Cruel, but not to be kind
FFWD Magazine

Posted by on 10 May 2004

Elvis Costello infuriates fans on a regular basis

"Elvis Costello is such an asshole." Village Voice critic Douglas Wolk’s introductory sentence to his 2002 review of Costello’s When I Was Cruel typified a sentiment about the singer-songwriter’s recent music shared by scores of his long-suffering fans. Upon its release in April of that year, Cruel was publicized as Costello’s highly anticipated return to rock. Since 1994’s Brutal Youth – his long-awaited (and, as it happened, final) reunion with his ’70s/’80s fighting unit the Attractions – Costello’s records have documented a constant quest for new modes of expression.

Amidst collaborations with Brill Building legend Burt Bacharach, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and opera singer Anne Sophie von Otter, Costello’s inceptive image as rock’s most articulate angry young man fell away – and so, too, did the mass audience it brought him. Detractors thought him capricious – or, worse, a traitor. But Costello’s audience, for the most part, should be old enough to know better – they wouldn’t want to be denied the right to grow beyond their adolescent selves any more than the artist himself would. When I Was Cruel might have temporarily placated the fans for whom it will always be 1979, but that album was a stopover, and Costello has already departed for other destinations. North, his autumn-slated album, will be a collection of ballads arranged for solo piano and orchestra. While you either weep or rejoice in reaction to that, here’s a look at five of the more interesting moments in Costello’s extensive career of brilliant detours and straightaways:

ELVIS COSTELLO This Year’s Model Columbia, 1978; Rhino Released less than a year after My Aim is True, his 1977 debut, Model not only reinforced the suspicion that Costello might be the most individual and striking songwriter of the punk era, but also confirmed that his melodic and poetic resources were deep and broad enough to transcend the already flailing phenomenon of punk. The Attractions – making their recorded debut with Costello here – faultlessly balance formidable skill and reckless abandon. Standout tracks: "(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea," "Lipstick Vogue."

ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE ATTRACTIONS Get Happy!! Columbia, 1980; Rykodisc A crisis of confidence spurred Costello and the Attractions to reconsider their approach to this album. Fortified by a stack of the bandleader’s Stax and Motown records, Get Happy!! became an R&B party record featuring 20 brisk tracks that exhibit – arguably better than any of his early records – Costello’s frightening prolificacy. Of course, its jolly surface features harbour as much wrath and as many neuroses as ever. Standout tracks: "Love for Tender," "New Amsterdam."

THE COSTELLO SHOW King of America Columbia, 1986; Rhino A much more fulfilling and, perhaps, more honest demonstration of his love for country music than 1981’s Almost Blue (a controversial set of cover versions), King of America might be perceived as Costello’s declaration of independence from commercial expectations (and from the Attractions, who edgily sat this one out). Loose and stripped back, its 15 songs evoke the Los Angeles of the early ’70s or the dust bowl of the ’30s rather than the London of the ’80s. Standout tracks: "Brilliant Mistake," "Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood."

ELVIS COSTELLO/THE BRODSKY QUARTET The Juliet Letters Warner Bros., 1993 Costello’s first long-playing venture into territory completely removed from rock. Unsurprisingly, few followed him. Based on the true story of a Verona professor who wrote responses to a series of anonymous letters addressed to ‘Juliet’ (of Romeo and Juliet), this is Costello’s most unashamedly romantic record. The Brodsky Quartet proves a good foil for the singer, sensitive to the limitations of his range yet compatible to his weariness of conventional pop melodies. Standout tracks: "I Almost Had a Weakness," "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe."

ELVIS COSTELLO AND BURT BACHARACH Painted From Memory Mercury, 1999 The very idea of Painted From Memory is seemingly too great to bear: two master songwriters combining their disparate strengths to create some new kind of wonderful. Yet despite some magnificent moments, the pair prove awkward bedfellows. Costello’s trademark verbosity often sounds like a belligerent, unwanted guest upon Bacharach’s placid terrain, and the singer’s voice simply isn’t built for the flights of melodic fancy that even Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick found difficult to negotiate. Standout tracks: "Tears at the Birthday Party," "God Give Me Strength."