Obsessions into careers — Elvis Costello

Carl Wilson reviewing Elvis Costello’s memoir:

While it’s true the “angry” Costello was a caricature, it was one in which he was complicit. (Showbiz, again.) More so, many of his songs are argumentative, which is one of their virtues—unlike a lot of more impressionistic musicians, he has a restless and tenacious mind that likes to pull subjects apart and reassemble them askew. (Contra David Lee Roth, critics don’t love Elvis Costello so much because he looks like them but because he thinks like them.)

And his subjects, especially on his early albums, often involved gender roles and sexual tension—the way that both sides of an amorous exchange objectify, exploit, and commodify each other and weaponize sex for status. He often views sociopolitical problems through a sexual lens as well and always from the masculine side. It all certainly enhanced his art. He shouldn’t be called out more than other male musicians because he confronted these dynamics rather than being oblivious to them. But neither should he expect total absolution.

My favorite example is a song I didn’t much like until a few years ago: Blood and Chocolate‘s “Poor Napoleon,” boasting a mix that presses the guitars and drums against a hard surface like a shoe on a bug and prominent vocals by Cait O’Riordan, Pogues bassist and Costello’s future wife. The affectless way in which she drops the title mocks the singer’s meditations.

I don’t listen to him much these days, but as I read Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink I’ve dipped into the catalog I still own, returning to Trust as usual, the peak of the Attractions as a tensile unit and opacity: the first half is particularly dense. “He was still singing about girl trouble, but for the first time, the girls in his songs weren’t faceless villains or metaphors for fascism,” Rob Sheffield wrote a few years ago. “And for the first time, he faced up to the possibility that his love life might be less traumatic if he didn’t act like such a tool all the time.” I diverge from the critical line: collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet and Allen Toussaint strike me less as dilettantism and more the curiosity of a peripatetic generalist whose songs aspired to the grasp of his vast record collection.

A couple years ago I participated in an ILM poll for which I contributed the following songs:

1. No Action
2. I Want You
3. New Lace Sleeves
4. New Amsterdam
5. Indoor Fireworks
6. This Year’s Girl
7. I’ll Wear It Proudly
8. Motel Matches
9. The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes
10. Oliver’s Army
11. Hoover Factory
12. I Hope You’re Happy Now
13. The Beat
14. Accidents Will Happen
15. Big Sister’s Clothes
16. America Without Tears
17. King Horse
18. Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head
19. Couldn’t Call It Unexpected #4
20. Watch Your Step
21. Peace in Our Time
22. Beyond Belief
23. Welcome to the Working Week
24. Possession
25. Watching the Detectives
26. I Still Have That Other Girl
27. Talking in the Dark
28. It’s Time
29. Everyday I Write the Book
30. Pump It Up

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