OK, so. Back in May, Grant Brisbee (of SBNation’s McCovey Chronicles) discovered Imperial Bedroom:
Elvis Costello fans: Where do you rank Imperial Bedroom on your list?— Grant Brisbee (@mccoveychron) May 3, 2017
Your Humble Blogger felt compelled to respond:
Higher than that.— Vardibidian (@Vardibidian) May 3, 2017
Very, very high.
And then I joked:
Also blaming you for the 20,000 word essay I am now compelled to write in which I rank all 31 albums.— Vardibidian (@Vardibidian) May 3, 2017
Which was funny. Well, I thought it was funny. But it has been also sticking in the back of my mind as, well, a thing that I might enjoy actually doing. And eventually I thought what the hell, I am going to actually do this. Only it turns out there are actually 33 albums, not counting the ones I’m not counting, and I think I have managed to squeak in under five thousand words.
OK, the ones I’m not counting? I’m not counting bootlegs. I’m not counting compilations with one or two EC tracks on them. I’m not counting greatest-hits albums that consist of stuff that is already on the other albums on my list. I’m not counting live albums, except that I am counting one live album, and I can make an argument for its inclusion and the exclusion of the others if I want to, but really it’s because that live album is on my hard drive and the other officially-released live albums aren’t, for some reason. I’m not counting the second bonus disc that comes with the album’s re-release; in fact, I’m not counting any of the bonus material, just the album as originally released in the US.
Are you ready? Are you super-excited? Maybe get a cup of tea first and make sure you are sitting comfortably. Remember, this sort of thing goes from worst-to-best so it builds in intensity and excitement as we go along.
33: Painted from Memory (1998, with Burt Bacharach). I didn’t like this at all on first listen and have never listened to it again. As far as I know, I’ve never heard any of the songs on it since then, either. Not successful. I’m not a fan of Burt Bacharach, so that could totally affect that.
32: North (2003). This is another one that I listened to when it came out and then not again. I think this one I gave a few tries, unlike Painted From Memory. I seem to vaguely remember that a couple of the songs were not unpleasant, but nothing grabbed my attention at all. I think I have the disc somewhere. Probably. This was a disappointment; I don’t remember exactly why I had high hopes for it.
31: Jake’s Progress (1995, with Richard Harvey). I’ve never heard this at all. I’m still putting it higher up on the list than the two I have heard and actively dislike.
30: G.B.H. (1991, with Richard Harvey). I haven’t heard this one, either. It’s supposed to be better than the other soundtrack one, though.
29: Deep Dead Blue (1995, with Bill Frisell). I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of this one. I like Bill Frisell, though.
28: Momofuku (2008). This came out, if I remember correctly, during the absolute peak of his jerk phase, when he was putting out good music but being a jerk about it. This one was released only on vinyl in 2008, and my response was that if he didn’t want me to listen to it, then I wasn’t going to listen to it, fine. He actually did release the thing on CD eventually, but I was still sulky. It’s supposed to be a terrific album, honestly, and I should probably just stop sulking at some point and listen to it. Not yet.
27: Il Sogno (2004). This is the symphonic one, a ballet soundtrack. I’ve listed to it a couple of times. It’s, um, OK?
26: Piano Jazz (2005, with Marian McPartland). This is a recording of his guest appearance on the long-running NPR show that other jazz fans like so much more than I do. It’s OK. I’d have enjoyed a transcript of the conversation much more than the audio. I’m not really fond of Ms. McPartland’s piano style, either, just as a matter of taste. And of the songs that I have elsewhere, I prefer other recordings to the ones on this disc.
25: Almost Blue (1981). This is his album of covers of country songs. I am only putting it this low because (a) I don’t know it very well and (2) he didn’t write any of the songs, so it’s not really much of an Elvis Costello album. There is some good stuff on here (“Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down”, “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?”, “Sweet Dreams ”) even though much of the best of it is actually recorded better on some bootlegs/live kinds of things.
