&B-powered Get Happy!! (1980) and the mimicry of Trust (1981), Costello and the Attractions found themselves with the room to stretch out that comes when audiences no longer know what to expect. The result was Imperial Bedroom, a somewhat hidden gem in Costello’s sprawling catalog and arguably the most beautiful-sounding record he’s ever made with The Attractions. By this time, Costello was composing on piano rather than guitar, which leads to a more arranged sound in which Steve Nieve often leads the way on keys rather than accenting or underscoring other parts. “I’m the town crier, and everybody knows/ I’m a little down with a lifetime to go,” Costello sings on closer “Town Cryer”, a lyric that sums up the album’s general disenchantment and the songwriter’s struggle to believe that things might work out. It’s a moody record, sure, but there are definitely days that call for clouds instead of sunlight.
Truest Aim: “Man Out of Time” — A song of self-doubt and disenchantment looking for an escape to something better and also one of the best pop rock songs of the ’80s.
Poison Fountain Pen: “He’s got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge/ He stands to be insulted, and he pays for the privilege” from “Man Out of Time”
Elvis Says: “To some extent Imperial Bedroom was the record on which The Attractions and I granted ourselves the sort of scope that we imagined The Beatles had enjoyed in the mid-‘60s. We had engaged the engineering skills of the sonic, and somewhat unsung, genius [Geoff Emerick] behind many of those productions. The studio was booked for an unprecedented 12 weeks. If we needed a harpsichord or Mellotron, we hired one; if we required a 12-string acoustic guitar, marimba, or accordion, we went out and bought one; if we heard strings and trumpet and horns, we booked the musicians and Steve began writing out the parts.”
King of America (1986)
Miracle Men: The Coward Brothers (a.k.a. T Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello)
Every Elvis Has His Army: T Bone Burnett, The Attractions, and The Confederates (Tom Wolk, Mickey Curry, and Mitchell Froom)
In the mid-’80s, Costello took to the road several times as a solo act to pay off debts. Legendary musician and producer T Bone Burnett appeared on many of those bills, which eventually led to them recording King of America together. Originally, The Attractions had been slated to back Costello on half the album, not the one track (“Suit of Lights”) they ultimately survived on. Despite these tensions between Costello and his regular backing band, King of America shows the artist’s ability to step into a new style — a country-tinged acoustic pop — and appear a natural, something he hadn’t always succeeded at in his younger days (see: Almost Blue). A far cry from the agitated pop of his more famous early albums, character sketches and narratives like “Brilliant Mistake” and “American Without Tears”, respectfully, and the tenderly regretful “Indoor Fireworks” show that Costello still reigned as songwriting royalty. The album also hints stylistically at future ’00s albums like The Delivery Man (2004) and the Burnett-produced Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009).
Truest Aim: “Indoor Fireworks” — Often accompanied by a crack band that could drown out some of the finer details of songs, a track like this one shows how powerful Costello can be with little more than his voice and a guitar.
Poison Fountain Pen: “She said that she was working for the ABC News/ It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use/ Her perfume was unspeakable/ It lingered in the air/ Like her artificial laughter/ Her mementos of affairs” from “Brilliant Mistake”
Elvis Says: “The process of making any record is one of transformation from the first private inkling of song to the final mix of a recording intended for public release. Sometimes things get lost along the way.
“For this record, I began with a tight group of emotionally stricken songs that witnessed the slamming shut of a series of doors in my life just as I tumbled through another. Although the final album included a lot of things that I could not have imagined before my first trip to Hollywood, it probably became a little less concentrated and intense than I had first imagined.”
Blood & Chocolate (1986)
Miracle Men: Nick Lowe and Colin Fairley
Every Elvis Has His Army: The Attractions, with Nick Lowe, Jimmy Cliff, and Cait O’Riordan
Six months removed from the contentious King of America sessions, the relationship among Costello and The Attractions had largely disintegrated by the recording of Blood & Chocolate. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have a great album left in them. In fact, the rumbling, fist-meets-wall pounding of the songs probably acted as a stress reliever, Costello sounding overtaken at times as though his backing band is stalking his vocals. That sound comes from the entire group playing in a single room at live stage volume, an idea that not only fit the mood of the material but one that ensured a quicker session given the tensions. While this slug-it-out recording features more blood than chocolate and initiated an eight-year hiatus between Costello and the band, there’s a visceral, palpable tension that makes it both unique and beloved by fans.
Truest Aim: “I Hope You’re Happy Now” — After two previous attempts to record the song, its tone seemed to naturally fit the high-strung Blood & Chocolate sessions.
Poison Fountain Pen: “I hope that you’re happy now like you’re supposed to be/ And I know that this will hurt you more than it hurts me” from “I Hope You’re Happy Now”
Elvis Says: “This is a record of people beating and twanging things with a fair amount of yelling. It was recorded just over six months after the Hollywood sessions for King of America. The Attractions sole contribution to that album, “Suit of Lights,” had been made during our least successful and most bad-tempered days in the studio. The air of suspicion and resentment still lingered as King of America was released and we entered Olympic Studios, London, to make what proved to be our last record together for eight years.
“Nick Lowe was producing us for the first time in five years and together with engineer Colin Fairley, agreed to an approach that would get the music recorded before the band and I fell out completely. Olympic’s control room still contained some of the Bakelite switches and other arcane features left over from the days when it had hosted sessions by Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. The live room was big enough for a full orchestra, so we filled it with our live monitor system and played at something approaching stage volume. Although it commonly thought that high volume in the studio creates an uncontrollable sonic picture this, approach seemed to suit the material entirely.”
