This 20 track collection covers the albums, artistic phases, evolutions, and bouts of fancy from Elvis Costello in the 1980s – arguably the bespectacled one’s most artistically rewarding decade.
Emerging from Britain’s new wave scene in the late-70s era, Elvis Costello and his blistering three-piece band The Attractions, comprising of bassist Bruce Thomas, Steve Nieve (keys), and Pete Thomas (drums), were ready to join the vanguard for an ’80s takeover. Musically, Costello was up for the challenge.
He immediately consolidated his creative integrity with the warm soul-rock of the Nick Lowe-produced classic, GET HAPPY!! (1980) ★★★★★. With this sprawling 20-track mini-epic, and the almost as great hotchpotch curio TRUST (1981) ★★★★½, Costello cut back on the vitriolic wordplay and break-neck tempos found on his earlier records, rather creating directly emotional songs with a heart, enunciating hook after hook, while encouraging a wider array of musical tricks and treats from his brilliant trio.
Eager to move on musically, Costello then spread his artistic wings with an album recorded in Nashville covering his favourite vintage country numbers, including the minor hit ‘Good Year for the Roses’. The result was ALMOST BLUE (1981) ★★★, his first album not to be produced by long time collaborator Nick Lowe. Overseen by big name country record producer, arranger, and songwriter Billy Sherrill, we can now look back on Costello’s career arc and pinpoint this moment when he took his first real artistic sidestep, akin to the shock of The Juliette Letters some 12 years later, or his many collaborations with artists such as Burt Bacharach or Allen Toussaint. Almost Blue paved the way for our hero to indulge his obsession and quenchless thirst for indomitable explorations into a wide range of musical styles.
Costello then reverted to his pop roots and created his very own “Sgt Pepper” masterpiece, the emotionally lyrical creation IMPERIAL BEDROOM (1982) ★★★★, a challenging collection of moody, evocative songs with intricate arrangements and instrumentation (‘Man Out of Time’, ‘Beyond Belief’), complex melody (‘The Long Honeymoon’, ‘Human Hands’) and broad canvassed jazz and lounge inflections (‘Town Crier’, ‘Tears Before Bedtime’). It was a continuation of the artist’s high level of output and is impeccably produced by Beatles engineer and studio boffin Geoff Emerick. With this record, Elvis had grown up, and it was his most sonically ambitious undertaking yet.
Then Elvis went all pop in the mid-’80s with the release of the brassy PUNCH THE CLOCK (1983) ★★★½, featuring his biggest US hit to date, the souled-up Mersey beat of ‘Everyday I Write the Book’, and the universally derided GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD (1984) ★★★. Both presided over by the production team of Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer (Madness, Dexy’s Midnight Runners), these albums are somewhat divisive among critics and fans alike, and sound very much “of their time”, plastered with a radio-friendly pop sheen, however the songwriting is up to par and the commercial production is sumptuous, professional, and highly polished.
More detours would ensue with Costello’s first proper solo outing, KING OF AMERICA (1986) ★★★★★. Credited as The Costello Show, the resulting album was as consistently rewarding and cohesive as any in his canon, and the first to be co-produced by guitarist and songwriter T-Bone Burnett. Having temporarily dropped the Attractions, the album features an impressive list of session pros including Jim Keltner, Mitchell Froom, Ron Tutt, Doors bassist Jerry Scheff, and James Burton from Elvis Presley’s T.C.B. band, who provide an American-roots tinged accompaniment to an exquisitely crafted set. The Attractions even perform on one track, the career highlight ‘Suit of Lights’.
The Attractions would reunite for the bristly BLOOD & CHOCOLATE (1986) ★★★★½, his second album for the year, which maintained the quality, and saw Nick Lowe back in the producer’s chair. The artist would adopt the moniker Napoleon Dynamite for his 11th release, and the album contains a collection of lacerating rockers (‘Uncomplicated’, ‘Tokyo Storm Warning’), cinematic noir (‘I Want You’, ‘Battered Old Bird’), disillusioned ballads (‘Poor Napoleon’, ‘Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head’), and pop gold (‘Blue Chair’, ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now’), proving Costello could switch back with self-assurance while anchoring the music to Nieve’s Hammond organ, and his own ragged, rough-edged guitar sound, the signature of his best work.
