The Over/Under: Elvis Costello


Say what you will about Elvis Costello—he’s certainly got a great sense of timing. When the young Costello first hit the airwaves in 1977, he was just in time to be typecast as a punk rocker with a wary sneer and some Chuck Berry riffs. But the label never quite stuck, and Costello has been a new waver, a classical composer and a blue-eyed soul singer whenever the mood has struck him. With a career spanning more than three decades, he’s resolutely refused to write the same song twice. He’s sung with the Attractions, the Imposters, been a member of the Costello Show and collaborated with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. Not too shabby for the young man once stuck working a day job in the Arden cosmetics “vanity factory.” Despite a gift for pop songwriting that rivals the Beatles, Bowie or the Ramones, there are still some numbers Costello should have reconsidered—and others that should have been huge. On the eve of the release of the new Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, MAGNET’s Emily Tartanella picks the five most overrated and the five most underrated Costello songs.

:: The Five Most Overrated Elvis Costello Songs
1. “Alison” (1977)
Here it is, the 32-year-old elephant in the room. “Alison” is not terrible by any means, but it’s somehow become Costello’s signature track. It’s a truly vicious hate song masquerading as a love song, and while some would call that clever, Costello has been smarter and wittier on dozens of other songs. Perhaps “Alison” stands out because it feels so out of character with the rest of Costello’s career, musically and lyrically, but that doesn’t make it deserving of its praise. Somehow “Alison” remains the only number off of My Aim Is True to have survived into the new millennium, and that’s just unfathomable. With tracks as sharp as “Miracle Man” and “Less Than Zero,” what’s the otherwise average “Alison” doing getting all the airplay?

2. “Veronica” (1989)
Suppose you get two of the best pop songwriters in a room together—say, Costello and Paul McCartney—what would you expect? Probably anything but warmed-over ’80s production and overly sentimental lyricism. “Veronica” remains Costello’s biggest hit in the U.S., and coming from the man behind “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” that’s practically a crime. But hey, it’s not all bad news: “Veronica” is still better than “Ebony And Ivory.”

3. “Pump It Up” (1978)
“Pump It Up” is fun in a silly way but nowhere near deserving of its place in the prime Costello canon. It goes nowhere, with a repetitive beat that isn’t catchy so much as infectious: like new-wave swine flu. Not to mention that, as pop songs about masturbation go, it’s a distant fourth behind “Blister In The Sun,” “Orgasm Addict” and “Pictures Of Lily.”

4. “Accidents Will Happen” (1979)
If the overproduction doesn’t kill you, then that fadeout will. “I just don’t know where to begin”? This is one track Costello doesn’t know how to end. Somehow, this otherwise tedious song got painted over as a glossy pop confection and found its way onto every Costello best-of collection. And lyrically, it’s way below par for the normally sharp songwriter: “Love just doesn’t wait forever/It’s now or never” and groan-inducing pun “They keep you hanging on/Until you’re well hung.” The fact that “Accidents Will Happen” was allowed to open the nearly flawless Armed Forces is proof that, if nothing else, the song’s title is correct.

5. All of Imperial Bedroom (1982)
By 1982, Costello had racked up a series of hits that he has yet to replicate, from the bar-band rock of My Aim Is True to the political jibes of Armed Forces, not the mention the nu-soul of 1980’s Get Happy!! and the vicious punk of 1978’s This Year’s Model. But then came 1981’s Trust and Almost Blue, and then Imperial Bedroom. The critics went wild because it was a grown-up album from a snotty little rocker, and that’s exactly the problem. Imperial Bedroom was the first in a long series of “mature” albums that critics might have lauded but the rest of the world treated with deliberate indifference. While Imperial Bedroom is the best of the bunch (it’s certainly leagues above 1993’s The Juliet Letters or 1991’s Mighty Like A Rose), it was also the first to see Costello reaching beyond his grasp. Like most objects on this list, it’s not that Imperial Bedroom is badly written or recorded; it’s that it represents a downward spiral that took Costello from pop’s chameleon to its dour grandfather.

