Elvis Costello E-Book Available Now

Well, folks, it’s available now. For those of you who enjoyed the Elvis Costello countdown on this blog, the e-book of the list is now for sale via Endeavour Press in London (does tha make part of “London’s Brilliant Parade?” Here is the link:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

As you’ll see when you click on it, the price is right, so buy it and you can keep my humble opinions for posterity. And stay tuned for more where that came from in the weeks and months ahead.

 

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Wrapping Up Elvis Costello…and What’s Next

Wow. I am overwhelmed by the response that the Elvis Costello list has garnered. I don’t think I realized going into it the level of passion and loyalty that his fans possessed. It has been so much fun interacting with all of you and going back and forth about which songs deserved a better ranking and which I might have overrated and so on and so forth. To a person, all the people who reached out with their opinions via the comments section of this blog, through the message board of the Elvis Costello fan forum, or through e-mail, they have all been knowledgeable, insightful, and respectful. Thank you all who did comment in that manner, and thanks to all who just read along.

Throughout the countdown, many have mentioned songs that they felt deserved to be on the list but didn’t make it. I’ve tried to reply as much as possible about whether these specific songs were close to making it or why they didn’t. I will take the time now to address a few specific songs which got a lot of buzz.

In my other lists, I was surprised by the amount of response to certain songs being left off, but I knew going in that my omission of “I Want You” was going to be the controversial one here. This is a subjective exercise, obviously, but I ultimately felt that the song carries a pretty low degree of difficulty compared to the Costello songs which made the list. I understand what Elvis was doing with the song and he achieves that goal of creating that uneasy gray area where desire turns to obsession and then turns even darker. That said, I think he achieves that a few lines into it and the rest feels like overkill. The best Elvis Costello songs couldn’t have been written by anybody else. I don’t get that feeling about “I Want You.”

Another big bone of contention was my omission of some of the ballads from King Of America. Let me start by saying that King Of America is one of my Top 5 Costello albums, and the reason for this is I feel it achieves a cohesive mood better than probably any of his other LP’s. “Sleep Of The Just” and “I’ll Wear It Proudly” are integral to this cohesion and, thereby, to the success of the album. On their own, they sometimes feel like individual songs taken out of a longer piece, even though there is no narrative involved with King Of America. When I hear them individually, I enjoy them for their tender music and the affecting refrains (especially “Sleep Of The Just,” which just missed) but the lyrics in the verses don’t resonate in the same way without its cohorts on the album.

Off the top of my head, here are some of the songs which came real close to inclusion, and bear in mind I’m likely to forget some:

“Miracle Man,” “Radio Sweetheart,” “Hand In Hand,” “Living In Paradise,” “Big Tears,” “Clowntime Is Over,” “High Fidelity,” “Hoover Factory,” “Worthless Thing,” “Poisoned Rose,” “Suffering Face,” “Crimes Of Paris,””Satellite,” “All Grown Up,” “This Sad Burlesque,” “The First To Leave,” “Clown Strike,” “Rocking Horse Road,” “It’s Time,” “World’s Great Optimist,” “Tart,” “Alibi,” “Radio Silence,” “Still,” “Ascension Day,” “The Sharpest Thorn,” “Go Away,” “Jimmie Standing In The Rain,” “Church Undergound,” “A Slow Drag With Josephine,” “That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving.”

That’s about 30 off the top of my head that I hated to leave off (along with “Sleep Of The Just” and “I’ll Wear It Proudly.”) Which brings me to my next point: How deep the Costello catalog is. I’ve been a fan for a quarter-century, but I never listened to his albums all at once like this, so it surprised even me when I calculated the sheer number of great songs this guy has written. Simply staggering. And I hope that’s what casual fans will take away from this project.

Now for some good news: I just received word today that this Costello list may live on in another form. Nothing definite yet, but stay tuned and I’ll give you more details when I get them.

