Like his new memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Elvis Costello’s accompanying soundtrack takes a non-linear approach to sequencing. It’s a showcase of rarities, demos, deep cuts, and live performances spanning Costello’s career. Costello has long been one of music most compelling writers with a catalog to back that up. Longtime fans of Costello have likely double-dipped on a few of his releases in order to collect all the rarities.
Costello’s memoir is as clever and interesting as his songs. The excerpt published on Vulture last month focused on his early days, highlighting songs like “Poison Moon,” which can be found on this compilation, as well his more famous material, such as “Alison”. Costello is literate and insightful. In his earliest days, Costello was an enfant terrible, making proclamations like “The only two things that matter to me, the only motivation for me to write all these songs are revenge and guilt. Those are the only emotions I know about,” or the infamous Bonnie Bramlett incident at the Holiday Inn in Columbus, Ohio in which Costello used racial epithets to describe James Brown and Ray Charles.
Per the Vulture article, it seems Costello made the comments specifically to get under the skin of his drinking companions. “Whatever I did, I did it to provoke a bar fight…Surely this was all understood. Didn’t they know the love I had for James Brown and Ray Charles, whose record of ‘The Danger Zone’ I preferred to watching men walk on the moon?”
Highlights of the compilation include a duet with George Jones on “Stranger in the House”, a country tune that foreshadowed Costello’s 1981 album of country covers, Almost Blue. Costello doesn’t have a traditional sounding country voice, so it’s really a treat to hear “the Possum” sing it. And speaking of famous collaborators, the demo of “Veronica”, co-written with Paul McCartney and one of Costello’s most enduring songs, is particularly endearing.
David Lee Roth famously stated that music critics like Elvis Costello because they look like them. He’s not entirely wrong, I am currently sporting the requisite thick-rimmed glasses and a beard reminiscent of the one Costello had around the release of his challenging 1991 release, Mighty Like a Rose. It’s not the most accessible of his albums, though I’ll go to bat for “The Other Side of Summer”, included here and one of my top Beach Boy pastiches, along with “Pale and Precious” and “At My Most Beautiful”. The selection of good deep cuts like this and “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” make Unfaithful Music eminently listenable and may provide fodder for spirited debate about underrated Elvis Costello songs.
Unfaithful Music is a compilation for die-hards, not where a novice should start as it eschews Costello’s more popular songs for alternate takes and hard-to-find bonus tracks. It runs the length of his career and shows that after more than 35 years into his music career, Costello is still capable of writing affecting and literate songs. It’s the perfect way for fans who might have slept on his newer albums to stop and take stock of his body of work.
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