“Tears Before Bedtime”:

:: The Five Most Underrated Elvis Costello Songs
1. “Party Girl” (1979)
I started the overrated list with “Alison,” but before there’s panic in the streets, let me suggest an alternative: the beautiful, near-perfect “Party Girl.” It’s everything “Alison” was meant to be (a mournful number about a girl who’s too wrapped up in her own downfall to notice that you’ve written her a song), and it’s got a great tune, a propulsive melody and enough clever lyricism to keep even the most literate fans satisfied. Most important, it’s sincere without being sentimental, scorned but still hopeful. Costello was just 25 when he wrote ”Party Girl,” and he sounds more world-weary than Tom Waits at a child’s birthday party.

2. “Pouring Water On A Drowning Man” (2002)
While wordplay-laden tracks such as “Watching The Detectives” and “New Amsterdam” are always good fun, a song like this brings out one often forgotten attribute: Costello’s powerful, even beautiful, voice. This acoustic number, originally written by Drew Baker and Dani McCormick and found on the 2002 reissue of 1986’s Blood & Chocolate, far surpasses the version on 1995’s Kojak Variety for simple power and raw emotion. Costello might be an acclaimed songwriter, but his ability as a singer sometimes gets overlooked.

3. “The Name Of This Thing Is Not Love” (2004)
While many fans have (justifiably) dismissed Costello’s more recent work as pretentious or hackneyed, there are still gems to be found. Of course, both jazz and classical music are relevant, even essential, but Costello’s approach is to appropriate new genres and then turn on the music that he once believed in so intently. (You will never be cooler or smarter than rock, Elvis.) But on the critically neglected The Delivery Man, Costello delivers “The Name Of This Thing Is Not Love,” a blistering number good enough to make us forgive him for 2003’s North. And that’s saying something.

4. “45” (2002)
Another recent song that proves Costello still has some bite left, “45” takes us from World War II to the birth of rock to the modern age, never once dipping into pretension or cliché. “45” has all the necessary ingredients for a classic Costello song: Take one scorching melody, add some lyrical cleverness and sauté with an old-school snarl. On a break-up song whose stakes are high, Costello delivers the line “There’s a stack of shellac and vinyl/Which is yours now and which is mine?” in a way that’s both brutal and thoughtful. We always did like him more when he was cruel.

5. “Rocking Horse Road” (1994)
“Rocking Horse Road” is a torch song for those who’ve given up on torch songs. It’s not that we don’t want Costello to grow up; we just don’t want him to grow soft. What makes “Rocking Horse Road” so powerful is that Costello gives it everything he’s got, at a time when many fans had already written him off. Though Brutal Youth might have brought Costello and the Attractions back together, it wasn’t so much a return-to-form as a kiss-off. If Costello was going to make a straightforward rock record, it was going to be on his own terms. And “Rocking Horse Road” is a perfect example: it’s a little strange, a little sad, and while Brutal Youth might have spawned moderate hit “13 Steps Lead Down” and delicate jazz number “Favorite Hour,” it’s this melancholy, unforgettable track that remains after the album’s end.

24 replies on “The Over/Under: Elvis Costello”

You kidding? That would imply people have actually heard of that record in the first place! That entire album is a f*&%ing masterpiece! truly beyond belief…

I’m not sure where it officially rates in the eyes of Costello fans, but a non-hit that packs a lot of punch is Deep Dark Truthful Mirror, off the Spike album. Mind you it sits next to Veronica on that album, so it’s easy to look underrated based on the company it’s keeping.

While not all of E.C.’s forrays into disparate musical styles have been triumphant, he is without doubt the ballsiest songwriter(and most talented) in the world for taking those chances. By slamming Imperial Bedroom,(arguably one of his best albums ever),you have exposed your self for a tin-eared suckfish to be sure… balls to you daddy!!

