All This Useless Beauty (Elvis Costello) – Album Review

"All This Useless Beauty" Was The Final Album Elvis Costello Cut With The Attractions

"All This Useless Beauty" Was The Final Album Elvis Costello Cut With The Attractions

Costello’s artistry was in permanent evolution during the mid-90s. Learning to write music at the start of the decade was the first of many events that led him to reconsider his position as a performer and a composer. In 1995 he released a disc devoted from start to finish to covers. The title of the album was “Kojak Variety”, and it felt more like a resume than anything else. There was only one true gem, namely the version of The Kinks’s “Days” (a little known non-album side that is often packaged as a bonus on reissues of “The Village Green Preservation Society” today). And in 1996, after having given us the chance to glance at those artists whose music spoke to him in one level or the other, Costello swapped sides and looked at how he spoke to other artists. He ran through songs he had written for others to perform, and decided to interpret them for what was to be the final studio album with The Attractions: “All This Useless Beauty”.

At the time, many critics did not get the point. The charge was that Costello was running out of steam, hence his decision to play other people’s material. Now, more than fifteen years later we know that Costello was not really running out of steam. Rather, he was accumulating steam for an unbridled return. He wasn’t empty – he was almost half-full by then. He let it all grow and grow inside of him, and when the time came he ventured forth again without breaking stride with albums like “The Delivery Man”, “Il Sogno” and “Momofuku”.

But that was to come later. If we situated ourselves back in 1996, what we had was a disc made up of songs written for others like “Complicated Shadows” (composed for Johnny Cash) and “All This Useless Beauty” (penned for June Tabor) along with collaborations like “The Other End Of The Telescope” (written with Aimee Mann, and originally issued on ‘Til Tuesday’s album “Everything’s Different Now”) and “Shallow Grave”, a leftover from the writing sessions with Paul MacCartney.

Surprisingly for songs that came from so many sources and that were meant for so many dissimilar destinations, the album had quite a pronounced sense of unity. Of course, some songs were altered in order to suit Elvis’ sound – “Complicated Shadows” was done as a loud rocker, and a countrified version was not to surface until “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane” saw release in 2009.

“All This Useless Beauty” had a predominance of ballads and mid-paced cuts. The exceptions were “Complicated Shadows”, the rockabilly-oriented “Shallow Grave” and the exciting “You Bowed Down” (grossly omitted on “Extreme Honey”). This stood in direct contrast with “Brutal Youth”, a disc that was defined by songs in which Costello revisited his roots. There is only one tune on “All This Useless Beauty” that could have fitted on the previous disc, namely “Starting To Come To Me”. But if the energy was what characterized “Brutal Youth”, a true refinement would be the key note of “All This Useless Beauty”. And that refinement didn’t just boil down to the actual performances being tamer.  Mitchell Froom was no longer acting as Costello’s producer. That was a defining factor. Continue reading

Brutal Youth (Elvis Costello) – Album Review

Released In 1994, "Brutal Youth" Has Become A Mandatory Listen To Fans Of Costello Both Old And New

Released In 1994, "Brutal Youth" Has Become A Mandatory Listen For Fans Of Costello Both Old And New

“Brutal Youth” was incontestably Elvis Costello’s best album of the ‘90s. It was no coincidence that it was his first full-scale collaboration with The Attractions since “Blood & Chocolate”, his 1986 record that yielded the deliciously turbulent “I Want You”.

Here, Costello is backed by his classic ensemble on five numbers; Nick Lowe sits in for Bruce Thomas in the remaining seven cuts, and Elvis himself plays bass on “Kinder Murder” and “20% Amnesia”.

The disc (issued in 1994) mostly apes his late ‘70s sound, and cuts like “Pony Street”, “13 Steps Lead Down”, “My Science Fiction Twin” and “20% Amnesia” wouldn’t feel out of place on his early trinity of albums. The emphasis is often placed on the melodic twists he was always revered for in his heyday, while songs like “Rocking Horse Road” recall the more polished MO of later albums like “Get Happy!!”.

