A lot of words have been written about Elvis Costello (the artist himself added a few hundred thousand in his recent autobiography Unfaithful Music) but little has been said about just how melodic his music can be. His early years, roughly the period from his 1977 debut My Aim is True to 1980’s Taking Liberties, are crammed with hooky numbers. “Blame it on Cain” is my favourite from the debut, with its leisurely swing and Steely Dan guitar lines, but frankly it’s a pretty close contest with just about every other track from the album. My Aim is True is a miracle of synthesis, taking inspiration from an impossible range of sources: Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, mainstream seventies rock, the emerging punk scene, and arguably Costello’s father, Ross MacManus, a well known singer in the UK. The record also represents an interesting artistic negotiation between Costello as an emerging singer/songwriter and his amazing pick up band, the American pub rock group Clover. Blame it on Cain
Things changed dramatically with album number two, now backed by Costello’s defiant new band, the Attractions. This Year’s Model charges out of the gate, its stripped-down, in your face rock and roll delivered with a crisp ferocity unmatched by any of Costello’s other recordings. This is the critics’ favourite album for a reason. I like it less than the debut but still love it, particularly the catchy lead guitar line on “You Belong to Me.” Elvis dials back some of the attack on his third album, Armed Forces, letting the listener in on some impressive aural landscapes that illustrate his talent for arranging his music. This is captured nicely on the single, “Accidents Will Happen.”You Belong to Me
Get Happy!! and Taking Liberties were both released in 1980, the latter a compilation of B-sides (released as Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How’s Your Fathers in the UK). With each record topping out at 20 songs, together they represented a cornucopia of poprock. What is striking here is the restraint, the subtle hooks of “B Movie,” “New Amsterdam” and “Secondary Modern” on Get Happy!! or “Radio Sweetheart” and “Hoover Factory” on Taking Liberties. One almost gets a sense that the songs were chiseled into shape, worked over until every detail reflected the light just so. Of course, there were also more raucous examples like “Possession” or “Crawling to the U.S.A.”
While critics often highlight the venom and sneer of Elvis’ early recordings, these songs demonstrate his capacity for sweetness, melody, and hooks. His penchant for poprock shifts considerably in his middle and later periods, but more on that to come. And he had a sense of humour. Check out this hilarious send up of K-tel commercials from the 1970s to pitch Get Happy!!
Looking for Elvis? Forget that supermarket in West Vancouver, you can find him here.