King of America (1986)
Miracle Men: The Coward Brothers (a.k.a. T Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello)
Every Elvis Has His Army: T Bone Burnett, The Attractions, and The Confederates (Tom Wolk, Mickey Curry, and Mitchell Froom)
In the mid-’80s, Costello took to the road several times as a solo act to pay off debts. Legendary musician and producer T Bone Burnett appeared on many of those bills, which eventually led to them recording King of America together. Originally, The Attractions had been slated to back Costello on half the album, not the one track (“Suit of Lights”) they ultimately survived on. Despite these tensions between Costello and his regular backing band, King of America shows the artist’s ability to step into a new style — a country-tinged acoustic pop — and appear a natural, something he hadn’t always succeeded at in his younger days (see: Almost Blue). A far cry from the agitated pop of his more famous early albums, character sketches and narratives like “Brilliant Mistake” and “American Without Tears”, respectfully, and the tenderly regretful “Indoor Fireworks” show that Costello still reigned as songwriting royalty. The album also hints stylistically at future ’00s albums like The Delivery Man (2004) and the Burnett-produced Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009).
Truest Aim: “Indoor Fireworks” — Often accompanied by a crack band that could drown out some of the finer details of songs, a track like this one shows how powerful Costello can be with little more than his voice and a guitar.
Poison Fountain Pen: “She said that she was working for the ABC News/ It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use/ Her perfume was unspeakable/ It lingered in the air/ Like her artificial laughter/ Her mementos of affairs” from “Brilliant Mistake”
Elvis Says: “The process of making any record is one of transformation from the first private inkling of song to the final mix of a recording intended for public release. Sometimes things get lost along the way.
“For this record, I began with a tight group of emotionally stricken songs that witnessed the slamming shut of a series of doors in my life just as I tumbled through another. Although the final album included a lot of things that I could not have imagined before my first trip to Hollywood, it probably became a little less concentrated and intense than I had first imagined.”
Blood & Chocolate (1986)
Miracle Men: Nick Lowe and Colin Fairley
Every Elvis Has His Army: The Attractions, with Nick Lowe, Jimmy Cliff, and Cait O’Riordan
Six months removed from the contentious King of America sessions, the relationship among Costello and The Attractions had largely disintegrated by the recording of Blood & Chocolate. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have a great album left in them. In fact, the rumbling, fist-meets-wall pounding of the songs probably acted as a stress reliever, Costello sounding overtaken at times as though his backing band is stalking his vocals. That sound comes from the entire group playing in a single room at live stage volume, an idea that not only fit the mood of the material but one that ensured a quicker session given the tensions. While this slug-it-out recording features more blood than chocolate and initiated an eight-year hiatus between Costello and the band, there’s a visceral, palpable tension that makes it both unique and beloved by fans.
Truest Aim: “I Hope You’re Happy Now” — After two previous attempts to record the song, its tone seemed to naturally fit the high-strung Blood & Chocolate sessions.
Poison Fountain Pen: “I hope that you’re happy now like you’re supposed to be/ And I know that this will hurt you more than it hurts me” from “I Hope You’re Happy Now”
Elvis Says: “This is a record of people beating and twanging things with a fair amount of yelling. It was recorded just over six months after the Hollywood sessions for King of America. The Attractions sole contribution to that album, “Suit of Lights,” had been made during our least successful and most bad-tempered days in the studio. The air of suspicion and resentment still lingered as King of America was released and we entered Olympic Studios, London, to make what proved to be our last record together for eight years.
“Nick Lowe was producing us for the first time in five years and together with engineer Colin Fairley, agreed to an approach that would get the music recorded before the band and I fell out completely. Olympic’s control room still contained some of the Bakelite switches and other arcane features left over from the days when it had hosted sessions by Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. The live room was big enough for a full orchestra, so we filled it with our live monitor system and played at something approaching stage volume. Although it commonly thought that high volume in the studio creates an uncontrollable sonic picture this, approach seemed to suit the material entirely.”
All This Useless Beauty (1996)
Miracle Men: Geoff Emerick and Elvis Costello
Every Elvis Has His Army: The Attractions, in their last studio appearance, as well as Aimee Mann (co-writer), Brian Eno (“gadgets”), and Paul McCartney (co-writer)
Seeing the light at the end of a dark tunnel doesn’t necessarily mean diminishing returns from Costello and The Attractions. Blood & Chocolate made their previous split almost worth it, and All This Useless Beauty founds its purpose despite it being both the last record on Costello’s Warner Bros. contract and most likely the final album with his longtime backing band. Not originally intended to be an Attractions album at all, it’s intentionally stripped and more delicate. And in doing that, rather than having a miscast band, the group turned in some of their most elegant performances to date. It’s not a disappointing record — rather one about disappointment. Recently turned 40, Costello turned away from songs about anger and focused on feelings of, in his words, “betraying principles, letting yourself down, and being diminished.” To appreciate All This Useless Beauty is to forgive a band for the sin of getting older and embrace their right to have grown up.
