Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Elvis Costello and the Attractions [extended]

  • My Aim Is True [Columbia, 1977] B+
  • This Year's Model [Columbia, 1978] A
  • Armed Forces [Columbia, 1979] A-
  • Get Happy! [Columbia, 1980] B
  • Taking Liberties [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-
  • King of America [Columbia, 1986] A-
  • Spike [Warner Bros., 1989] B
  • Mighty Like a Rose [Warner Bros., 1991] C+
  • The Juliet Letters [Warner Bros., 1993] Dud
  • Brutal Youth [Warner Bros., 1994] *
  • Kojak Variety [Warner Bros., 1995] Choice Cuts
  • All This Useless Beauty [Warner Bros., 1996] Dud
  • Extreme Honey: The Very Best of the Warner Bros. Years [Warner Bros., 1997] Choice Cuts
  • Painted from Memory [Mercury, 1998] ***
  • The Delivery Man [Lost Highway, 2004] ***
  • The River in Reverse [Verve Forecast, 2006] ***
  • Secret, Profane & Sugarcane [Hear Music, 2009] **

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True [Columbia, 1977]
I like the nerdy way this guy comes on, I'm fascinated by his lyrics, and I approve of his rock and roll orientation; in fact, I got quite obsessive about his two cuts on the Bunch of Stiff Records import. Yet odd as it may seem, I find that he suffers from Jackson Browne's syndrome--that is, he's a little boring. Often this malady results from overconcentration on lyrics and can be cured by a healthy relationship with a band. Since whenever I manage to attend to a Costello song all the way through I prefer it to "The Pretender." I hope he recovers soon. B+

Elvis Costello: This Year's Model [Columbia, 1978]
This is not punk rock. But anyone who thinks it's uninfluenced should compare the bite and drive of the backup here to the well-played studio pub-rock of his debut and ask themselves how come he now sounds as angry as he says he feels. I find his snarl more attractive musically and verbally than all his melodic and lyrical tricks, and while I still wish he liked girls more, at least I'm ready to believe he's had some bad luck. A

Elvis Costello: Armed Forces [Columbia, 1979]
Like his predecessor, Bob Dylan, this ambitious tunesmith offers more as a phrasemaker than as an analyst or a poet, more as a public image than as a thinking, feeling person. He needs words because they add color and detail to his music. I like the more explictly sociopolitical tenor here. But I don't find as many memorable bits of language as I did on This Year's Model. And though I approve of the more intricate pop constructions of the music, I found TYM's relentless nastiness of instrumental and (especially) vocal attack more compelling. A good record to be sure, but not a great one. A-

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

Elvis Costello: Taking Liberties [Columbia, 1980]
OK, twenty more songs, all B sides etc., how could it hold together, but some sentimental part of me is taken with its reflexive passion and half-finished serendipity--this detritus was the work of a punk fellow-traveler, and he'll be missed. "Girls Talk" and "Stranger in the House" and "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea" are more indelible than Get Happy!! at its happiest, and let me put in a word for all 1:43 of the previously unreleased "Hoover Factory," a punless piece of melancholy throwaway sarcasm that reminds us that he's in this because he's pissed, not because he's glib. 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-

The Costello Show (Featuring Elvis Costello): King of America [Columbia, 1986]
The Attractions always betokened Elvis's punk integrity--his commitment to collective creation, his rejection of the International Pop Music Community's expedient playing around. And the last time they were fully equal to his music was on This Year's Model in 1978. So finally he ditches them for T-Bone Burnett and a bunch of studio pros Steve Stills himself could get behind, one set anchored by Elvis I-approved L.A. rockabillies James Burton and Ron Tutt, the other by New Orleans-gone-L.A. drummer Earl Palmer and Modern Jazz-gone-L.A. bassist Ray Brown. And they all collaborate with their paymaster on that incommensurable token of collective creation, a groove. The wordplay is still too private, but the music has opened up: the careworn relaxation of Elvis's live vocals fits the uncompromised careerism of this groove as simply as 1978's raging tension did the angry young speed-rock of This Year's Model. Good show. A-

Elvis Costello: Spike [Warner Bros., 1989]
Paul Whiteman was a bigger star, and though my jazz friends may cringe, I doubt he was as good. But like Elvis C., he made the mistake of applying his refined taste to what he knew was the music of the future--hiring fine players, commissioning Ellington and Copland, emphasizing the danceability of an orchestra too grand to be called a band, he honored the classics. Who knows which of Costello's virtues will seem equally irrelevant 40 or 10 years hence--his obsessive wit? his precise arrangements? his respect for musical history? Unless I'm mistaken, though, he's doomed to be remembered as fatally self-conscious. And doomed as well never to convert the unconverted again. B

Elvis Costello: Mighty Like a Rose [Warner Bros., 1991]
Too often his pessimism sounds like not just bitterness but spite. He didn't take over the world, and is he mad--not only can't he make the personal political, he can't even make it popular. The Mitchell Froom-produced arrangements here are stuck between Tom Waits as Kurt Weill and Tom Waits as Jackson Browne--Randy Newman is beyond them. So as performed, the good songs are overblown tragedies, the bad ones overblown trifles. The best is the simplest because it's the simplest--"Playboy to a Man," love to hear John Hiatt rockabilly it. The most tragic is the chiliastic "Other Side of Summer," recommended to punk bands in the market for a song with a lot of words in it. And I admit "Invasion Hit Parade" almost makes the spiteful political. Its theory of life is that fascism has a great deal in common with songs you don't like on the radio. C+

Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet: The Juliet Letters [Warner Bros., 1993] Dud

Elvis Costello: Brutal Youth [Warner Bros., 1994]
fussy as Streisand, ugly as sin, touched with grace ("London's Brilliant Parade," "My Science Fiction Twin") *

Elvis Costello: Kojak Variety [Warner Bros., 1995]
"Strange"; "Payday" Choice Cuts

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

Elvis Costello: Extreme Honey: The Very Best of the Warner Bros. Years [Warner Bros., 1997]
"Tramp the Dirt Down"; "Hurry Down Doomsday" Choice Cuts

Elvis Costello With Burt Bacharach: Painted from Memory [Mercury, 1998]
sings Burt's chewy music lots better than Burt, not to mention Hal, who proves a healthy influence on his poesy ("Such Unlikely Lovers," "The Long Division") ***

Elvis Costello: The Delivery Man [Lost Highway, 2004]
The Impostors sound even more pissed off than Elvis, who seems less embittered as a result ("Button My Lip," "There's a Story in Your Voice"). ***

Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint: The River in Reverse [Verve Forecast, 2006]
Costello sings better than Toussaint, Toussaint exposes Steve Nieve as a klutz ("On Your Way Down," "International Echo"). ***

Elvis Costello: Secret, Profane & Sugarcane [Hear Music, 2009]
His pal T Bone and some Nashville cats help him simulate simplicity ("Sulphur to Sugarcane," "I Dreamed of My Old Lover"). **