The band reformation was short lived as he would release another solo album before the decade was out, the eclectic SPIKE (1989) ★★★★. Having switched labels from F-Beat to corporate giant Warner Bros, the sprawling melting pot of densely rich compositions found a garrulous Costello taking in Irish folk (‘Any King’s Shilling’), angry politicising (‘Tramp the Dirt Down’), big band arrangements (‘Stalin Malone’), and New Orleans gospel (‘Deep Dark Truthful Mirror’). He had also recently collaborated with Paul McCartney on the ex-Beatle’s Flowers in the Dirt (1989), and Elvis included some leftover pop vignettes from that project, such as the hit single ‘Veronica’, and ‘Pads Paws and Claws’.
After a stellar showing throughout the 1980s, Costello would move in several different directions, sometimes all at once, and re-tune his compass multiple times in the ensuing decades as he sustained his monstrous appetite for musical genres. This 20-track high fidelity compilation, highlights the mighty repertoire from a brilliant artist in his most rewarding decade.
Elvis Costello | High Fidelity: Elvis Costello in the 80s mp3
- High Fidelity – Get Happy!! (1980)
- Coal-Train Robberies – Spike (1989)
- I Hope You’re Happy Now – Blood & Chocolate (1986)
- Shipbuilding – Punch the Clock (1983)
- New Lace Sleeves – Trust (1981)
- Blue Chair – Blood & Chocolate (1986)
- New Amsterdam – Get Happy!! (1980)
- Brilliant Mistake – King of America (1986)
- I’m Your Toy (Hot Burrito #1) – Almost Blue (1981)
- American Without Tears – King of America (1986)
- Pidgin English – Imperial Bedroom (1982)
- Love Field – Goodbye Cruel World (1984)
- Everyday I Write the Book – Punch the Clock (1983)
- Jack of All Parades – King of America (1986)
- Suit of Lights – King of America (1986)
- Strict Time – Trust (1981)
- Pills and Soap – Punch the Clock (1983)
- The Only Flame in Town – Goodbye Cruel World (1984)
- Watch Your Step – Trust (1981)
- The Loved Ones – Imperial Bedroom (1982)
Running time: 72.03 mins
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A lot of really good music on that collection. I have all those albums except Spike (CD)
I really like Spike. Always have. A bit of a kitchen sink approach but great songs. Especially Coal Train Robberies. Underrated. Thanks for reading CBH
Lots of good cuts on that one ‘Let Him Dangle’ is a good one. He just has such a high standard. A favorite of mine.
Yes I love Let Him Dangle. I think it’s in his latest tour set list, and I’ve got tix for April 2023.
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I first noticed his debut album in a local drugstore sitting on the shelf while it played over the speakers….which is odd since I am from a small southern town in Tennessee…you would think it would have been George Jones.
I have been a fan of his ever since. He did pick out a great song from Almost Blue with Hot Burrito #1.
I agree. Love that Gram Parsons song.
Spike has always been my favorite of the 80s, maybe if all time
I love Spike too. I tried to fit more off that album onto this comp. I simply ran out of space. Thanks for reading and commenting Neil.
Why have you split 72 minutes into two sides? You’d never get 72 minutes of music onto a single LP (with two sides) and if it’s a CD length (which it is) the ‘sides’ are irrelevant. Other than that, an interesting read– although how anyone can give Imperial Bedroom fewer than five stars is a mystery.
Good point(s). Fixed. I hear you regarding Imperial Bedroom. 4-stars is still very solid. For me not quite as superb as Get Happy!! but some days it is a five star LP.
Thanks for reading David and taking the time to comment.