Here’s a line—above this line is stuff I don’t know or don’t like. Below are the ones I do know and like. Entries get longer. This is probably an excellent time to take a break. Get up, stretch, reheat your tea. Listen to something that isn’t Elvis Costello—can I suggest HAIM performing “Right Now” at Glastonbury? No? I thought it would be easy.
24: The Delivery Man (2004). There’s one terrific song on here (“Monkey to Man”) and the title song and a couple of others are quite good. There’s about a half a concept album in here—I feel as if somewhere around the turn of the century he started a thing where he would write a few songs toward a concept album and then give up and stick the songs on an album with a few other songs and call it done. I mean, I don’t really think this particular project was worth finishing, and I would not be happier if he just shelved the songs he had written and I never heard them. I don’t really know what I want in these cases. Re-writing the songs enough to make them less obviously part of the abandoned project?
23: All This Useless Beauty (1996). This is another one that seems like it was intended for a concept album of some kind and didn’t wind up there. Perhaps the duds included on the album are a result of that? I dunno, but this album has more duds—songwriting and production/performance—than an album should have. I do like “Complicated Shadows” and “Shallow Grave” a lot. I don’t know why the latter song took so long to get properly recorded and released; I think it may be the last of the collaboration with Paul McCartney to get the full treatment, and I really like it.
22: National Ransom (2010): This is probably his most recent proper album, and it turns out to be seven years old. Wow. Hm. Time passes. I don’t think this is a particularly good album, but some of it is terrific. The lyrics are dense and wonderful; the sound feels like it’s leftovers from Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” and “A Slow Drag With Josephine” are probably the only songs I would pull out and put on rotation.
21: Kojak Variety (1995): Another covers album, and pushed out of the top twenty because the songs aren’t EC songs. Some very good stuff on here, though. Good vocals, good band, good choices. Highlights are probably his cover of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “Strange” and the Mose Allison “Everybody’s Crying Mercy”.
20: Punch the Clock (1983). I suspect this is a top-ten album for most people, but not for me. Yes, I love the horn line, and I love the title track and “Everyday I Write the Book”. There are other good songs here, and a few other parts of songs that are good, but I don’t like the actual production on most of it, and frankly much of it sounds the same. Also, this was the album that really got caught (for me) in the reissue vortex—during the mid-1990s, Ryko reissued the EC backlist on CD with a bunch of bonus tracks. I had just moved to Boston and was dead broke, and still picking up new music now and then, but also digging through bins at used CD joints on Newbury Street and Davis Square getting odd crap for a few bucks. I was not going to pay new-music prices for a reissue of an album I bought on vinyl and had on cassette, even if I didn’t actually have the vinyl album any more and never listened to cassettes. I figured that the earlier CD issue would show up used sooner or later. It didn’t. About ten years later, Rhino re-reissued the back catalogue, this time with even more bonus tracks, and I got even crankier—at that point, it seemed like the only people buying EC albums were us hard-core fans, and the whole thing seemed to be designed to keep squeezing money out of us. I’m not sure, looking back, whether I would have preferred that all those bonus tracks (probably more than a hundred of them altogether, taking all the re-releases) remain unreleased or what, but still: when I wanted to buy the album at a normal price for an old CD, it was not available; what was available was something pricey. I finally bought this album and put it on my hard drive with the rest of my stuff last year.
19: Taking Liberties/Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How’s Your Fathers (1980). I’m putting these together as one entry, because they’re mostly the same thing: an album of B-sides and stray recordings that hadn’t made the cut on the first few albums. For a collection of second-rate stuff, it’s awfully good, and I have to give it credit for my having not known or noticed that it was nothing but cast-offs when I was misspending my misspent youth. There are good tracks on here, mind you, and “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” is certainly not second-rate, nor is the wonderful cover of “My Funny Valentine”. But for all the viciously accurate politics of “Night Rally”, the song is too crude to be really great, and the heartbreakingly lovely melody and images of “Hoover Factory” really deserved to be developed into an actual song at some point. Ah, well.
