Anybody who knows me even a little bit knows that Elvis Costello is my favorite musician. Like, all-time favorite. His music is the soundtrack to my life, which you’d think would make for a dire and gloomy existence, but I’m a generally happy person. I just really really love his music.
And being such a big Elvis Costello fan, I am mostly bothered by the fact that nobody around me seems to like him. I’ll meet a few casual fans who know “Alison” or “Pump it Up”, but it’s very rare that I ever meet anyone with the same ridiculous degree of fandom. And, living in Argentina where he’s mostly known for his contribution to the “Notting Hill” soundtrack (a song whose title will NOT be uttered here), it annoys the crap out of me that nobody really knows what he sounds like.
So I’ve put together a bit of a starter kit. This is a 19-song “mixtape” (with 3 bonus tracks) that I feel is fairly representative of his body of work; one of the richest and most eclectic catalogs by any musician ever. If you’re not familiar with this man and his amazing work, or if you only know him as that awkward geek from the “Pump it Up” video, or if you LIKE GOOD MUSIC, please do yourself a favor and check out this compilation. You’re bound to find something you love.
Without further ado, I give to you… “Little Triggers: A Beginner’s Guide to Elvis Costello”.
1- “New Lace Sleeves” from 1981’s “Trust”. This wonderful little song has that stuttering drum line by the awesome Pete Thomas and sharp, biting lyrics about the disappointing realization that your achievements in life add up to nothing but disgruntled pillow talk.
Choice excerpt: “The salty lips of the socialite sisters with their / continental fingers that / have never seen working blisters / I know they’ve got their problems / I wish I was one of them”.
2- “Stella Hurt” from 2008’s “Momofuku”. The guitar line, nothing less than vicious, casts a less-than-sympathetic light on the story of the thirties swing and blues singer Teddy Grace’s fall from grace (no pun intended. You know, ’cause “Grace” is her last name). Cacophonous jam at the end that sort of just… stops.
Choice excerpt: “Then she saw those soldier boys throw their bonnets in the air / Self-made men would pledge their fortunes / and dream of her, and dream of her”.
3- “All the Rage” from 1994’s “Brutal Youth”. This is an album that’s filled with awesome pop gems, and this song is no exception. The “cheerful”-sounding melody does a good job of masking the fact that this is a bitter, hateful breakup song if there ever was one.
Choice excerpt: “Alone with your tweezers and your handkerchief / You murder time and truth, love, laughter and belief / So don’t try to touch my heart, it’s darker than you think / And don’t try to read my mind because it’s full of disappearing ink”
4- “Shoes Without Heels”, outtake from 1986’s “King of America”. One of the things I like the most about EC is how his (very vast) catalog is littered with hidden treasures. This is one of them. This beautiful little country/folk ballad about the complicated relationships between women and their johns (sort of? Think of The Police’s “Roxanne”, except for the sucking) was written and recorded for the King of America album, and then relegated to B-side status. That such a beautiful song could be so effortlessly written and essentially kept in a drawer for years is a testament to the extremely prolific type of songwriter EC is.
Choice excerpt: “Well, I thought that I was bigger than this town / I thought I’d stand the pace and go the distance / But she picked me and she used me up and then she put me down / And now I’m driven ’til I’m crying or I’m dreaming ’till I drown”
5- “God’s Comic” from 1989’s “Spike”. A portrait of a drunken comical priest shivering in fear at the prospect of meeting his maker in the afterlife. Great little details courtesy of T. Bone Burnett’s production– the xylophone arrangement is awesome, as is the hilariously paranoid-sounding harmonizing in the chorus.
Choice excerpt: “He said, before it had really begun / I prefer the one about my son / I’ve been wading through all this unbelievable junk and / wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys”
6- “No Action”, from 1978’s “This Year’s Model”. The term “punk rock” was applied to Elvis a lot in the early days, even though his music bore very little resemblance to punk bands of the time. If there is ONE album that sort of approximates the “punk” sound, it’s This Year’s Model. This song, the opening track, encapsulates the neurotic, jealous, borderline-mysoginystic tone of that album. Short, snappy, “punky”. Once again I have to comment on Pete Thomas’ drumming. Just spectacular.
Choice excerpt: “And I think about the way things used to be / Knowing you’re with him is driving me crazy / Sometimes I phone you when I know you’re not lonely / But I always disconnect it in time”.