The most new-wavish song is “Kinder Murder”, whose main riff actually treads grungier turf – it always made me think of The Posies at their most pissed off (“Everybody Is A Fucking Liar”). Continue reading

Mighty Like A Rose (Elvis Costello) – Album Review

"Mighty Like A Rose" Was Elvis Costello's First Album Of The '90s. It Had A New Collaboration With Paul McCartney Named "So Like Candy".

"Mighty Like A Rose" Was Elvis Costello's First Album Of The '90s. It Had A New Collaboration With Paul McCartney Named "So Like Candy".

I will never forget how much I resisted buying this album. The guys at the CD store had it for a long, long time. I was dead against getting my hands on another disc that had “Hurry Down Doomsday”. One copy of that song as part of the “Extreme Honey” compilation sufficed. Plus, the other songs I knew from “Mighty Like A Rose” clearly signaled that the CD stood as the highest peak within Elvis career as far as inventiveness that spilled into weirdness went.

Eventually, that was what made me shell out for the album. I just admire the man, and I had to see what did exactly happen for him to end up cutting a disc with a string quartet just two years later.

Funny enough, I did not get that answer. What I got was a CD that was (and still is) impenetrable. The level of musical chaos and the jumble of styles make for one of the most hostile records I have ever come across.

The production is certainly a major issue. Those who complain about the way Mitchell Froom produced Richard Thompson should give “Mighty Like A Rose” a spin in order to realize that they shouldn’t complain to begin with. But Elvis also had his own way behind the mixing board, so that he was as much of an instigator as anybody.

A sonic avalanche heralds the first cut, “The Other Side Of Summer”. Simply put, it sounds like The Beach Boys on every kind of substance you could ever imagine. Still, it is the one composition where an approach that is heavy-handed elsewhere works out. Whether that is because it is the first song out of the fourteen on offer and that it catches you while you are still fresh could be debated, though – when I listen to the song on “Extreme Honey” I am not that keen on it. Continue reading

The Juliet Letters (Elvis Costello) – Album Review

Elvis Costello Posing With The Brodsky Quartet

Elvis Costello Posing With The Brodsky Quartet

It might seem incredible, but it is actually possible to pinpoint the moment Costello’s career went into definitive artistic overdrive. The year was 1993, and he released a full-length CD devoted to chamber music where the instrumental backing was solely provided by the Brodsky Quartet.

Costello learned to write and read music right there and then, and the decade was to be his most adventuresome ever. And believe me, that is quite frankly saying an enormity if we look at his previous output. During the 90s and right into the new millennium he was to release an album of undiluted pop with 60s stalwart Burt Bacharach, a country album (The Delivery Man), an album dominated by ballads (All This Useless Beauty), an orchestrated work named Il Sogno… and the rock and roll albums he did release were not up to his usual standards (When I Was Cruel), as if he had just outgrown the genre. He was to become acquainted with it once again in 2008 with the release of Momofuku. But the previous decade was to be a true creative windmill on the other side of the grass. Continue reading

Goodbye Cruel World (Elvis Costello) – Album Review

The Front Cover

The Front Cover

Costello defines this album as his worst ever. After listening to it attentively, I dare say it was (up to that point in his career, 1984) the album that was approached the worst. Some of the material holds well under scrutiny, but the fact that the best songs are segregated on the first side does lead to an exhausting listening experience. Continue reading

Get Happy!! (Elvis Costello) – Album Review

The Retro-happy Cover Of The LP

The Retro-happy Cover Of The LP

Issued for the first time in 1980, Get Happy!! was Elvis Costello’s fourth album, and (to me) the one signaling the end of his purple years. Granted, his biggest hits were yet to come, but those were to be sporadic successes. The string of consecutive Top 10 singles ended here with his cover of “I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down)”. The sound of the album also marks the first detour from Elvis’ “classic” New Wave sounds, as some R & B inflections are very evident throughout.

