Diving back into Elvis Costello. I’m a fan. I’ve collected most of what he has released even though I know you are supposed to only like his late-70s and very early-80s work. After that its diminishing returns, right? Well – I’m not so sure.
You see I listened to When I Was Cruel a few weeks back. For the first time in a while. I reckon it’s a really decent album – nothing close to a dud track on it, it flows well, the songwriting and performances are strong. I’m not saying it holds a candle to This Year’s Model or Armed Forces but it’s pretty good. It was released in 2002, which is, depending on where you get off the Costello bus, either 22 years, 20 years or at least 16 years too late.
Costello fans are a funny bunch. There are those who like the first four albums – and the first four only. There are others who extend to the first covers album (and first foray into country) and on to Imperial Bedroom – maybe even Punch the Clock. And there’s another group that is happy with everything up to and including King of America as well as Blood & Chocolate; basically the first decade of Elvis Costello’s career.
This is not me trying to make a case for any of these albums stacking up with the best of that incredible first decade by the way, but it seems unfair to draw a line under an artist that has offered so much more than just a handful of spectacular records.
Costello cops a lot of abuse – I’m not really sure what for. Is it for not making albums as good as some of the best albums ever made? Is it for not repeating himself? I’ll agree that there’s been one too many crossover jazz/classical/New Orleans-styled funk/R&B attempts. There’s been the Bacharach, the piano jazz album, the ballet, the classical/pop crossover album with Anne Sofie von Otter and the collaboration with Allen Toussaint.
It’s easy to mock Elvis Costello as being a One-Man Arts Festival but at least he’s not sitting on his laurels.
Here’s a guy who knows all about his hits – and still delivers them when he plays live (this concert DVD is awesome) – but is trying to not repeat himself; chasing the muse, attempting to deliver something (at least vaguely) new each time.
The common criticism is that he meanders off into albums like North (I also checked this out again recently – really enjoyed it but I’ll acknowledge that this is one for the deep fans only) and when he does produce something rock-related it can never live up to the best material from that first decade. Well, I thought 1994’s Brutal Youth was strong, 2002’s When I Was Cruel was decent. The Delivery Man from 2004 was really good – a strung-out collection of near-unhinged alt-country. And 2008’s Momofuku was another grower. In fact it was about as good as it gets in terms of coming close to the fire of The Attractions from 30 years prior, without falling into sounding like a lame wannabe repeat.
Costello manages to be both an albums artist and an anthology artist. Back in the day he pumped out the singles and even today, to cherry-pick post-1987, you might not find a heap of good singles, but you’ll still be able to collect and create a compilation of really great songs.
He’s written at least two dozen songs that I think are up there with anything by any of the great pop songwriters. And another two dozen that are better than many of the regularly named greats. He’s a witty lyricist. And he manages to do a lot with what he’s got as a musician. He’s deceptive actually. Clearly Costello is beyond competent as a guitarist and pianist – certainly as a songwriting musician. His guitar playing in particular. Just cos you don’t find him on a list of the “greatest” doesn’t mean that what he’s doing isn’t always just right for the songs he makes.
So I reckon he’s done remarkably well to cover as much ground as he has. And when people call him on stretching himself thin I think they’re actually – most often – mistaking an artist attempting to stretch wide, calling it thin because his work today cannot measure up to the great work in his past.
We don’t expect Paul McCartney to beat The Beatles; we accepted Bob Dylan for over 20 years when he offered nothing in return. Neil Young can still rock out and still break your heart with his sad acoustic ditties but he’s not pushing new ground. Bruce Springsteen’s discography is solid but it still contains more duds than Elvis Costello’s. And if you look at two disparate artists who nailed the first decade of their performing/writing careers, Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder, who either repeated themselves ad nauseam to diminishing returns or completely ran out of steam then I think the later career of Elvis Costello is unfairly maligned in comparison.
I have been lucky to get to speak to EC twice – the first time was around the release of National Ransomv – a pretty great record that seemed to just disappear. The second time was when he had just collaborated with The Roots.
I absolutely loved Wise Up Ghost and just when it was seeming like we might get any new Costello – it was the longest break (and remember there was a memoir and a health scare in that time, plenty of touring too) he returns with Look Now. A simply fantastic collection of songs, his best in an age. Even if you’re one of those “first four albums only” types you could check in on Look Now and feel like – finally – he’d released a fifth album of major consequence. That’s better than most ever manage in their careers. But remember to look in the gaps – apart from Goodbye Cruel World, which I really think is a stinker – there’s something great on each and every album. An embarrassment of riches.
You can support Off The Tracks via PressPatron