18: Mighty Like a Rose (1991). This is an awfully good album. It’s uneven in tone—the first three songs are great upbeat pop songs with nasty bitter lyrics, and then it shifts into eerie, terrifying evocative songs, mostly downtempo or midtempo, that add up to the EC equivalent of a YA dystopia trilogy. Powerful, emotional stuff, but I’m not sure it holds together. Also, his vocals are very rough. Presumably, that’s how he and Mitchell Froom wanted it, but it’s a bit hard to listen to. I haven’t sat down to it as an album in a long time, probably since I switched to the hard drive shuffle fifteen years ago, but I think that perhaps 2017 is a good year for this album. My favorite tracks are probably “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)” and “So Like Candy”, tho’ I also have “How To Be Dumb” on heavy rotation just so I can sing R.E.M. “Stand” along with the chord changes.
17: Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009). I like this album a lot, but unfortunately it came along at a time when I didn’t want to listen to albums over and over again like I did when I was fifteen. I think that’s the only thing keeping it above the next line. “Sulphur To Sugarcane” is a wonderful song, maybe my favorite song to come out in the last ten years. “Red Cotton” is lovely and sad, “My All Time Doll” would totally have been one of those songs I brokenheartedly obsessed over in my teens, and some of the other songs only would require me to memorize their lyrics to make me happy to put them on heavy rotation.
16: When I Was Cruel (2002). An uneven album, but “Spooky Girlfriend”, “Dust”, “Alibi” and particularly “Episode of Blonde” are so, so good. I do think that some of the lyrics are more obscure than they need to be, and the production on some of the songs (“Daddy Can I Turn This?” and “Radio Silence”, off the top of my head) is not to my taste, so it goes above the line, but only just. Also, to be utterly fair, I am probably downgrading this a trifle because he’s an asshole—he did a bunch of interviews when this album came out where he complained the laziness of pop music critics, claiming that he didn’t use wordplay at all on this album and critics still talked about the dense wordplay. This, on an album with a song called “Tart”, which is nothing but an image of a prostitute eating sour fruit, and a song called “45” which is, well, I’m not altogether sure what it’s about, but it includes images of vinyl singles, the end of World War Two and his own forty-fifth birthday. He’s complaining that critics called that wordplay, when pretty much all they are, lyrically, are extended puns.
Here’s another line—below this line are albums that I really, really like. I was going to put this line at the Top Ten, but really, I think it’s time for a little break. Get up, have maybe a handful of grapes or some nuts or just some bittersweet chocolate chips right out of the bag. Have a glass of ale. You know what? Go for a walk. Consider whether you really want to finish reading this thing. You don’t have to. No-one will know.
15: Spike (1989). I wonder if this gets higher or lower rated by other people. I remember rave reviews when it came out, but I don’t know if people wound up with second thoughts. Like a lot of the Eighties. The sound is just fantastic. I’m a big fan of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band anyway, so their backing on four tracks is a plus (all four of them are better than their two on Mighty Like a Rose, for whatever reason). The Jerry Sheff/Jerry Marotta rhythm section on another four cuts is fantastic, too. Why isn’t it higher on this list? I don’t know. Maybe just that I like the other albums even more. My favorite on the album is “Pads, Paws And Claws”, with “Chewing Gum” running it a close second.
14: My Flame Burns Blue (2004). This is a live album with EC, Steve Nieve and a fifty-piece jazz-and-pop orchestra that, I think, specializes in Thelonius Monk. This is higher than it ought to be simply because of an unbelievably good rendition of “Watching the Detectives” and a few other songs that work really well with arrangements that sound like 50s movie soundtracks. A dizzying version of “Clubland”, a fascinating “Favorite Hour”. I admit this will probably fade to the other side of the I love all these albums line at some point, but not yet.
13: Wise Up Ghost (2013, with the Roots). What an odd thing this is. Half the songs are revisions of earlier songs, snatches of lyrics and samples of sounds slapped together. I don’t know that I can justify this album being so high up my list, but it’s the only album (by anyone) of the last five years that I have wanted to listen to all the way through every day for a week.
