Interested in Elvis Costello? Here’s Where to Start

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 3 2012 10:54 AM

Where Do I Start With Elvis Costello?

Elvis Costello
Singer-songwriter Elvis Costello.

Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for SeriousFun Children's Network

Elsewhere in Slate, read John Lingan’s article on Elvis Costello’s underappreciated literary legacy.

Elvis Costello has explored so many small rooms in his musical taste that no ten songs could convey the whole house. Starting with My Aim is True in 1977 and lasting through Imperial Bedroom in 1982, he made a series of six records that could all serve as a single-stop introduction. Other than Almost Blue, a collection of country covers, they all exhibit his early vocal snarl and biting lyrics. I’ve chosen some of the most representative tracks from those albums, though I’m sure a couple Get Happy!! boosters will take issue with my overlooking that one.

Both Get Happy!!, written in the style of Stax soul, and Almost Blue (the aforementioned country collection) are stylistic concept albums. Costello continued this trend with King of America in 1986, though that record’s Americana-influenced acoustic sound has proved to be the general starting point for the genre he inhabits most often nowadays. As roots music it’s pretty stiff, though “Brilliant Mistake” remains one of his best and best-loved songs.

Since then, Costello has recorded albums with the classical Brodsky Quartet, the pop composer Burt Bacharach, the jazz big band Metropole Orchestra, New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, and opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter, as well as rock albums with The Attractions and his newer band The Imposters (which has only a different bassist). From all these different efforts I've chosen “Hora Decubitus” and “The Sharpest Thorn” because they show just how far afield Costello’s traveled yet how good he can still be in some of these more distant musical landscapes. The former is a Charles Mingus composition from 1959, to which Costello wrote original lyrics. The latter was co-written with Toussaint for their 2006 post-Katrina tribute to New Orleans.

Costello’s most recent records were both serious roots albums, with dobros and fiddles and T-Bone Burnett producing. Your guess is as good as mine what he’s recording now. But that’s part of the fun.

You can also listen to these songs on Amazon and YouTube: “Watching the Detectives,” from My Aim is True (1977); Radio, Radio,” from This Year's Model (1978); Two Little Hitlers” from Armed Forces (1979); New Lace Sleeves from Trust (1981); “Pidgin English” from Imperial Bedroom (1982);  Brilliant Mistake” from King of America (1986); Battered Old Bird” from Blood & Chocolate (1986); Complicated Shadows” from All This Useless Beauty (1996)*; “Hora Decubitus” with the Metropole Orchestra  from My Flame Burns Blue (2006); The Sharpest Thorn” with Allen Toussaint from The River in Reverse (2006).

*Correction, August 3, 2012: Due to an editing error, this post originally misidentified the year of release for All This Useless Beauty. It came out in 1996, not 1986.


John Lingan has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Point, the Morning News, the Quarterly Conversation, and other venues. He's working on a memoir about becoming a father during college.



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 5:19 PM Washington’s Acting Roles
Sept. 19 2014 3:24 PM Why Innovators Hate MBAs
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.