As for what’s next on the blog, I’m going to take a brief break, two to three weeks probably, before starting another list. Since I have to get ready to go back to my full-time job in a few weeks, it will be hard to do a list from scratch, so the next order of business will be rehashing a Radiohead countdown from a website for which I used to write. That will just be a matter of editing and adding the songs from The King Of Limbs, so I could have it up and running quick before I decide my next artist (and I’m taking suggestions. I might not listen to them, but I’m taking them.)

I hope this post answers some of your questions about the Costello countdown, and feel free to ask me specific ones, to which I’ll attempt to reply. Again, thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for all the kind words and for being such great fans. Talk to you all soon.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #6: “When I Was Cruel No. 2”

Elvis Costello has always been a guy who’s been able to maintain some mystery about his private life. As a result, the manner in which his fans perceive him is mainly derived from the persona he creates in his songs.

His acknowledgment and subverting of this perception of him is what gives “When I Was Cruel No. 2” its particular potency. The song invites listeners to envision the real-life Costello living within the bounds of its fictional world. Once they’ve made that leap, the songwriter toys with their expectations and makes them rethink any assumptions they’ve made about his personality based on the nature of his work.

Coming on an album (2002’s When I Was Cruel) that was billed as a return to his rock roots after years of forays into other genres, “When I Was Cruel No. 2” is actually anything but rock. It’s reminiscent of the ambient music in some 60’s art-house film, the strange sampled female voice adding a hint of exoticism. Elvis’ guitar ambles about the scene like a panther getting ready to pounce (recalling the guitar part in “Watching The Detectives,”) but the music never uncoils to release the tension, settling instead for a trance-like rhythm that sounds like a tango for the undead.

The song portrays Costello as the entertainment for a society wedding, and from that vantage point he casts his unblinking gaze on all of the humanity before him. It’s not somewhere you would expect him to be: One of the world’s finest musicians performing for drunken magnates and their vapid wives. (I don’t know if Elvis is one of the many musicians who plays corporate gigs for big bucks, but, if he ever did, he must have been taking notes for this song.) From the boat show model-turned-fourth wife to the bitter exes to the gossiping hangers-on, there isn’t one of these tortured souls that escapes the notice of the bandleader.

Up until the final verse, it’s still possible to imagine that the narrator is just a wedding-band musician, since he makes no references to himself. That’s when a combative newspaper editor recognizes him from way back in “’82.” His reminiscences with the singer reveal how their respective fortunes have been transformed: “‘You were a spoiled child then with a record to plug’/’And I was a shaven-headed seaside thug’/’Things haven’t really changed that much’/’One of us is still getting paid too much.'”

The chorus is where Costello upends our expectations. As the narrator surveys this scene full of joyless dancers and tarnished wealth, you might expect Elvis, given his past excoriations of such subject matter, to either revel in their misery or dismiss them altogether. Instead, he seems more dejected then anything else as he mewls out the refrain, “But it was so much easier/When I was cruel.”

It’s a fascinating line, suggesting that a younger version of Elvis could have blown through that scene and endured it all only by inflicting some damage himself. By contrast, the older version regards it all with weary heartbreak, perhaps because he can identify a bit too closely with all those sad eyes looking up at him on the bandstand.

“When I Was Cruel No. 2” can be enjoyed simply based on its unique music and Costello’s impressive lyrical feats. It gets even better though when you consider those features in conjunction with an appreciation of the song’s fascinating portrait of the artist as a man older, wiser, and no longer able to sneer away the pain.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #15: “New Amsterdam”

In 1982, Bruce Springsteen famously released his home demos as an actual album (Nebraska) when attempts to capture the songs with a full band lacked the power of the rough recordings. Although it wasn’t a whole album’s worth, Elvis Costello had a similar experience with the song “New Amsterdam” a few years earlier, and the end result was similarly captivating.