The original LP has 20 tracks. Many last little more than 2 minutes, and some are even shorter than that. Absolutely nothing has a chance of getting on your nerves, and the one “long” track (in the context of the album, obviously) is the set closer. The song is named “Riot Act” and it is one of Elvis’ most balanced lyrics from the period. Content and form are perfectly interweaved, and the disc couldn’t finish on a higher note. Continue reading

My Favorite Elvis Costello Lyrics (Part 1)

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello

What a task it is to pick favorites from Costello’s lyrics! I will say again what I said when reviewing my favorite Keith Moon’s drum breaks – this is just a list of lyrics I truly connect with, or that hold some kind of thematic poignancy to me. I could have a list made up of 80 lyrics and I would still feel like I omitted a worrying amount of excellent lyrics from him. I will see how many installments I end up running as regards this topic. In the meantime, these are (in no particular order) 5 of his lyrics that I relate to the most. I chose some obscure songs to start, too, so as to avoid quoting the ones everybody knows to the bone.


“But if I’ve done something wrong there’s no “ifs” and “buts”
Cause I love you just as much as I hate your guts”

If someone asks you what a paradox is, do not give them a tome on rhetoric – give them this lyric. It is from the song “Alibi”, which is included on the “When I Was Cruel” album. That single song justifies purchasing it. Continue reading

Extreme Honey (Elvis Costello) – Compilation Album

Costello From Every Angle

Elvis Costello From Every Angle

This CD compiles Costello’s recordings during his tenure at Warner Brothers, a time of constant reinvention that resulted in some really good music, some disconcerting experiments and overall timid performances on the charts. The CD has 18 tracks, and every album minus “Kojak Variety” (a collection of covers released in 1995) is represented.

The one song you might be familiar with is “Veronica”, co-written with Paul McCartney along with “So Like Candy”. The song was incredibly successful and it received heavy airplay when it was released at the tail end of the 80s. It has Elvis on a very accessible pose, granted, but I feel that without the McCartney connection it would have shared the fate of most of his late day compositions: respected by critics, accepted by fans, revered by a few, and ignored by the masses. Continue reading

The Very Best Of Elvis Costello (Single Disc Edition) – Compilation Album

The Front Cover

The Front Cover

I am reviewing the single disc edition of this 1999 “Best Of” album. It is the one readily available in South America, and it is actually quite reminiscent of other Costello anthologies that summarize his years with The Attractions like the one that was released in 1994 by Rykodisc.

Out of 20 tracks, only 6 do not feature this classic band. They are “Watching The Detectives” and “Alison” (from Elvis’ debut, where he was backed by a band named Clover), “Good Year For The Roses”, and his Bacharach collaboration “God Give Me Strength” (the key tune of the 1996’s movie “Grace Of My Heart”, and the recipient of a Grammy Award). Likewise, the elegiac “Indoor Fireworks” (with Costello backed by “The Confederates”, a band featuring Mitchell Froom) is included. The final non-Attractions song is “She”, Costello’s rendering of the best-loved Charles Aznavour song about the duality of love. The song was a very big hit in South America – Costello is always requested to perform it when he tours these latitudes, and the song is found in countless love compilations sold here to this day. Continue reading

Elvis Costello – General Introduction

Elvis Costello. His Real Name Is Declan MacManus.

Elvis Costello. His Real Name Is Declan MacManus.

When discussing songcraft with the bands I work with as a lyricist, one recurrent question I am asked is “Who are these lyricists you look up to?”. I usually answer: “It depends”. That is, the art of crafting songs can be analyzed from the structural point of view, and also from the perspective of the actual content of the composition. If we were to be objective, we would agree that what is said matters as much as the way it is actually being said. That is, form and content go hand in hand – one should not stand out at the expense of the other.

I know three composers that keep everything balanced and whose message is always conveyed in the most memorable fashion of all. I have already discussed two of them (Richard Thompson and Andy Partridge), and it is with great pleasure that I now introduce you to Mr. Elvis Costello.

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