Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Elvis Costello

  • My Aim Is True [Columbia, 1977] B+
  • This Year's Model [Columbia, 1978] A
  • Armed Forces [Columbia, 1979] A-
  • Taking Liberties [Columbia, 1980] B
  • Spike [Warner Bros., 1989] B
  • Mighty Like a Rose [Warner Bros., 1991] C+
  • Brutal Youth [Warner Bros., 1994] *
  • Kojak Variety [Warner Bros., 1995] Choice Cuts
  • Extreme Honey: The Very Best of the Warner Bros. Years [Warner Bros., 1997] Choice Cuts
  • The Delivery Man [Lost Highway, 2004] ***
  • Secret, Profane & Sugarcane [Hear Music, 2009] **

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

My Aim Is True [Columbia, 1977]
I like the nerdy way this guy comes on, I'm fascinated by his lyrics, and I approve of his rock and roll orientation; in fact, I got quite obsessive about his two cuts on the Bunch of Stiff Records import. Yet odd as it may seem, I find that he suffers from Jackson Browne's syndrome--that is, he's a little boring. Often this malady results from overconcentration on lyrics and can be cured by a healthy relationship with a band. Since whenever I manage to attend to a Costello song all the way through I prefer it to "The Pretender." I hope he recovers soon. B+

This Year's Model [Columbia, 1978]
This is not punk rock. But anyone who thinks it's uninfluenced should compare the bite and drive of the backup here to the well-played studio pub-rock of his debut and ask themselves how come he now sounds as angry as he says he feels. I find his snarl more attractive musically and verbally than all his melodic and lyrical tricks, and while I still wish he liked girls more, at least I'm ready to believe he's had some bad luck. A

Armed Forces [Columbia, 1979]
Like his predecessor, Bob Dylan, this ambitious tunesmith offers more as a phrasemaker than as an analyst or a poet, more as a public image than as a thinking, feeling person. He needs words because they add color and detail to his music. I like the more explictly sociopolitical tenor here. But I don't find as many memorable bits of language as I did on This Year's Model. And though I approve of the more intricate pop constructions of the music, I found TYM's relentless nastiness of instrumental and (especially) vocal attack more compelling. A good record to be sure, but not a great one. A-

Taking Liberties [Columbia, 1980]
OK, twenty more songs, all B sides etc., how could it hold together, but some sentimental part of me is taken with its reflexive passion and half-finished serendipity--this detritus was the work of a punk fellow-traveler, and he'll be missed. "Girls Talk" and "Stranger in the House" and "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea" are more indelible than Get Happy!! at its happiest, and let me put in a word for all 1:43 of the previously unreleased "Hoover Factory," a punless piece of melancholy throwaway sarcasm that reminds us that he's in this because he's pissed, not because he's glib. B

Spike [Warner Bros., 1989]
Paul Whiteman was a bigger star, and though my jazz friends may cringe, I doubt he was as good. But like Elvis C., he made the mistake of applying his refined taste to what he knew was the music of the future--hiring fine players, commissioning Ellington and Copland, emphasizing the danceability of an orchestra too grand to be called a band, he honored the classics. Who knows which of Costello's virtues will seem equally irrelevant 40 or 10 years hence--his obsessive wit? his precise arrangements? his respect for musical history? Unless I'm mistaken, though, he's doomed to be remembered as fatally self-conscious. And doomed as well never to convert the unconverted again. B

Mighty Like a Rose [Warner Bros., 1991]
Too often his pessimism sounds like not just bitterness but spite. He didn't take over the world, and is he mad--not only can't he make the personal political, he can't even make it popular. The Mitchell Froom-produced arrangements here are stuck between Tom Waits as Kurt Weill and Tom Waits as Jackson Browne--Randy Newman is beyond them. So as performed, the good songs are overblown tragedies, the bad ones overblown trifles. The best is the simplest because it's the simplest--"Playboy to a Man," love to hear John Hiatt rockabilly it. The most tragic is the chiliastic "Other Side of Summer," recommended to punk bands in the market for a song with a lot of words in it. And I admit "Invasion Hit Parade" almost makes the spiteful political. Its theory of life is that fascism has a great deal in common with songs you don't like on the radio. C+

Brutal Youth [Warner Bros., 1994]
fussy as Streisand, ugly as sin, touched with grace ("London's Brilliant Parade," "My Science Fiction Twin") *

Kojak Variety [Warner Bros., 1995]
"Strange"; "Payday" Choice Cuts

Extreme Honey: The Very Best of the Warner Bros. Years [Warner Bros., 1997]
"Tramp the Dirt Down"; "Hurry Down Doomsday" Choice Cuts

The Delivery Man [Lost Highway, 2004]
The Impostors sound even more pissed off than Elvis, who seems less embittered as a result ("Button My Lip," "There's a Story in Your Voice"). ***

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane [Hear Music, 2009]
His pal T Bone and some Nashville cats help him simulate simplicity ("Sulphur to Sugarcane," "I Dreamed of My Old Lover"). **

See Also