What makes Elvis Costello’s music so vital is its restlessness. For better or worse, he has continually refused to rely on formulas or reputation, constantly challenging himself and his audience. This restlessness is evident in his nearly unmatched proclivity, his acrobatic musicality, and his willingness to collaborate. Costello upholds this urgency as the boldest virtue in rock ‘n’ roll. But his nervy passion has not always been well-advised; Costello has the tendency to overdo it. As a result, his lyrics have often been labeled “too-clever-for-their-own-good”, his music “craftsmanship”. These terms seem to imply that Costello’s intelligence should be counted against him.
Over the next year, Costello’s catalog will be reissued by Rhino Records with the care and intelligence that it deserves. Each reissue contains two discs: the album itself and a full disc of outtakes and b-sides. Costello thankfully wrote the liner notes himself.
Now, the point of a reissue is arguably twofold: to generate revenue and to do justice to older recordings. For the listener, it is an occasion to reconsider old favorites and unearth overlooked gems. They are especially important for prolific artists, whose catalogs are vast and confusing. When Rykodisc issued Costello’s early albums in the early 1990s, they were unfortunately buried in bonus tracks and odd packaging. The compilations made little sense and overwhelmed most first-time listeners. His mid-80s and 90s albums got lost in the shuffle, gradually falling out of print.
August welcomed the first wave of reissues: My Aim Is True, Spike, and All This Useless Beauty. Though plenty has been written about the former, the latter two are much less well known. Both albums are relatively recent, 1989 and 1996 respectively. Unlike his early albums, the later ones are a bit scattered; always compelling, often dark and sometimes inscrutable, they are never bland. In fact, freed from the confines of his youthful righteousness, Costello displays a maturity and depth rarely found in pop music.
Spike ended a four-year silence and, on the strength of the McCartney/Costello collaboration “Veronica”, sold well. As an album, though, it lacks focus. In his liner notes, Costello admits to having five different albums in his head at the time of recording. Perhaps this accounts for the scattered nature of Spike.
It is an overly dynamic record, abruptly jumping from genre to genre. As such, it sounds less like a cohesive statement and more like a collection of highpoints. For example, Costello follows the dream-team rock of “...This Town…”—it features Roger McGuinn on 12-string and Paul McCartney on bass—with the politicized folk of “Let Him Dangle”. Then comes the brilliant New Orleans style soul of “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror”, then the sprightly pop perfection of “Veronica”. “Tramp the Dirt Down”, an anti-Thatcher tirade, combines Costello’s remarkable gift for words with a rousing melody—if only the production wasn’t evocative of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”. The delicate Brill Building ballad “Baby Plays Around” is another highlight. Indeed, Spike has much to offer. The confusion arises in the second half of the record, where stunning tracks like “God’s Comic” and “Last Boat Leaving” nearly get lost amidst the clutter of “Stalin Malone” and “Any King’s Shilling”. Costello’s indulgences, despite their laudable diversity, teeter on excess.
All This Useless Beauty paints a clearer picture. At the time of its release in 1996, it was promoted as a collection of songs, originally written by Costello for other artists, but never performed by the author. As such, it appeared to be something less than a genuine release and was generally overlooked and under-appreciated. Yet All This Useless Beauty is the real deal, an unusually dark and personal Elvis Costello record. It is also packed with tunefulness.
As he relates in the liner notes, the album revolves around its ballads. But the slower pace does not make for a boring record. The title track and “Poor Fractured Atlas” are the beautiful laments of a disappointed soul; “Complicated Shadows” finds Costello spitting out lyrics about the awkwardness of casual cruelty; and the bouncy backdrop of “You Bowed Down” brilliantly masks the disgust in the lyric. Both “Little Atoms” and “Starting to Come to Me” veer dangerously toward literary excess, but are redeemed by imaginative performances by the Attractions. The record closes with “I Want to Vanish”, a nearly classical ballad that flirts with resignation. Though some may be put off by the album’s unabashed intellectualism, All This Useless Beauty is ultimately a mature, slightly pessimistic record, unburdened by the excesses of Costello’s more well-known works and strengthened by timeless songs.
Early Elvis Costello albums attack the listener with words. Amphetamine-fueled or not, his voice is overloaded with passion. On his later albums, Costello’s restlessness is more subtle, that is, he tempers the fast with the slow, the angry with the sad, the pessimistic with the hopeful. As a result, individual tracks stand up straighter, and the albums withstand repeated listens well. Spike and All This Useless Beauty find Elvis Costello at the height of his powers, crafting songs that are way too clever for their own good. Which, of course, is a wonderful thing.