This past week, Elvis Costello announced that he will perform at the House of Blues on April 22 alongside his backing band The Imposters. The show is set to be Costello’s first North Texas performance since his solo show at The Majestic Theatre in 2016. Seeing as Costello has 30 albums of material to pull from, it’s difficult to create a definitive list of his best songs, so instead, here are our choices for 10 Elvis Costello songs that deserve more light than they are usually given:
“Tokyo Storm Warning,” Blood & Chocolate
Well, he may be a “rocker” in the colloquial sense, but rarely does Costello rock this hard. Described in the liner notes to Blood & Chocolate as a “thug's nightmare travelogue from Narita to Heysel, from Pompeii to Port Stanley, Paris and London,” “Tokyo Storm Warning” swings like mad, with Costello’s voice breaking at the edges, riding one furious stomp for all 6½ minutes and peaking in one of the best hooks EC has ever written. Similarities between “Tokyo Storm Warning” and Radiohead’s “Electioneering” have been noted, and rightfully. If Thom Yorke and company did borrow from “Tokyo Storm Warning,” they chose well.
“Beyond Belief,” Imperial Bedroom
This track showcases Costello’s oft-forgotten knack for melodic composition. While not “poppy,” per se, and lacking a singular hook, the verses of “Beyond Belief” are packed with micro-hooks, and Costello never settles on one in particular, creating a rising sense of tension that builds throughout the song. He also chooses not to shout or sing in his typical nasal tenor, but rather a more intimate croon that occasionally lapses to and from a whisper. That tension gives the song an urgency, a propulsion that many of his faster, more aggressive songs lack.
“Man Out of Time,” Imperial Bedroom
EC has said that Imperial Bedroom is his “most optimistic work to date.” That label applies mostly to its musical content, as “Man Out of Time” is about a man with “a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge.” While that line may be one of his most straightforward metaphors, the whole song is some of Costello’s densest lyricism, and his former backing band, The Attractions, cradle that thicket with a lush, Beatle-esque instrumental aided by production from former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. Wrap that with a fierce intro and outro, and you have the centerpiece of what is arguably Elvis Costello’s best record.
“Goon Squad,” Armed Forces
Costello's political frustrations are painted like a fresco all over Armed Forces, and “Goon Squad” is no exception. Whether it’s an allegory for the military, its lower ranks, or the “machine” of corporate life, it all erupts in this furious chiming boogie-rock stomper. Costello even makes an oblique reference to the “Skin like a Nazi lampshade” line in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus” by shouting, “You'll never get to make a lampshade out of me.”
“Shipbuilding,” Punch The Clock
Costello followed Imperial Bedroom with Punch The Clock, a notably more eccentric album featuring more adventurous production (some ska here and there), but when he goes back to square one, it always works out. Written in response to the Falklands War, “Shipbuilding” is a solemn piano ballad written from the perspective of a worker constructing ships to replace those being sunk at sea, and how the industry brings tragic revitalization to English shipbuilding towns. “Shipbuilding” was also notably covered by Robert Wyatt, becoming a minor hit single on the U.K. charts. And yes, that amazing trumpet solo is by the one and only Chet Baker.
“God Give Me Strength,” Painted From Memory
The first product of a very fruitful collaboration with songwriting master Burt Bacharach, “God Give Me Strength” is one of the most mature and emotionally resonant songs in the Costello catalog. Initially commissioned as a one-off collaboration for the film Grace of My Heart, the success of the song led to a whole record together, 1998’s Painted From Memory. In his 2015 autobiography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, Costello wrote, "To have written a song like ‘God Give Me Strength’ and simply stopped would have been ridiculous, so about a year later we began a series of writing sessions.”
“When I Was Cruel No. 2,” When I Was Cruel
Perhaps Costello’s most forward-thinking song, at least in terms of production, lyrically “When I Was Cruel No. 2” shows EC’s long-held youthful cynicism melting away. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Costello described the song as one of the 10 songs that defined his life, saying, “Life is more complicated than that. There are sitting targets in the song, and the narrator is like, ‘I could have assassinated these people, but it's not worth it anymore.’”
“Tripwire,” Wise Up Ghost
Costello and The Roots were likely never mentioned in the same sentence apart from maybe a festival lineup, but in 2013 that all changed when the two entities came together for the shockingly good album, Wise Up Ghost. Aside from cementing The Roots’ credibility as musical renaissance men and expanding Costello’s range tenfold, the record has some pretty great songs. “Tripwire” taps into Costello’s fragile whisper register while Questlove and company sparingly back him up with horns and bells — acting more as a fog machine and a spotlight than musical background. If only more artists undertook these kinds of risky collaborations.
“Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” Look Now
Grace of My Heart, the film for which “God Give Me Strength” was written, is loosely based around Carole King’s life writing hits at the Brill Building in 1960s New York, so it made sense for Costello to collaborate with King in the wake of that song’s success. However, it took 20 years for those collaborations to surface on Costello’s 2018 comeback record of sorts, Look Now. Similar to how his collaborations with Burt Bacharach revitalized his songwriting in the '90s, Costello’s collaboration with King, “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” feels like a needed breath of '60s pop fresh air for his first record with The Imposters in a decade.
“I Want You,” Blood & Chocolate
This is the only song on this list that could be considered a “hit” in any way, but it’s still underrated regardless. Shoot, “I Want You” might even be Costello’s masterpiece. All of Costello’s strengths as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist are spotlighted on this track. The song is far from a tornado of lust and rejection à la “Layla.” It’s seething and asphyxiating. It’s the sight of someone at the end of a smoky bar, too drunk in their own misery to look up or go home. It’s the head-pounding frustration of heartbreak. It’s the maddening nonsense of infatuation, the idea that one’s own feelings can overpower any kind of rationality they can muster. It’s the tragic reality of infidelity. It’s the idea that wallowing in one’s own twisted feelings for another are more comforting than nothing at all. It’s 6 minutes, 42 seconds of pure humanity.
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