Of all the musicians who emerged in the wake of punk in the late 1970s, Elvis Costello perhaps has the richest back-catalogue. Musically literate and stylistically restless, in some ways Costello had little in common with the punk movement; his lyrics are dense and filled with in-jokes and obscure references. But in other significant ways he fitted in perfectly; young Elvis Costello was angry, and he’s hardly a polished vocalist or guitarist.
Costello started his career with a trilogy of stripped back, angry albums: 1977’s My Aim Is True, 1978’s This Year’s Model, and 1979’s Armed Forces. The first was recorded with bar band Clover, while by his second record, Costello had recruited a virtuoso backing band, The Attractions. Drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Bruce Thomas, and keyboardist Steve Nieve provided nimble and energetic backing for Costello.
This early trilogy is generally Costello’s most acclaimed era, but personally I prefer his more musically expansive work in the early 1980s. In 1980 Costello made the first of many unexpected career moves, recording a full album of R&B for Get Happy!! He followed up with the eclectic Trust, an album of strait-laced country covers on Almost Blue, and Imperial Bedroom, where the sophisticated arrangements recalled The Beatles’ studio-based albums.
I don’t really appreciate Costello’s commercially oriented work with Langer and Winstanley, but he came back strongly in 1986 with two new albums; King of America is a country-flavoured of originals, while the raw Blood & Chocolate recalls his 1970s’ work with The Attractions.
I haven’t covered Costello’s career past his first ten years. He rarely worked with The Attractions after this time; his relationship with Bruce Thomas became strained, especially after Thomas wrote a book of thinly disguised anecdotes about life on the road (Costello is referred to as “The Singer”), although Nieve and Pete Thomas continue to work with Costello as The Imposters. But there are a ton of gems in those first ten years, and any fan of literate, melodic rock music would be advised to become familiar with albums like Imperial Bedroom and Armed Forces.
Ten Favourite Elvis Costello Songs
New Lace Sleeves
Sleep of the Just
You’ll Never Be A Man
Man Out Of Time
You Little Fool