Elvis Costello – Unfaithful Music (compilation)

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Elvis Costello – Unfaithful Music

Released to coincide with a self-authored biography of his life and music, thirty-eight tracks seems insufficient when the now approaching four-decade career of Elvis Costello is the matter under discussion. It’s easy to know where to begin, in 1977, when with his then backing band The Attractions, a bespectacled and nervously energetic Buddy Holly lookalike contorted himself on the Top Of The Pops stage with the song “Red Shoes”, and amongst the various other spiky revolutionaries of thirty-eight years ago, it took some considerable ability to make the impression that Declan McManus was able to make then. Perhaps he wouldn’t have got away with it without songs of the quality of those on his full length debut My Aim Is True, but for all the geeky posturing and that name, it was the songwriting that prevented Elvis Costello from becoming just another now forgotten footnote in the fledgling indie world of the late ’70s, a name filed away alongside The Count Bishops, The Yachts, The Roogalator and the many other similar bands releasing music on the Stiff and Chiswick labels; music that was often labelled ‘pub rock’ and that was for the most part overlooked by the music buying public. It caught on for Elvis Costello though, and the Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink biography will doubtlessly provide the back story to what became one of the most lasting music careers to emerge from the cauldron of New Wave.

Fast forward six years and 1983’s Punch The Clock album somehow had the distinction of being Elvis Costello’s most articulate and completely realised album of the first phase of his career. Listening to “Everyday I Write The Book” it may have seemed that the angry nerd of 1977 had matured into a glossily remade, more accessible songwriter, his sharper edges blunted by the demands of the music industry. Listen to the complete album and discover that the reverse was the truth, with songs of the calibre of “Shipbuilding” and the – even by his own standards – vitriolic and disturbing “Pills And Soap”, where, not for the first time and certainly not the last, Elvis Costello presents himself as somehow the victim of his own fears and neuroses with brooding imagery overtaking musicality, taking his listeners into a darker place than that which his mildly eccentric persona appeared to have emerged from. Listening to Elvis Costello came at a price, or so it had begun to seem. By 1989’s Spike album it almost looked as if it was nearly over, the malevolent cover picture of Costello’s head mounted on a wall plaque hinting at all manner of unpleasantness contained inside and wrongly as it turned out as, along with the sublime “God’s Comic”, the desperate plea against capital punishment that is “Let Him Dangle” and also what is probably the nearest that he ever got to writing a love song (after 1977’s ‘Alison’), the collaboration with Paul McCartney which provided a Billboard top 20 placing that is “Veronica”. The sleeve artwork may have been in questionable taste, but what it contained was a musician working at the height of his already considerable powers, and no one listening to it could deny that Elvis Costello was by now a greatly significant figure as a songwriter, beyond his awkwardly mannered pop-punk beginnings of over a decade previously. Perhaps it’s his best album.

During the first part of the 1990s Elvis Costello fully made the transition into the internationally renowned figure that he is today, and I’d refer you to his Wikipedia entry to cover everything that he has achieved in the years since what was his last UK chart hit, a cover of Charles Asnavour’s “She”.  I’ve included far more song links in this review than I normally would, and the reasons for this are that Elvis Costello needs to be heard, that not all of what I think are his best performances are on Unfaithful Music and that as I was researching this article I was, again, verging upon overawed at the songwriting talent, the realisation of the songs and at the inexplicable personality that Elvis Costello is, in all of his numerous manifestations. A two CD collection leaves aside as much as it includes, and the Disappearing Ink biog will probably raise as many questions as it answers, so let’s just listen to one of the late-20th centuries actual musical geniuses. There’s a lot to hear.

www.elviscostello.com