-mick O’

I have to say, rather unbelievable. If this had been a deliberate hatchet job like Street Team, which can be delicious vicious fun, well OK then. But this is hack work under the guise of serious music journalism (though, yes, I understand it’s subjective opinion; still asks a certain amount of intergrity). Barely know where to start. I can agree with the ‘Alison’ choice, no problem (though the US single version, which added on some syrupy subtle strings, was an improvement in that it made the song into it baldly was: a odd little pop torch song of its times). ‘Pump It Up,’ OK, though again in the context of its time it was a legitimate adrenaline booster (& does the guy have to be literate every damn song? Umm, let’s talk Dylan, even at his peak). & ‘Veronica’ is indeed fluff though has a damnably hummable wormhole melody. But it’s the assessment of Imperial Bedroom that is stupefying. Other than Brutal Youth, it’s the last great Costello album. I don’t know a Costello fan that doesn’t marvel at that record. ‘Beyond Belief’ (fittingly, in the context of this rant) needs to be listened to again by Ms Tartanella. At the time of its release, I was as huge a fan of Costello as one could be. Believed him to possess songwriting nous unparalleled by any of his peers & close to rivalling Lennon/McCartney (which is why his output since the mid-90s is so crushing. Every new album, I read the reviews – “return to form’ the usual lure – and every time, the sigh of disappointment for once was). And I HATED Imperial Bedroom. Could not believe it was so opaque, over-produced et cetera. About the 4th, maybe 5th listen, it came down on me like an avalanche. Yes it’s more baroque than anything before or since, but it transcends that first impression and rewards time after time after time. THEN, to scroll down to the ‘underated,’ and 4 out of 5 are fairly recent, indeed my breath is taken. Should that have been the intention, well done. If, on the other hand, Ms. Tarantello has no tongue in either cheek, then ‘gobsmacked’ is the only response. Seems to me one could almost spin the wheel at random over those first 6 albums (yes Almost Blue was a conceit, though Trust is another argument waiting to happen) and happen upon underrated gems aplenty (Riot Act, Possession, just off the top of my head) As I said, the last time I received a Costello album with unvarnished enthusiasm upon first listen was Brutal Youth, which, as stated in the Rocking Horse Road inclusion, WAS a true ‘return to form,’ with the songwriting matching the energy. Usually this RTF nonsense is only in reference to new wavey energy while glossing over the pedestrian, sludgey content of the songs themselves; All This Useless Beauty was hailed as such. Delivery Man. So will the next one be. And of course I’ll dutifully, hopefully, with my 30+ years ago memories hopping me up with possibility, seek it out & listen to it, then walk away with my nostalgia drooping like the sad shadow it undoubtedly is. But this particular edition of Over/Under, which don’t get me wrong, I love this feature, feels to me like one of those interviews with an edgy new songwriter/musician/bandleader that slags off the Beatles with an impudent sneer, thinking it’s SO very iconoclastic when it’s little but underinformed prattle. But then geez, hell do I know, I’m 53. Whatever perspective I bring to this is probably undermined by my calcifying brain and incipient dementia. So hey, thanks at least for getting my blood up….deftkantian

Sure is a list inspired to draw ire. Imperial Bedroom is over rated by whom, exactly? Ok, so the songs are slower and it actually has some singing on it instead of wall to wall sneer. That’s not a bad thing, nor is it over rated. Sleep of the Just, for example, likely belongs on the underrated list. Don’t blame Mighty Like a Rose on IMperial Bedroom, blame Mighty Like a Rose.

On the other hand, I agree that 45 and much of When I Was Cruel are underrated

On the underrated tip: I’ll never understand why “Welcome to the Working Week,” “No Action” and “Hand in Hand” weren’t promoted as monster singles.

I don’t care that much about the other over-rated songs, but Imperial Bedroom is over-rated? Most people don’t know what Imperial Bedroom is so that is reason number 1 against it being on there. Reason number 2 is that it is a great album that never gets old no matter how many times I listen to it.

