Elvis Costello's name comes up often when discussing artists who even the diehardest fans, myself included, have stopped listening to with any consistency, though I think most have held out much longer than our friend RichD has, as you can see from his comment on yesterday's post.
"In my ears...in my head...in my musical taste-buds...something happened to me and Elvis Costello after Armed Forces. I loved Armed Forces! But after that...well, my brain started to perceive his voice as...what? I don't know...something stinky. Foul"
A certain something was lost when Bruce Thomas left and the Attractions became The Imposters. Not just the brilliant bass playing. It was as if Thomas' departure opened up a big ol' box of hats and suddenly Costello had the freedom to try all of them on. Problem is, Bruce Thomas now seems like the guy who might have said, "Yo El! That hat looks stupid on you. Don't go outside." From the sound of Costello's post-Bruce Thomas work, he didn't listen.
Starting with 1989's label change from Columbia to Warner Brothers and the release of "Spike," each release from Elvis Costello became increasingly more unpleasant and demanding and at their worst, completely joyless. The last two on WB with Thomas, "Brutal Youth" and "All This Useless Beauty" are as good as anything in Costello's career, even though both were slapped together from old and new material. I happen to like "The Juliet Letters," "The Delivery Man," and "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane" and I truly adore the Bacharach collaboration "Painted From Memory," the Allen Toussaint collaboration "The River In Reverse" and the record no one believes exists "Momofuku," an absolute return to rocking form. But I'll be the first to admit, these records can be a chore.
Yesterday's comments weren't the only inspiration for today's follow-up. I listened to Costello's "National Ransom," his 2010 release produced T-Bone Burnett. It made me angry. I didn't like it when I first heard it five years ago. But I found a vinyl copy and went into it fresh, even excitedly. It's crap. It sounds like crap, as if you were listening to the whole thing with dust on your stylus. E.C's vocals sound forced and uncomfortable and the songs themselves try way too hard. Even "The Juliet Letters," a recording made with a string quartet, sounds more sincere and Costello-like than the scrambled mess that is "National Ransom." This record, for me, exemplifies the reasons for Costello's once loyal fanbase, to take a hike, though of course, as RichD has proven, it happened many years prior for some.
These aforementioned records, even with the many highs, suffer from being incredibly pretentious. (I won't even mention the classical releases or the Mingus records.) I love the man, and yet I completely understand why many fans have become estranged. Listening to Elvis Costello records have become work. It's a job you don't want to go to, but know you have to.
Another friend challenged me to come up with Costello's 10 Best Songs since 2001. (Talk about a job you don't want to go to.)
In random order, I chose these.
When It Sings
River In Reverse
Song With Rose
No Hiding Place
Sugar Won't Work
American Gangster Time
Look them up, if you care. Something tells me, most of you don't.
For your listening pleasure, here is the song that annoys me most from "National Ransom." Try staying until the whistling, and then you're free to throw a coffee mug against the wall.
I refuse to give up on Elvis Costello, just as I have refused to give up on McCartney, Bowie and so many others legends who seems to get tossed aside so casually, as if they were only as good as their last release. Their brilliant contribution to music far outweighs their missteps, though I may never forgive the Stones for "Dirty Work" and "Voodoo Lounge."