7- “Episode of Blonde”, from 2002’s “When I Was Cruel”. This is one of two great EC albums marred by production issues. WIWC contains some of Elvis’ most clever, dexterious songwriting, but the sound is so unbelievably compressed and unnatural it’s literally painful to listen to, so this version of the standout track is a live rendition. A kind of deranged mambo-samba-rock and roll with borderline surreal lyrics that’s, at heart, about the one subject Elvis likes writing the most about: girls.
Choice excerpt: “I tried to keep a straight face but you know it never pays / He would stare into those eyes and then vacation in her gaze/ She was a cute little ruin that he pulled out of the rubble / Now they’re both living in a soft soap bubble”.
8- “All This Useless Beauty”, from 1996’s “All This Useless Beauty”. This is probably one of the most divisive records in EC’s career, partly because it was the first record after he got back together with his rock band (The Attractions), yet instead of full-on RAWKIN’ it was filled with mopey ballads. However, those mopey ballads turned out to be some of the prettiest, most melodic and understated songs he’s ever written, and the title track, a song about a woman out of love trapped in an unfulfilling relationship, is a prime example of that. As an aside, I always felt this is the Elvis Costello song most likely to be sung by a Disney character. I mean that as a good thing.
Choice excerpt: “She won’t practice the looks from the great tragic books / that were later disgraced to fail celluloid / It won’t even make sense, but you can bet if she / isn’t a sweetheart, a plaything, a pet / The film turns her into an unveiled threat”.
9- “Bedlam”, from 2004’s “The Delivery Man”. This blues-rock number is driven by Pete Thomas’ propulsive drumming and Davey Faragher’s off-center bass line. This is the song Eddie Vedder wishes he could write. A ridiculously clever analogy between modern-day immigration struggles and the story of Mary and Joseph roaming Bethlehem looking for a place to stay (get it? “Bethlehem”… “Bedlam”… heheh). The genius of Steve Nieve and his crazy theremin make this song ten times as demented.
Choice excerpt: “I’ve got this phosphorecent portrait of gentle Jesus meek and mild / I’ve got this harlot that I’m stuck with carrying another man’s child / The solitary star anouncing vacancy burned out as we arrived / They’d throw us back across the border if they knew that we’ve survived”.
10- “I’ll Wear it Proudly” from 1986’s “King of America”. I went through a period where I convinced myself this was the most beautiful song ever written. I’m not completely over that period yet. This simple, heartfelt, INTIMATE (yes, that is the word) folky ballad contains some of Elvis’ loveliest lyrics. It really is a love song at heart, a rare occurence in a career full of cruel words about ex girlfriends. The moment you realize you’ve found -the one- who puts the spark back into your excruciatingly dull life, you won’t stop singing the chorus to this song.
Choice excerpt: “Well I finally found someone to turn me upside down / And nail my feet up where my head should be / If they had a King of Fools, then I could wear that crown / And you can all die laughing because I’ll wear it proudly”.
11- “No Dancing” from 1977’s “My Aim is True”. I love the songs in EC’s first album. I really do. I think they’re extremely clever slices of pop rock. The one big problem? The band. See, this record was made before Elvis had put The Attractions together, and the band that backed him during the recording was a country-rock outfit called Clover. The story goes that Clover would then go on to become Huey Lewis and The News. Yeah, interesting bit of trivia there. But they make these songs sound like cheap Byrds knockoffs. It wouldn’t feel right making an Elvis Costello mixtape without including at least one song from this album, though, and I feel this is the one track that actually benefits from the Wings treatment. This angsty song of jealousy and female oppression (that is oppression by females, not of females) is a great little 2-and-a-half-minute pop song that only augmented (get it?) the Buddy Holly comparisons his bespectacled, scrawny appearance generated.
Choice excerpt: “He’s getting down on his knees / He finds that the girl is not so easy to please / After all these nights with just a paper strip tease / She’s caught him like some disease”.
12- “My All Time Doll” from 2009’s “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane”. Elvis is one of the most prolific songwriters well over 30 years into their career and has pretty much been releasing a record a year for a while now. To keep it interesting, these records deviate into different genres and styles– last year’s album was a country/bluegrass experiment. This is one of my favorite songs from that record, a dark, brooding song of jealousy and obsession– as you can see, not exactly uncommon theme in the work of Costello. The instrumentation in this song– the double bass, the mandolin, the fiddle, the accordian– is awesome. Plain awesome. Listen to it and you’ll see country/bluegrass songs don’t have to be about dead dogs and trucks.
Choice excerpt: “Every time I rant and rail, every time I try and fail / Every time I could and wouldn’t say that’s the end of it / When I stand and turn to leave you cool my brow and tug my sleeve / You’re my all-time doll”.