12: Blood & Chocolate (1986). This is a bit of a tough album to get through. You know the thing where you get a taste for the good dark chocolate, and then you get the darker chocolate and it’s really good, bitter and sweet and not-too-smooth and, like, a whole sophisticated culinary experience in a chocolate bar? And then you figure you like the dark stuff and you get the ridiculous expensive all-cacao-no-milk-no-kidding-this-is-not-for-amateurs bar and it tastes just exactly like poisoned chalk? Right? So you go back to the dark-but-still-sane chocolate and it’s fantastic, just fantastic, but you maybe don’t want to eat a whole bar of it? That’s this album. For me, anyway. I like every single song on this album and think they are all beautiful twisted dangerous gems, but as an album, woof. “Tokyo Storm Warning” is exhilarating; “I Want You” is terrifying; “Uncomplicated” is strange and catchy.
11: The Juliet Letters (1993). I keep feeling that this album shouldn’t work, but it does. For me, anyway. It’s two concept albums simultaneously—it’s a rock album with string quartet instruments, which is already a terrible idea, and it’s a more-or-less epistolary album where all the songs are notionally letters of various kinds, which may not be a terrible idea but doesn’t really seem sustainable over twenty tracks. There’s also an unpleasant tinge of assholery to it, where he seems to be daring us to dislike his experiment, or even to pass judgement on it at all. Still and all, there’s a lot of good stuff on this album—“Jacksons, Monk And Rowe” is in fact an excellent pop song (albeit about divorce, because EC); “This Offer Is Unrepeatable” is as good a pact-with-the-devil song as any, and his vocals run the sharp edge between scary and funny; “I Almost Had A Weakness” teeters between funny and poignant; “Damnation’s Cellar” might well have had a claim to a Hugo Nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, if there had been such a category at the time, not that anyone would have nominated it, but that’s not the point. There are a few duds on the album, but there’s a lot of stuff I happily listen to again and again.
10: Brutal Youth (1994). This is the return-to-rock-and-roll album from the mid-nineties, when I wanted one. I suspect it doesn’t make a lot of Top Ten rankings, but it seems it does mine. I do think it’s a tough album to get in to— the music is something like the old Attractions sound but not quite, and the lyrics are ambivalent—in my favorite song from the disk, “Just About Glad”, he sings about a love affair that never was, claiming to be just about glad that though the passion still flutters and flickers/It never got into our knickers, and finally bragging that I’m the greatest lover that you never had/I’m just about. Probably earlier in his writing career, this would have been a more straightforwardly nasty song, but by this point there’s rue for them both, and a kind of wonder that they would ultimately regret either having or not having the fling. “Still Too Soon To Know” is also about a love affair that hasn’t happened (yet), and in “London’s Brilliant Parade” he is sings Just look at me/I’m having the time of my life/Or something quite like it. Much of the lyrics seem to me to evoke that uncommitted feeling of falling between two stools, or horses, as he puts it in “Clown Strike”. I think that makes it a little inaccessible, but I also think that ambivalence is why I like the album so much. Also, it’s just packed with images I love, from the comic “My Science Fiction Twin” to the furious “20% Amnesia” to the bad mood music of “Thirteen Steps Lead Down”.
9: Goodbye Cruel World (1984). The man himself thinks this is his worst album, evidently, and a lot of people seem to agree with him. But I like it. As an example, he later re-wrote “The Deportees Club”to make it a sorrowful ballad and lost the hysteria of it. I totally understand that he didn’t enjoy making the thing, but despite everything it has a raw power that the supposedly-slick production can’t veil. I’m not sure there’s a sexier song than “Inch by Inch” (I long to see that look upon your face is a great, great line), the “Sour Milk-Cow Blues” is an absolute hoot, and the melody for “Love Field” is haunting. Also: You yield/With your lips still sealed/In a love field is some brutal monosyllabic writing, innit?
