I still remember the song that made me an Elvis Costello fan. It was 1991, and I was a sophomore at NYU. My friend Chad was really into the song “Beyond Belief” from the 1982 album Imperial Bedroom, especially its lyrics:
History repeats the old conceits
The glib replies, the same defeats
Keep your finger on important issues
With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues
I’m just the oily slick
On the wind-up world of the nervous tick
In a very fashionable hovel
During this initial phase of his career, Costello and his backing band/collaborators, The Attractions, toured and recorded albums at an astonishing pace. Imperial Bedroom was their sixth studio album in as many years. And while Costello has done excellent work throughout his career, this is unquestionably his most fruitful period. Along with Imperial Bedroom early albums like This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, and Get Happy are my favorites out of all the 17 Costello albums I own.
Many of these classic early albums were recorded during short breaks in Elvis & The Attractions’ touring schedule. And they’re arguably better than later albums for which Elvis had a much greater luxury of time to work on them. This is of course a common occurrence. How many bands can we all name whose best albums were recorded on the fly?
In the past I’d thought there was something about the finite amount of time that focused the artist and produced the quality album. But after reading Graeme Thompson’s book Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello, I was reminded of the relationship between touring and recording. Being on the road all those nights allowed Elvis and the band to continually play the new songs and tinker with them until they were truly great. The regiment of playing virtually every night for months on end amounted to one long rehearsal.
And yet even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Elvis has continued to tour extensively and record prolifically. And while there are some very excellent albums to his later career (Brutal Youth and Mighty Like a Rose are my favorites), nothing matches his early work. What is that alchemy that musicians so often have ahold of early in their careers but can’t quite maintain? For every artist like Paul Simon who goes on to record classic albums in middle age, there are countless others whose attempts fail.
Reading Thompson’s biography has inspired me to listen extensively to Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ early catalogue from 1977-82. And these records just never get old. Costello is often associated with punk, and there are certainly elements of the aggression and sublime musical simplicity of that era in his early records. But Costello was never really a punk; his influences were far too diverse. Rather, with the help of The Attractions, punk made his good songs great, giving them newfound focus, economy and fury.
What’s also fascinating about early Costello especially is that he played lead guitar, yet this is undeniably the instrument you hear the least of. Instead, Pete Thomas on drums and Bruce Thomas on bass lead the way with a pulsating rhythm, which Steve Nieve’s keyboard then dances through while Elvis sings. I think that’s something that really sets apart Elvis Costello from punk bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols. Costello’s sound may not be as ferocious, but it’s brighter and more articulate. It cultivates spite instead of plain old anger.
Chances are Costello will never equal the mastery of his early days, but even a three-star recording by the man originally known as Declan Patrick MacManus will always be worth a listen to my ears. And the fleeting nature of almost any artist's pinnacle is all the more fascinating because it doesn't last.