Truest Aim: “All This Useless Beauty” — A beautiful duet between Costello and a piano and a precursor to some of his future work alongside Steve Nieve.
Poison Fountain Pen: “Our brief acquaintance was such a mistake/ Now it seems more like a sentence/ Or something you always had to fake” from “It’s Time”
Elvis Says: “This record exists in the distance between an ideal and the reality. I’ve read that it is simply a collection of songs that I wrote for other singers – usually with the implication that this was a bad or inferior thing. True, I had the voice of certain singers in mind when many of these songs were composed. However, compared to the original blueprint, the final album contains only four previously recorded songs.
“If it was in any way an exercise, then it was one in creeping up on yourself, in order to trick out a song that would have otherwise remained elusive. It was the idealised version of a performer that caused me to compose. The content of the songs – the words and the actual music were of my imagining and I had always intended to sing the songs myself at some stage.”
Painted from Memory (1998)
Miracle Men: Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello
Every Elvis Has His Army: Burt Bacharach and orchestra
This project between such unlikely collaborators began as a joint commission to write a song (“God Give Me Strength”) for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart. After successfully penning the tune long distance over phone — Bacharach was in Los Angeles and Costello in Ireland at the time — the two decided to write more together the following year. The resulting album, Painted from Memory, is a fully orchestrated collection of melancholy reflections that challenges Costello’s vocals as never before and draws attention to the beautiful, intricate details within Bacharach’s seemingly simple compositions. The duo won a Grammy for the song “I Still Have That Other Girl”, appeared on late-night television, and even took the project on the road. For all the great songwriters Costello has collaborated with over the years, including Paul McCartney, nobody brought out the best in him as a lyricist and vocalist like Bacharach. To this day, Costello regularly performs the haunting “This House Is Empty Now” on tour to huge applause from audiences.
Truest Aim: “God Give Me Strength” — The sheer tug and pull between whispers and full-throated belting amazes and finds Costello not just making it through but commanding the most difficult vocal material of his career.
Poison Fountain Pen: “Maybe I was washed out like a lip print from a shirt/ See, I’m only human/ I want him to hurt/ I want him … I want him to hurt” from “God Give Me Strength”
Elvis Says: “The charm in songs that are lighthearted … that doesn’t mean that they are lightweight. And the deep songs are as deep as you get. And that doesn’t come without … that pleasant torture you have in the middle of the night.”
When I Was Cruel (2002)
Miracle Men: Elvis Costello, Ciaran Cahill, Leo Pearson, and Kieran Lynch
Every Elvis Has His Army: The Imposters (Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas, and Davey Faragher), in their studio debut
Dubbed “Costello’s return” by critics before the record even came out, the truth is that When I Was Cruel wasn’t the songwriter’s attempt to go back to his punkish, acerbic youth, though the album does feature some of his first straight-ahead garage rock songs in ages. More of a cycling, beat-oriented album that Costello composed on his own before bringing in backing, the album’s title cut and songs like “45” are actually an attempt to ground himself in the present and leave the pettiness of the past behind. Reloaded with The Imposters — The Attractions minus Bruce Thomas on bass and replaced by Cracker’s Davey Faragher — Costello roams from unabashed alt rock (“Daddy Can I Turn This?”) and folk pop (“My Little Blue Window”) to cyclical ramblers (“Spooky Girlfriend”) and kitchen sink collages (“Episode of Blonde”). Far from a return to his beginnings, When I Was Cruel sounds like an artist playing with all the toys he’s discovered while growing up.
Truest Aim: “45” — Costello pop meets fuzzy guitars and Attractions-reminiscent bursts. Put it on!
Poison Fountain Pen: “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” from “Alibi”
Elvis Says: “The song [the title track] is about accepting that there is a perception of you, and the music is backward-leaning and forward-leaning at the same time. I started out with all of these furious ideas, and people somehow feel it’s a betrayal if you don’t represent that all the time. But life is more complicated than that. There are sitting targets in the song, and the narrator is like, ‘I could have assassinated these people, but it’s not worth it anymore’ [laughs]. It’s not worth what it takes out of your soul to go back down that road.”