13- “Next Time Round” from 1986’s “Blood & Chocolate”. So 86 was a pretty big year for our boy, having released thegentle folk masterpiece that was King of America. But he wasn’t done there. Nope, before the year was over he summoned The Attractions and banged out this beautifully abrasive, punchy post-punk record of angry songs only a thirty-something divorcee could write. Reportedly Thom Yorke’s favorite Elvis album, “Blood and Chocolate” yielded some awesome tracks, and this– the closing song– is one of my favorites.
Choice excerpt: “There’s a secondhand emotion on a battered 45 / My tears were never enough to keep that girl alive / Now she seems contrived, will she make the change / the next time ’round?”
14- “Spooky Girlfriend” from 2002’s “When I Was Cruel”. This is another one of those WIWC songs damaged by the terribly compressed production, so I’ve included a live version. This song is as sexy as you could possibly imagine a song by a bespectacled middle-aged English geek could be. I always thought Timbaland should’ve produced this one. It’s probably too clever, though.
Choice excerpt: “I want to paint you with glitter and with dirt / Picture you with innocence and hurt / The shutter closes, exposes the shot / She says ‘are you looking up my skirt?’ / When you say ‘no’, she says ‘why not?'”
15- “Wave a White Flag”, from what’s commonly referred to as the “Honky Tonk Demos”, solo demo tapes recorded sometime around 1975, a couple of years before his first album. This is the oldest song in this compilation and it’s also the simplest. This snarky little ditty about s&m is equal parts Randy Newman and John Prine. Only a few of the tunes in this demo tape ended up in his first album, some dramatically rewritten.
Choice excerpt: “Beat me in the kitchen and I’ll beat you in the hall / There’s nothing I like better than a free-for-all / To take your pretty neck and see which way it bends / But when it is all over we will still be friends”
16- “Man Out of Time”, from 1982’s “Imperial Bedroom”. This is my favorite Elvis Costello tune, and thus, probably my favorite song of all time. The reasons for this have more to do with personal sob stories than I care to get into right now, but everything about this song is wonderful. It’s just a big, joyous burst of ingenious pop songwriting.
Choice excerpt: “Love is always scarpering or cowering or fawning / You drink yourself insensitive and hate yourself in the morning”
17- “High Fidelity”, from 1980’s “Get Happy”. Arguably the last of the “classic” EC period, this album ditched the punky edge and New Wave arrangements of albums past in favor of a Stax/Motown-influenced sound, resulting in some great songs with the best basslines Bruce Thomas ever produced. This bitter song of anger jealousy is one that, I feel, most benefits from the jumpy arrangement, and results in an accusative, spiteful and unbelievably catchy tune.
Choice excerpt: “There’s nothing that he can do for you / To shut me away as you walk through / Lovers laughing in their amateur hour”
18- “Still” from 2003’s “North”. A beautifully slow, delicate, contemplative album about losing then finding love, “Still” is a pretty divisive album in EC’s discography– some fans find it deliberately impenetrable and horribly self-indulgent, while others think it’s among his best work. I am of the latter inclination. I find this album works best when listened in its entirety and original track listing, as with Frank Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours”, it is a mood piece, an emotional journey, from lonely and desolate to unabashedly blissful.
Choice excerpt: “You were made of every love and each regret / up until the day we met”
19- “A Voice in the Dark” from 2010’s “National Ransom”. Yes, 2010. Last year, Elvis Costello along with T. Bone Burnett and an ensemble cast of musicians incorporating members of The Imposters and The Sugarcanes (as well as others like Levon Helm and Marc Ribot) put together one of the most exciting, rollicking and (why not) essential album of his career. This album was playful and fun, sad and wistful, angry and accusatory. The performances are a complete delight to listen to, the lyrics steeped in wordplay and historical references (without sounding like a Decemberists album). This song, the album closer, is a bit of bouncy fun with a wonderful melody and stopstutter rhythm. The album was fiercely promoted in radio shows and television performances… and it didn’t sell. EC now says this may be the last proper studio album he’s putting out. And though that’s sad if true, it’s also pretty befitting to end such a wonderful career on such a high artistic note.
Choice excerpt: “Kings reign beneath umbrellas / Hide pennies down in cellars / And money pours down and yet / Not everyone gets soaking wet”
BONUS TRACKS (if you can call them that)
20- “Lipstick Vogue” live from “Hollywood High” (1979)
21- “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected no.4” from “Mighty Like a Rose” (1991)
22- “Deportee” (demo) from the “King of America” sessions (1985)