8: King of America (1986). I almost called this the peak of EC’s ability as a lyricist, but I don’t think it’s a time-linear thing. Just—in one song, “Lovable”, he tosses off a line like Each tender mumble brings us closer to bedlam and then ends it with the most brutal insult I can even imagine, when he calls the object of his semi-requited affection lifelike. I mean, wow. The whole of “Our Little Angel” is just heartbreaking—as is the end of “Indoor Fireworks”: Don’t think for a moment dear that we’ll ever be through/I’ll build a bonfire of my dreams/And burn a broken effigy of me and you. And this pathetic bit out “Jack of all Parades”: Now the way that I feel is no longer news/You know my love and how to refuse it/Cause you know where the door is/And how to use it/Oh you know you do. It’s an obsessive album, sad and scabrous and heartbroken. It was a fine idea at the time, but now it’s a brilliant mistake.
7: My Aim Is True (1977). I wrote about this one nine years ago, and I don’t disagree with anything I said there, really. It’s a terrific album full of catchy tunes, and the lyrics were, as I said, about a sexual life that existed primarily in twisted fantasies, where fulfillment wasn’t as easily imagined as revenge. I’ll add that I think this is an easily accessible album, in that I think the allusions and images are not as complex and thick as in many of his later works. There are still some amazing images, though. Long shot of that jumping sign/Visible shivers running down my spine/Cut to baby taking off her clothes/Close-up of a sign that says,"We never close". Or A pistol was still smoking, a man lay on the floor/Mister Oswald said he had an understanding with the law/He said he heard about a couple living in the USA/He said they traded in their baby for a Chevrolet.
6: Trust (1981). You know, at this point, I can’t say I have much in the way of argument. This one could be fourth, or eighth. I think the band is better than the My Aim is True band, they aren’t quite as tight as they are on some other albums. I believe alcohol may have been involved. But the splintery lyrics have glory. One great image is the everlasting cigarette of chastity, Bad lovers face to face in the morning/Shy apologies and polite regrets is another (from the opening of “New Lace Sleeves”), and for a third, how about the wonderful descent from familiarity to madness in “Watch Your Step”: Every night/Go out full of carnival desires/End up in the closing time choirs/When you’re kicking in the car chrome/And you’re drinking down the Eau de Cologne/And you’re spitting out the Kodachrome. There are a few songs on the album that I don’t love, after all this time, but I don’t think there are any songs I don’t love at least part of. “Lovers Walk” I love everything about. Oh, and here’s another great beginning to a song, this one “Fish’n’Chip Paper”: When Sunday morning dandruff turns out to be confetti/And the cost of living in sin would make a poor man out of Paul Getty. That’s just a great start to a song, innit?
OK, deep breath. We’re going into the Top Five now. A thousand words or so to go. Say, did you take notes on your earlier disagreements? Because the really interesting disagreements are probably not the Top Five, I’m guessing, but the stuff I’ve put at twenty-glob and you think are more like eighth. If you like Elvis Costello enough to have got through the first four thousand words, you probably strongly disagree with me on something, but probably you like the stuff he put out between 1978-1982.
5: Armed Forces (1979). This one seems like a coherent album to me—I think when people talk about the sound of EC and the Attractions, this is what they’re talking about? I mean, it’s hard to tell, as the sound evolves over time, but I think this is it. I’m not sure I can identify details. Steve Nieve’s brittle keyboard work is full of resounding tinkles, with threatening delicacy that backs up the lyrical theme of emotional fascism. EC is terrific with the rhythm and scansion here, in a particular idiosyncratic EC way that I don’t know exactly how to explain. One example: the stresses in this line from the opening song “Accidents will Happen”: There’s so many people/to see/So many people you can check up on/And add to your collection. It’s not just the way he speeds up and slows down, it’s that the rhyme of the last couplet is on the last stressed syllable (check/lec) and the extra syllables tie the lines together. Or the beginning of “Green Shirt”: There’s a smart young woman on a light blue screen/Who comes into my house every night/And she takes all the red, yellow, orange and green/And she turns them into black and white. The stressed syllables on the first line are obvious, I think: smart,wo,light,screen. Then the second line stresses comes,to,house,ev… and then night is the start of another four-bar line, toppling the balance. The imbalance is also driven by the unstressed syllables, with the first line having eleven syllables altogether and the second only nine, but really eight plus the one on the third line. In the second pair, it’s twelve and nine. So it’s these lopsided pairs of lines with these extra lines, and it just picks me up and carries me into the song. Like, I want to know where this is going, even though I have heard the song a million times.