All This Useless Beauty (1996)
Miracle Men: Geoff Emerick and Elvis Costello
Every Elvis Has His Army: The Attractions, in their last studio appearance, as well as Aimee Mann (co-writer), Brian Eno (“gadgets”), and Paul McCartney (co-writer)
Seeing the light at the end of a dark tunnel doesn’t necessarily mean diminishing returns from Costello and The Attractions. Blood & Chocolate made their previous split almost worth it, and All This Useless Beauty founds its purpose despite it being both the last record on Costello’s Warner Bros. contract and most likely the final album with his longtime backing band. Not originally intended to be an Attractions album at all, it’s intentionally stripped and more delicate. And in doing that, rather than having a miscast band, the group turned in some of their most elegant performances to date. It’s not a disappointing record — rather one about disappointment. Recently turned 40, Costello turned away from songs about anger and focused on feelings of, in his words, “betraying principles, letting yourself down, and being diminished.” To appreciate All This Useless Beauty is to forgive a band for the sin of getting older and embrace their right to have grown up.
Truest Aim: “All This Useless Beauty” — A beautiful duet between Costello and a piano and a precursor to some of his future work alongside Steve Nieve.
Poison Fountain Pen: “Our brief acquaintance was such a mistake/ Now it seems more like a sentence/ Or something you always had to fake” from “It’s Time”
Elvis Says: “This record exists in the distance between an ideal and the reality. I’ve read that it is simply a collection of songs that I wrote for other singers – usually with the implication that this was a bad or inferior thing. True, I had the voice of certain singers in mind when many of these songs were composed. However, compared to the original blueprint, the final album contains only four previously recorded songs.
“If it was in any way an exercise, then it was one in creeping up on yourself, in order to trick out a song that would have otherwise remained elusive. It was the idealised version of a performer that caused me to compose. The content of the songs – the words and the actual music were of my imagining and I had always intended to sing the songs myself at some stage.”
Painted from Memory (1998)
Miracle Men: Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello
Every Elvis Has His Army: Burt Bacharach and orchestra
This project between such unlikely collaborators began as a joint commission to write a song (“God Give Me Strength”) for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart. After successfully penning the tune long distance over phone — Bacharach was in Los Angeles and Costello in Ireland at the time — the two decided to write more together the following year. The resulting album, Painted from Memory, is a fully orchestrated collection of melancholy reflections that challenges Costello’s vocals as never before and draws attention to the beautiful, intricate details within Bacharach’s seemingly simple compositions. The duo won a Grammy for the song “I Still Have That Other Girl”, appeared on late-night television, and even took the project on the road. For all the great songwriters Costello has collaborated with over the years, including Paul McCartney, nobody brought out the best in him as a lyricist and vocalist like Bacharach. To this day, Costello regularly performs the haunting “This House Is Empty Now” on tour to huge applause from audiences.
Truest Aim: “God Give Me Strength” — The sheer tug and pull between whispers and full-throated belting amazes and finds Costello not just making it through but commanding the most difficult vocal material of his career.
Poison Fountain Pen: “Maybe I was washed out like a lip print from a shirt/ See, I’m only human/ I want him to hurt/ I want him … I want him to hurt” from “God Give Me Strength”
Elvis Says: “The charm in songs that are lighthearted … that doesn’t mean that they are lightweight. And the deep songs are as deep as you get. And that doesn’t come without … that pleasant torture you have in the middle of the night.”
When I Was Cruel (2002)
Miracle Men: Elvis Costello, Ciaran Cahill, Leo Pearson, and Kieran Lynch
Every Elvis Has His Army: The Imposters (Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas, and Davey Faragher), in their studio debut
Dubbed “Costello’s return” by critics before the record even came out, the truth is that When I Was Cruel wasn’t the songwriter’s attempt to go back to his punkish, acerbic youth, though the album does feature some of his first straight-ahead garage rock songs in ages. More of a cycling, beat-oriented album that Costello composed on his own before bringing in backing, the album’s title cut and songs like “45” are actually an attempt to ground himself in the present and leave the pettiness of the past behind. Reloaded with The Imposters — The Attractions minus Bruce Thomas on bass and replaced by Cracker’s Davey Faragher — Costello roams from unabashed alt rock (“Daddy Can I Turn This?”) and folk pop (“My Little Blue Window”) to cyclical ramblers (“Spooky Girlfriend”) and kitchen sink collages (“Episode of Blonde”). Far from a return to his beginnings, When I Was Cruel sounds like an artist playing with all the toys he’s discovered while growing up.
Truest Aim: “45” — Costello pop meets fuzzy guitars and Attractions-reminiscent bursts. Put it on!
Poison Fountain Pen: “But if I’ve done something wrong/ There’s no ifs and buts/ ‘Cause I love you just as much as I hate your guts” from “Alibi”
Elvis Says: “The song [the title track] is about accepting that there is a perception of you, and the music is backward-leaning and forward-leaning at the same time. I started out with all of these furious ideas, and people somehow feel it’s a betrayal if you don’t represent that all the time. But life is more complicated than that. There are sitting targets in the song, and the narrator is like, ‘I could have assassinated these people, but it’s not worth it anymore’ [laughs]. It’s not worth what it takes out of your soul to go back down that road.”