Like most of the best albums by anyone, it may take a while to grow on you so whoever wrote this review probably hasn’t heard it more than a couple times. If they have heard it many times, I’d like to hear a song by song review of why they don’t like them. It’s funny that they include Tears Before Bedtime as an over-rated song. Great song that nobody knows.

I think North was much more overrated than Imperial Bedroom. And Beyond Belief can never be enough rated.

I’d actually agree about Imperial Bedroom being overrated. I like it a lot but it’s never drawn me in the way most of his other records do.

with such a large catalog of releases, Elvis warrants 2 over/under lists. What we’ve got here is unsatisfying and rings hollow. Alison is an easy target, and there’s nothing wrong with a vicious hate song anyway. Every Day I Write the Book should be on the list. And the underrated list sucks, other than including Party Girl. What about Green Shirt, Shot With His Own Gun, Night Rally, Radio Sweetheart,, Secondary Modern?

Party Girl rips off McCartney’s “You Never Give Me Your Money” in the outro, and you’re choosing it anyway? Okay…

I’m not the hugest Costello fan but I love Imperial Bedroom…and actually clicked this link in hopes to find my favorite Costello song “Beyond Belief” on the under-rated list…instead the whole album is panned. Ouch.

Dear Emily Tartanella: this is a provocative article, challenging long-established opinions of Costello’s work. That’s great. However, you misquoted the lyrics of “Accidents Will Happen” in your critique. This diminishes your argument about the song.

Elvis can only be compared to himself. If you are discussing his work, you can only compare his successful with his own less successful. The breadth, longevity, quantity, and, yes, quality, of his work in the years since My Aim Is True (1977) stands with a handful of great contemporaries, including Dylan, Springsteen, Byrne, Gabriel, Waits, and Bowie. In examining his risktaking career, “successful” vs “disappointing” might apply, but over or underrated has absolutely no meaning when talking about Elvis Costello.

I can agree with Imperial Bedroom being overrated. Some critics went wild about it, but to me it’s not one of his best albums.
As most underrated – or maybe just over-looked – I’d definitely say Blood & Chocolate.

Are those the actual lyrics to “Accidents Will Happen”? I always heard the lines as:

Oh I just don’t know where to begin
Though he says he’ll wait forever
It’s now or never
But she keeps him hanging on
The silly champion

What a fool. I’d like to say that most of Elvis’ 90s and 2000s records are excellent. This fool says “Mighty Like a Rose” is lame?! The Alan Toussaint record is so-so, as is “North,” but “Delivery Man” and “When I Was Cruel” are great. I love his show on Sundance Channel. Elvis Costello’s 32-year career of vital, wonderful music is unparalled. Sure, he never wrote songs like the Beatles and Stones in their 60s heyday, but he simply is as good as Lennon/McCartney combined.

Elvis is beyond this type of critique. How can these songs be considered over-rated? I think he puts his best into all of his songs. You might not like a song or think it got too much air play, but they are all great songs. Elvis is a true music man, and an ambassador for American musical traditions, and one of the greatest song writers of our age. I just hope he keeps writing and playing great tunes for at least another 30 years.

After reading these over a long period of time, I’ve finally gotten the feel for the concept of the “Over/Under”. The author isn’t saying that the overrated songs are overrated compared to the work of other songwriters/artists – they are weighting the songs against the author’s own catalog. They aren’t saying that “Allison”, “Pump It Up” and “Accidents Will Happen” are overrated in general – just that they get more attention then they deserve when compared to some of Elvis’ better songs. Sure, “Pump It Up” is a great song and it’s fun to sing along and pound the steering wheel when it comes on, but is it better then “No Action”? Does it deserve more attention then say, “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea”? Some will say yes, some will say no.

As far as underrated goes, there’s a long list. Everybody has favorite EC songs that aren’t “hits”. Some of my personal favorites – “Less Than Zero”, “Miracle Man”, “Crawling To The USA”, “Tiny Steps” and “Riot Act”.

You must be joking!! If anything, Elvis Costello Is underrated!! He has so much great music! You’re absolutely nuts!!

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