Elvis Costello’s recording career officially began forty years ago this past weekend, with the release of My Aim is True on July 22, 1977. Whether it changed rock music, or pop music, or pop culture, I couldn’t say. Cuz I wasn’t there. But it at least marked a watershed moment for hyper-literate rock fans who like their rock wordy and confrontational. “The reason that critics like Elvis Costello better than Van Halen,” observed idiot savant David Lee Roth, “is cuz they all look like Elvis Costello.”
Well, he’s not wrong. If you look like me and you see the dude on the cover of My Aim Is True, your first thought is probably, “Yeah, that’d be me if I wasn’t so ashamed to be this way.” Costello is my favorite singer and my favorite songwriter because he was never afraid to be a total fucking dork. His biggest hits were about the hypocrisy of fascism, the fascism of commercialism, the catharsis of writing, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Also “Alison.”
Not only that, but My Aim is True began a career that never let up. Costello had no wilderness years, no periods of reclusiveness or even rest. This motherfucker has released twenty-four studio albums in his time, not including soundtracks, scores of B-sides and outtakes, and collaborations with Allen Toussaint, Burt Bacharach, the Roots and others. And let’s not forget his contributions to classical music. And am I the only person who remembers his talk show from like ten years ago? The guy has done it fucking all.
To celebrate forty years of Elvis Costello, here are my top 5 favorite tracks of his.
Rules and Exemptions
So right off the bat I realize this is kind of shitty, but nothing from My Aim is True made my list. It’s an excellent album and you should totally listen to it if you for some reason haven’t already. But dealing with a catalog as stupidly massive as Costello’s, impossible choices must be made to narrow it down to five tracks. I suppose the only “too obvious” tracks in the mix are the singles, but Costello’s whole career has been so unintentionally uncommercial that even leaving out the singles seems unfair. The songs I suppose are his most well-known – “Alison,” “Pump It Up,” “Oliver’s Army” – didn’t make my list, although the latter would’ve easily been number six. “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” is also great, but it’s technically a Nick Lowe song, and as someone who loves Costello as much for his songwriting as for his musical and vocal gifts, it seems unnecessary here. All said, the singles didn’t make my list, with one notable exception. But Costello fans will see the reasoning, and newbs will be fans after hearing the first track on this list.
“Lipstick Vogue” (from This Year’s Model, 1978)
There is simply no rock song like “Lipstick Vogue.” That’s because there’s really no rock band like the Attractions, where Bruce Thomas’s bass and Steve Nieve’s virtuosic keyboards made a constant point of upstaging Costello’s barely-there guitar. And no song ever made a better argument for bass as a central instrument in rock music than this blistering number from the incomparable This Year’s Model. Bruce flies up and down the fretboard with such commanding fury that between his bass and Pete Thomas (no relation)’s drums, it’s hard to tell who’s trying to keep up with whom. And on top of it, this song contains some of Costello’s nastiest lovelorn invective: “Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor/You’ve got to cut it out.” OUCH!!!!
“Beyond Belief” (from Imperial Bedroom, 1982)
“Beyond Belief” is the first track on my favorite album of all time, and that alone would be plenty to qualify it for this list. But it’s also just so fucking weird. “Psychedelic” was never EC’s sweet spot, but those swirling keyboards and those seductive, nonsense lyrics take you to a place beyond anything the man’s done before or since. It’s a perfect leadoff track, building tension with muted guitar, mumbled lyrics, and drums that keep threatening and threatening until they finally break free and explode on one of Costello’s most legendary lines: “Charged with insults and flattery/Her body moves with malice/Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?” This song sets you up for all the stress and fear and anxiety and heartache of Imperial Bedroom, and for that reason it just makes me fucking giddy.
“The World and His Wife” (from Punch The Clock, 1983)
This, I concede, is a weird choice. The final track on the brasstastic Punch The Clock, “The World and His Wife” might seem a mere curiosity even to seasoned Costello fanatics. But when I was narrowing this list down, I just couldn’t shake this tune. That’s EC’s otherworldly genius for you: he’s such a maniacally perfect wordsmith that some of his best lyrics wind up pinned to buried album tracks by pure chance. This appears to be a song about incest – all that talk of kissing cousins and terrifying lines like “The little girl you dangled on your knee without mishap/Stirs something in your memory and something in your lap.” ICK!!! Perfect iambic heptameter, but fucking ICK nonetheless. All’s revealed in the bridge, when Costello has the gall to rhyme “someone else’s father” with “taramasalata.” Fucking diabolical. And it’s all set to the most exuberant horns on the entire album, bouncy and victorious and unrelentingly upbeat. Ridiculous. Stupid. I love this song.
“Veronica” (from Spike, 1989)
Maybe I’m cheating here, since this track is co-written by Paul McCartney, but that just makes it so much harder to resist. This might be Costello’s best pop song, with its simple riff and its bells and those perfect harmonies guiding the verses. And then that chorus – that chorus just attacks you. Out of fucking nowhere EC just starts screaming at you in minor chords about this girl who’s “gone to hide,” only for us to find that she’s hiding in an Alzheimer’s-riddled mind. Really, it’s a haunting vision of what becomes of all our earthly love affairs, set – as is his tendency – to a jaunty tune that’s a real gas at karaoke. (I’ve tried, it’s fun.) I love Costello’s indulgent side as much as anyone, but maybe this song is so awesome because it finds him throwing off his pretensions. No righteous anger, no classical or jazz or country burlesque – just a pop song with a sad story. And Paul McCartney!
“Episode of Blonde” (from When I Was Cruel, 2002)
Springing from the glorious mess that is When I Was Cruel, this is Costello’s best rant song. It was this or “Tokyo Storm Warning,” and while that song has the sexier beat, I love the nightclub filth of “Episode of Blonde.” The author all but spits this tale of a gossip columnist uncovering dirty deeds done in the dark, method-acting a narrator who salivates over the perversions of his betters. If Costello’s the most literate of great songwriters, this song demands examination as a case study in his eye for detail. There’s the “fire engine red that she left upon your cheek”; the dancer “pinned and fixed and fastened in a follow spot”; the suicide note that concludes, “Tell your other children not to do as I have done.” And to top it off the thing is just lousy with scalding one-liners: “She had the attention span of warm cellophane.” I mean, WHAT?!?! This song is one of the nastiest pop songwriters letting loose over a sleazy piano and Latin horns, tied together with a taunting (but still catchy as fuck!) chorus, so that all his righteous gifts are on full display. It’s terrifying and twisted and delicious, like the best music.
Did I leave some shit out? Did I get some shit right? Leave a comment or some shit!