Friday, December 30, 2005

Elvis Is Still King

I just read Graeme Thomson's Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello. Not a bad book, as these things go. Like many such works, where an artist isn't through with his career, the earlier chapters--where his story is most settled--are the best.

I also don't agree with Thomson's taste. He seems to think Elvis's greatest albums are Get Happy!!, Imperial Bedroom and King Of America. To me, his first three--My Aim Is True, This Year's Model and Armed Forces--are still his greatest; if I had to name his top 25 songs (and he's got the depth to make that worthwhile), about 15 would come from this trio. Meanwhile, "middle" work, like Imperial Bedroom and King Of America may still stand up, but don't seem that much better than other albums of that era, such as Punch The Clock (and intentionally slick album which Costello doesn't have much use for) or Blood & Chocolate. And Thomson thinks less of later stuff, such as Spike (Elvis's best after 1980) and Brutal Youth, than I do.

It can be intriguing, in looking back at a major artist, how not just his work, but our vision of his work, changes through time. Back when he was putting out albums every year, each new song was another exciting provocation--was it a new direction, or a dead end? A few decades (!) down the road, however, it's easier to see how each work fits into an ever-growing portrait.

For instance, the first three albums, all released in the late 70s, even though they show change and growth (the second adds his band, the Attractions, and the third is much more heavily produced), now seem the rock--the punk rock--on which he built his early rep, and also against which everything else would be compared. The book demonstrates, though, that he was hardly a punk by nature--he just was in the right place at the right time; he could easily have been a softer, "melodic" songwriter of an earlier era, but punk allowed him to rock up his stuff--a good deal--and concentrate on his "bitter" side. It took him some time to get past the rep, but it's hard to imagine him making the same splash as Declan MacManus.

Then, looking at his next couple albums, the step toward the soulful and stripped down, Get Happy!!, still sounds (to my ears) part of his earlier work, while his next, Trust, is a halting step in new directions which would be more fully explored in the rest of the 80s.

The future of rock and pop seems to be singles, with people dowloading numbers on iPods and MP3s. For that matter, my main way of listening to music since the 80s has been mixed tapes, so some Costello numbers I've heard countless times, others rarely. One good effect such a book can have is to make you pull out old albums (sometimes on vinyl) and give stuff another shot.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll bite and post here. Elvis is the gift that keeps on giving. The body of work is astonishing (how about that list of top 25, or are you just a tease?) and after all the side trips to country and classical and all the Cole Porter aspirations, he puts out "When I Was Cruel," which is as savage and rocking as his earliest material. The man is a musical god. Oh, and he rocks live, too. Still.

12:58 PM, January 03, 2006  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Maybe I'll get around to a top 25 list some day--the hard part is going over all the hundreds of songs he's done (and I'm not even sure how to count all his side trips). Until then, perhaps anonymous would give us his/her top ten Elvis list.

1:08 PM, January 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I Want You" is always number one (and destroys me live). Too pressed for time for a complete top ten, but other faves are: "What's So Funny...", "Jack of All Parades," "Oliver's Army," "When I Was Cruel No. 2," "Just a Memory," "Shipbuilding," and (cheating a little cause of Burt Bachrach) "God Give Me Strength."

3:54 PM, January 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops, forgot "Mystery Dance." Anything that can sound good covered by Justine Bateman is an awesome song.

3:56 PM, January 03, 2006  
Blogger LAGuy said...

See a January 4 post for my response.

5:40 PM, January 03, 2006  

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