Costello recorded a demo of the contemplative track that would make its way onto Get Happy!! at a studio on London, playing all the instruments himself, even drums. He then took it to the Attractions, who tried to recreate the demo in full-band form. That attempt can be heard on the bonus disc of the Get Happy!! Rhino reissue; it’s clear from that evidence that something was lost in the translation and that Elvis made the right choice in putting the original on the album.

Maybe the reason that the one-man demo worked so well, and it does have a dreamy, melancholic vibe to it, is because the song is about one man’s loneliness. In particular, it’s the kind of loneliness that’s borne from being heartbroken while living in an unfamiliar city. “Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile,” Costello sings, capturing the feeling of being an Englishman in New York.

It was a stroke of genius to use the archaic name of New York as the song’s title, since it really emphasizes the strangeness of the narrator’s situation. Without a familiar face to whom he can tell his troubles, the guy becomes a stranger even to himself: “Twice shy and dog tired because you’ve been bitten/Everything you say now sounds like it was ghostwritten.”

Get Happy!! definitely features a Motown vibe on many of the songs, but Costello wisely knew enough not to get too carried away with some sort of unifying sound all the way through. Otherwise, an engaging pop ballad like “New Amsterdam” might not have gotten the green light. It’s inclusion makes the album a richer experience.

I can’t think of an occasion where Costello has written a song specifically about the trials and tribulations of life as a rock star on the road. Those songs, even when done well, tend to put up a barrier in front of the listener because the experience behind the song is specific to the performer. By contrast, anyone who has ever felt like they have no connection to the comforts of home can appreciate “New Amsterdam,” a lovely place to visit vicariously via Elvis’ pretty song even though you would never want to live there.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #24: “How To Be Dumb”

Full disclosure: I have never read The Big Wheel, Attractions’ bassist Bruce Thomas’ thinly-veiled account of the life of a rock star on the road, so I can’t speak to its merits. The only thing I can be sure of is that Elvis Costello didn’t like it too much. I don’t know if it was because Thomas was breaking some sort of rock star omerta or if he told tales that weren’t true or if he just painted an unflattering picture of the man he referred to in the book only as “the singer.” At least it inspired “How To Be Dumb,” which, while not a particularly good thing for Thomas, is certainly a good  thing for Elvis’ fans.

“How To Be Dumb” might be the most vituperative song on an album, Mighty Like A Rose, that’s full of venom. Indeed, it’s all the more potent for being an intensely personal attack. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it before: Never cheese off an eloquent songwriter, because they’ll always get the last word in on a record and it will usually be the definitive stroke of the back-and-forth argument.

The interesting thing is that Costello marries the song to a very Attractions-like arrangement, almost circus-like in its ebullience. Larry Knechtel plays the Steve Nieve role, adding frenetic piano fills, while Pete Thomas plays the Pete Thomas role, beating the tar of the drums. Most fetching of all is the little saxophone riff, played by Roger Lewis, that really brings the chorus to life. The music is triumphant, as if Elvis is signalling that he’s coming out on top of this tete-a-tete.

Costello paints Thomas as someone who is enjoying the kudos he’s receiving for his “brand new occupation” (and, it should be noted, the book did get some good reviews.) “And beautiful people stampede to the doorway,” he sings, “Of the funniest f*#!er in the world.” Yet he also makes it clear what he thinks of Thomas’ authenticity: “There’s a bright future/For all you professional liars.”

As the song goes on, the attacks get nastier. When you parse through all of Costello’s verbiage, you find out that he essentially calls his nemesis a gutless, jealous poseur. In the final lines, he sounds almost gleeful as he dehumanizes his former bassist: “Scratch your own head, stupid/Count up to three/Roll over on your back/Repeat after me/Don’t you know how to be dumb?” That might be the most damning insult of all, as Elvis insinuates that his longtime bandmate can’t even get stupidity right.

It’s too bad that things had to go down this way, but the two patched things up enough to play together again for a few albums before the separation became permanent, so that’s something. Hey, sometimes people don’t get along, and sometimes it deteriorates pretty badly. It’s just that, as public figures, this personal disagreement played out in front of the reading and listening audience at large.