4: This Year’s Model (1978). Wow. Is there a dud on this album? Maybe “Little Triggers” is not up to standard, but the rest are great. And the sound is great, utterly catchy and fantastic, the backup vocals outstanding, too. The lyrics are a little skimpy, with a lot of the songs having just a couple of choruses, but it works. Some of my particular highlights are the build-up of tension in the things in my head start hurtin’ my mind section of “No Action”, Pete Thomas on the drums at the start of “Lipstick Vogue”, all the rhymes but especially I call you Betty Felon ’cause you are a pretty villain/And I think that I should tell them that you’d make a pretty killing from “Living in Paradise” and the bizarre syncopated scansion and the delirious rhyme of “The Beat”: Well, if you only knew the things you do to me/I’d do anything to confuse the enemy/There’s only one thing wrong with you befriending me/Take it easy, I think you’re bending me. And, of course, absolutely everything about “Pump it Up”.
3: The River in Reverse (2006) (with Allen Toussaint). Is this ranked too high? Yeah, probably. I don’t care. Allen Toussaint, motherfuckers.
2: Get Happy!! (1980). Twenty songs. Forty-eight and a half minutes. Bam. This is his R&B album, and it’s so good I can hardly stand it. I say it’s his R&B album, but it’s not an R&B album the way that Almost Blue is a country album; this is an album of a bunch of rock/pub musicians who have been gorging themselves on obscure R&B tracks—it’s very much their own stuff, but suffused with soul and charged with absurd energy. Police suspect alcohol was involved… “5ive Gears in Reverse” is just a single image of a would-be lothario running his engine in an enclosed garage, just a verse, a chorus, another verse and the chorus again and we’re starting the instrumental repeat-until-fade. And it’s magnificent. It’s the rhythm that makes it so magnificent, and the rhythm is magnificent throughout the album, just driving through song after song after song. “Human Touch” is a good song, but the recording is outstanding, and the combination of instruments and vocals starting with Pete Thomas’ses’ stutter-step drums, picking up the ska-backbeat and then slamming in to the chorus of I need, I need, I need/your human/touch is outfuckingstanding. For an album to listen to all the way through whilst driving in a car, or cleaning a room, or doing dishes, or otherwise engaging in energetic activity, I don’t think Get Happy!! can be beat. The brutal self-loathing of the lyrics is just a bonus.
1: IbMePdErRoIoAmL (1982). OK, so this is silly, right? I mean, obviously Imperial Bedroom is at the top of the list. This whole ridiculous business started with Imperial Bedroom. But still, listen to this album. First lyrics: History repeats the old conceits/The glib replies, the same defeats (“Beyond Belief”). That’s some amazing soundwork, right there. And it just keeps going—Giving you more of what for/Always worked for me before (“Shabby Doll”) is droned in a narrow range, laying a kind of shoreline to the song that makes leaps up to peaks it can’t sustain before dragging itself back down through those lines again, or nearly… the whole album is this delicately optimistic dance between beautiful melody, remarkable instrumental work and a lyrical depiction of infidelity (to selves as much as spouses) that is rather startlingly sweet. All I ever want is just to fall into your human hands, he moans (in “Human Hands, of course”) and it’s a kind of triumphant settling, a simultaneous lowering of expectations and a wondering appreciation for the things that actually exist when you can see them without those expectations. In “Kid About It” he croons So what if this is a man’s world/I want to be a kid again about it/Give me back my sadness/I couldn’t hide it even if I tried, girl. The settings are lush, and the sentiment is, well, sentimental, but somehow also clear-eyed. And, of course, “Almost Blue” is one of the greatest songs ever written, and fits perfectly in to the albums’ sound (while also becoming a jazz standard, capable of being interpreted by a wide variety of singers in their own styles) with its hesitant, affectionate depiction of the unhappy couple that is almost me/almost you.
Well. Not all good things come to an end, but this note has at last. Whew.
That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,