Art by Molly
Elvis Costello’s voice sounds like a freight train wobbling down the tracks, bound to crash at any minute. His body of work spans so many different genres and so many decades, that his voice has to be one of the strings that tie it all together. From pub rock to punk and new wave, to soul and country, he’s always clever with his word choice, and has been named a “pop encyclopedia” because of his unusually broad list of vocabulary.
Naturally, the first songs I heard by him were ‘Radio Radio’ and ‘Pump It Up’. I’m pretty sure one of those two songs was actually on a mixtape that Kellie made me. I had done the Beatles, I knew Elvis Presley well enough, and I’d gone through my Ramones phase, but I’d somehow managed to miss out on this major musical figure. After some quality googling and raiding of my local CD store, I discovered that in Elvis Costello’s world there exists everything: desire, regret, dancing, social commentary, sex, smoking, war, abuse, extreme joy, silliness, nostalgia, even Americana, but mostly stories and glimpses into a complicated life. Hand someone his complete discography and you have an irreverent guide to life.
I’ve yet to listen to the entirety of Costello’s 23 album discography, but I like that it’s virtually a life-long undertaking to try to understand it all. What I’ve given here is a list of my favorites and some of what I’d consider basics for getting your feet wet. I had to limit myself to ten because I could actually sit here all day and give you a list of my top 50 Elvis Costello Songs. This is by no means a complete list, but a sampler of sorts for the Costello-newbie to understand his wide range.
1. Alison – 1977
I’m not gonna get too sentimental
Like those other sticky valentines
‘Cause I don’t know if you are loving somebody
I only know it isn’t mine
Allison, I know this world is killing you
Oh, Allison, my aim is true
From Costello’s debut album, this song produced the lyric “My aim is true” which also serves as the album title and one of his most famous lyrics (and formerly my computer password). Here we’re getting a glimpse into the style of all of the other ‘love songs’ he’ll come to write. What I mean is that ‘Alison’ is not lovey dovey, its not about the butterflies in your stomach, it’s a sad love song. It’s a man looking at a past lover and seeing that she’s taken up with an old friend of his, but is worse off for doing it.
2. Pump It Up – 1978
Out in the fashion show, down in the bargain bin
You put your passion out under the pressure pin
Fall into submission, hit-and-run transmission
No use wishing now for any other sin
Pump it up, until you can feel it
Pump it up, when you don’t really need it
So much new wave goodness here. This song gained Elvis popularity outside just the US and the UK. Is it about masturbation? The late 70’s drug-filled club scene? Some kind of social commentary? Whatever it is, its absolute classic Costello.
3. Little Triggers – 1978
Little triggers that you pull with your tongue
Little triggers, I don’t want to be hung up, strung up
When you don’t call up
You know that feeling when you really really like someone and every little thing they do drives you crazy, you spend hours over analyzing why they’re calling or not calling? That is this song. Costello just gives all those things a name: little triggers.
4. Opportunity -1980
She was sitting pretty on a velvet cushion
But her bedroom eyes were like a button she was pushing
She said, “When they get to Dover they’ll be be taking over”
I said I’d come to her defense and then she pulled me over
From the soul-infused album Get Happy!! we hear something quite different here, not only was he tired of the “limitations” of punk and experimenting with soul and Motown inspired sounds, he also has The Attractions backing him. This song is so bouncy and the lyrics fall perfectly with the music, it really does sound like you’re being mocked by a window of opportunity.
5. New Lace Sleeves – 1981
The salty lips of the socialite sisters
With their continental fingers that have
Never seen working blisters
Oh I know they’ve got their problems
I wish I was one of them
My #2 favorite Elvis song. There’s so much to dissect from the lyrics, one of his best examples of storytelling. Opening with a morning after scene: “Bad lovers face to face in the morning/Shy apologies and polite regrets”, we’re reminded that we all have our secrets. Whoever this girl is, she can see the strange societal expectations she’s held to. Elvis ironically understands the silly illusions behind her being a “socialite sister” but still wants to be a part of her world. Or maybe he just wants to be one of her “problems”. The title phrase “and you look so pretty in your new lace sleeves” fades out in a way that starts out condescending but turns almost affectionate. Elvis describes fingers as “Continental” in this song — COME ON, who does that?!
6. From A Whisper To A Scream – 1981
Oh it’s not easy to resist temptation
Walking around looking like a figment of somebody else’s imagination
Taking ev’ry word she says just like an open invitation
But the power of persuasion is no match for anticipation
Featuring guest vocals by Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze. Nobody encapsulates anticipation as well as Elvis: “Like a finger running down a seam”. YES, so simply put but so perfect.
7. Brilliant Mistake – 1986
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
Its now the late 80’s, and Elvis has a beard. The album this song comes from, King of America, was a return to something more similar to his debut album’s sound. Its undoubtedly folk-rocky and he’s dropped The Attractions. ‘Brilliant Mistake’ itself show’s Costello’s ability to poke fun at the sometimes artificial nature of the US’s modern landscape.
8. I Want You – 1986
He tossed some tatty compliment your way
I want you
And you were fool enough to love it when he said
“I want you”
I want you
The truth can’t hurt you it’s just like the dark
It scares you witless
This was the song that sold me on Elvis. Its really an outlier compared to his usual style, but its probably my favorite song, like, ever. Beyond the musical technique or the cleverness of his lyrics, this one is raw emotion. Yes, its haunting, heart wrenching and calculating, but god is it sexy. It all comes back to his voice, it forces you to sit up straight and actively listen. The song builds up to a release that is never fully realized.
9. Drum and Bone – 2008
Maybe we’re nothing but skin and bone
Nerves that shatter
Tongues that flatter
Lips that mutter
Lashes that flutter
Momofuku, the album this song comes from has been characterized by the speed at which it was created – showing us a much looser and natural Elvis. And yes, the album is named after Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen noodles, not David Chang’s restaurants. Features vocals from Jenny Lewis, Elvis also appears on Jenny’s 2008 album Acid Tongue on the song ‘Carpetbaggers’. Whoever thought of making these two work together deserves a medal. See! Elvis can play nice with others, too.
10. Sulphur To Sugarcane – 2009
It’s not very far from Sulphur to Sugarcane
‘Cos everywhere I travel pretty girls call my name
I give ’em as squeeze and they shoot me a wink
I buy their hot-headed husbands a long cool drink
Costello goes full on country here. Collaborating with T Bone Burnett, we got the fiddles and the banjos and it sounds light years away from ‘Alison’. ‘Sulphur To Sugarcane’ is a vulgar travelogue of sorts, moving from one cost to the other, Elvis brags about his conquests.
If you have Spotify click here to listen to these songs plus many more of my Elvis Costello favorites!