This song sounds like it was cathartic for Elvis, and, as a listener, you can substitute your own personal enemies and get that same kind of satisfying jolt of musical revenge. “How To Be Dumb” turns out to be just the opposite of “You’re So Vain,” in that nobody would want this song to be about them.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #38: “That Day Is Done”

Earlier in the list, I talked about “Mistress And Maid,” an excellent song co-written by Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello that got away from Macca a bit when he brought it into the studio. Luckily, he had no such problems with “That Day Is Done,” which was impeccably rendered on Flowers In The Dirt, the Paul album which takes its title from lyrics in the song. McCartney renders the song with the mixture of grandeur and sorrow that the lyrics demand.

We are also lucky that Costello provided his own version of this heartfelt song on the extra disc of the All Useless Beauty reissue. In that take, Elvis is accompanied by legendary session man Larry Knechtel on piano and the inimitable Fairfield Four on backing vocals. This version, especially with those amazing backing vocalists on board, really drives home the song’s gospel influences.

“That Day Is Done” feels like the duo’s attempt to replicate some of the somber majesty of the early recordings of The Band, especially the Dylan-penned numbers “Tears Of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released.” The open spaces in the music, the gospel influences, the lyrics which come from the perspective of a man who can’t keep his promise to his love because death has intervened, all of that recalls the mystery and magic of those first two Band albums.

Costello delivered a moving performance of this song at a tribute concert for Linda McCartney in 1999. Such painful occasions are why songs like this are written, because they pinpoint the myriad emotions inside of us better than we could ever possibly articulate them ourselves. That kind of beautiful sadness is generally the province of a master songwriter; “That Day Is Done” came from two of those masters, so the results are doubly heartrending.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #44: “Fallen”

Of the many twists and turns that Elvis Costello has taken following his muse, North is one path taken that feels like a missed opportunity. Elvis has proven throughout the years that he can write heart-wrenching ballads and elegant love songs on a par with some of the 20th-century’s finest composers, and by that I mean not just all composers, not just those contained within the rock idiom. The songs for this album are restrained and subtle, which may have been exactly what Elvis was attempting but still doesn’t make for the most invigorating listening.

North works best when listened to all at once as an atmospheric backdrop to other activities. In that context, it spins by amiably and the listener can enjoy the luxurious melodies and the tasteful accompaniment without putting too much work into it. But, on a song-by-song basis, it lacks the kind of animation and spunk that Elvis has brought to just about every other project with which he’s been involved. I listen to the album once in a while, but the fact that it fades into the background behind whatever else might be occupying my time makes it rare among Costello albums.

The once song that, for me, truly stands out is “Fallen.” Which might seem odd because it might be the most muted track on the album. Elvis sings in hushed tones for much of the track, as if afraid to let his emotions go unchecked. The instrumentation is relatively spare as well, but that works in its favor considering that Steve Nieve is on board. His timing is just right; the spaces he leaves in between his piano chords speak volumes. The orchestration makes a quick appearance in the second half of the song and then falls away, leaving the lonely narrator to his current state of bemused isolation.

Keeping with the less-is-more theme, Costello’s lyrics contain relatively few words but manage to say a whole lot. The narrator walks through a beautiful fall scene and muses on the passing time, how he once ran roughshod over everything is his path but now sees that the tables have turned on him: “But now I clearly see how cruel the young can be.” This change of fortunes was brought on by the collapse of his ideals: “And I believed that life was wonderful/Right up to the moment when love went wrong.”

The title of the song can be viewed many different ways. We can fall in love or fall from grace. I feel like this character is somewhere in between the two extremes, wounded from past experiences but starting on the road to recovery, a little tentative but with hope tugging at his heart. “Fallen” captures this nether region in achingly lovely fashion, a song that can’t help but breaking out from the pack despite all of its restraint.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)