Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Elvis Costello and the Attractions

  • Get Happy! [Columbia, 1980] B
  • Trust [Columbia, 1981] A
  • Almost Blue [Columbia, 1981] B-
  • Imperial Bedroom [Columbia, 1982] B+
  • Punch the Clock [Columbia, 1983] B+
  • Goodbye Cruel World [Columbia, 1984] B+
  • The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions [Columbia, 1985] A-
  • Blood and Chocolate [Columbia, 1986] A-
  • All This Useless Beauty [Warner Bros., 1996] Dud

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Get Happy! [Columbia, 1980]
This Stax-based twenty-song loss leader establishes not his fecundity but his fallibility--lotsa duds. I count maybe eight originals I'll remember half as well as the Sam & Dave obscurity, and n.b.: the Sam & Dave obscurity was the hit (U.K. hit, of course I mean). His rueful disavowal of "Knock on Wood" (in a dud) is no less impressive than his proud claim on "Time Is Tight" (in a keeper), and tropes and hooks abound--why deny lines like "You lack lust you're so lackluster" or "I speak double dutch to a real double duchess"? On the other hand, why bother digging them out? B

Trust [Columbia, 1981]
Who ever said he wasn't much of a singer? Was that me? No, I said he wasn't much of a poet--all wordplay as swordplay and puns for punters (one of which means something, one of which doesn't, and both of which took me ten seconds). But here he makes the music make the words as he hasn't since This Year's Model. This is rock and roll as eloquent, hard-hitting pop, and Elvis has turned into such a soul man that I no longer wish he'd change his name to George and go country. A

Almost Blue [Columbia, 1981]
Put this on the shelf behind Bowie's Pin Ups and Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll, which also seemed "important" when they appeared. Take it from me, EC fans: start with the Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace of Sin, then try 24 of Hank Williams' Greatest Hits, then George Jones's All-Time Greatest Hits: Volume 1, and Merle Haggard's Songs I'll Always Sing. Then start exploring. B-

Imperial Bedroom [Columbia, 1982]
I admit it--I love the lyric sheet. Helps me pay attention, though not always, and persuades me absolutely that "The Long Honeymoon" and "Kid About It" are as great as songwriting ever gets. But it also shores up my impression that he can be precious lyrically, vocally, and musically, and gnomic for no reason at all--in short, pretentious. And while I'm glad he's got soul, too often he invests emotion in turns of phrase he should play cool. B+

Punch the Clock [Columbia, 1983]
Without the sustained melodicism of Imperial Bedroom (first side, anyway) to impart the illusion of meaningful wholeness, this is adjudged a major letdown by Elvis's acolytes. But "Boxing Day" is hardly the first time one of his punderous constructions has failed not just to signify but to communicate. Most of this disparate collection (first side, anyway) does what he's always done--convey an elusive feeling that's half pinned down by the words because that's all the grasp he's got on it. And though the alternate versions of "Shipbuilding" (Robert Wyatt) and "Pills and Soap" (the Imposter) are indeed more gripping, their literalness does place his personal contortions in useful perspective. B+

Goodbye Cruel World [Columbia, 1984]
In these changing times it's good to know there are things we can rely on, so here's another solid if unspectacular effort from this thoughtful, hard-hitting, surprisingly tender singer-songwriter. Highlights include the lilting country cover "I Wanna Be Loved," the straight-to-the-point "Inch by Inch," and--who says there are no great protest songs any more?--"Peace in Our Time," which almost got him booed off Carson. B+

The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions [Columbia, 1985]
From "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" to "Everyday I Write the Book" and "The Only Flame in Town," this would seem the solution to anybody's Elvis C. problem--it consists entirely of songs you like so much you think you understand them. But from there to there is a long way. As Columbia knows, writing catchy doesn't make him a singles artist--for better or worse his LPs have gestalt. Including this one, I guess--it's programmed to flow, sowing confusion around your recollection of how past gestalts flowed. But never expect a perfect compilation from somebody who essays a perfect album every time out. A-

Blood and Chocolate [Columbia, 1986]
To pigeonhole this as just another Elvis C. (and the Attractions) record is to ignore the plain fact that he (they) hasn't (haven't) sounded so tough- or single-minded since This Year's Model. Like Little Creatures, it's a return to basics with a decade of growth in it, and until midway through side two, when the songs start portending more than they can deliver, it's so straightforward you think he must be putting you on. But he's just voicing his pain and the world's, in that order, as usual. When the two strongest songs on a pop record run over six minutes apiece, we're talking sustained vision. A-

All This Useless Beauty [Warner Bros., 1996] Dud