Elvis Costello isn’t just important to me because of his greatness, he is in some ways the model of who I want to be as a creative person. His example is one I take to heart, having the self-belief to take on any project that sounds like a good idea, without questioning whether its possible. I never know what the next idea I’m going to have will be, and it seems Elvis is the same way. So with the breadth of material he has been responsible for, picking just ten tracks is an enormously difficult task. What is surprising is how similar they all are.
1. “Man Out Of Time”: An unconventional pick, but this underrated gem is my favorite song Elvis has ever written. It has lush instrumentation from The Attractions, lyrics with the kind of cynical humor that typified the period for Elvis, and a restrained sense of melody that made the song stand out from so many of his others. It was possibly the most mature song he had ever written at the time, and it’s one that helped destroy the image of Elvis as one of rock and roll’s angry young men. It’s simply beautiful.
2. “Oliver’s Army”: One of the quintessential Elvis songs, and one that would not have been nearly as great without The Attractions. Elvis’ lyrics were controversial for their use of racial imagery, and they savagely attacked Margaret Thatcher’s administration, but the song had endured because of Elvis’ knack for pop melodies, and Steve Nieve’s genius piano line. That element is what turned a good song into a legendary one, and made Nieve an indispensable part of Elvis’ sound.
3. “Accidents Will Happen”: Opening “Armed Forces”, this song set the stage for Elvis’ best pure pop record. Beginning the record with the words, “I just don’t know where to begin,” was just the first of many word games Elvis would play. Few artists have been able to take bitter, angry sentiments, and wrap them up in the sheen of pop melodies the way Elvis can. This song is one of those examples of making a dark sentiment go down easily.
4. “Indoor Fireworks”: A portrait of a fractured relationship, it’s difficult to tell how autobiographical this song was. Regardless of the underlying truth, the song is an example of Elvis as a master songwriter. Without putting on the affectation of a sneered vocal, and without The Attractions to add shiny layers of sound, “Indoor Fireworks” is a representation of Elvis the artist. His voice never sounded more pure, nor the lyrics more important. It is merely a great, simple song.
5. “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”: Elvis had a knack for writing great pop melodies from the very start, though they were hindered by the band and production on “My Aim Is True”. This song is the rare exception, where the warmth of the melody was able to cut through. It was the first of many songs of his that could be enjoyed on several levels, but didn’t require a precise reading of the lyrics to appreciate. It was beautiful pop music on its own, which is why it stands out among the pack.
6. “Alison”: Elvis’ signature song, “Alison” is one that leaves itself open to interpretation. The refrain of “my aim is true” could be read as either a statement of his own fidelity, or an offer of violence to extricate the namesake from a tough situation. It’s the ability to write a song that can be such polar opposites at the same time that makes Elvis special. For some people, “Alison” is a tender love song, for others it coddles murderous thoughts. Either way, it’s a brilliant song.
7. “You’ll Never Be A Man”: Another song that is only brought to life through the force of The Attractions, this one is another stunning example of Elvis’ ability to mix bitterness and clever wordplay with sugary pop melodies. Bruce Thomas’ spastic bass line, and Steve Nieve’s piano drive the song, while Elvis ends the chorus with the pun, “I don’t want to be first, I just want to last.” This song surely has.
8. “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”: “This Year’s Model” quickly established The Attractions as a critical component to what would become Elvis’ signature sound. This song, built from the non-linear bass line, showed the power the band brought to Elvis’ songs. “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” wasn’t much of a composition, it was a rough sketch of a couple verses, but it became a wrecking ball when played by The Attractions. They give the song such power and vitality that the energy is undeniable.
9. “New Amsterdam”: As important as The Attractions were to Elvis’s records, they understood their role as servants of the songs. So when it came time to tackle “New Amsterdam”, the band understood they could not better the demo Elvis had recorded by himself. It’s a sparse story song, one that doesn’t scream with greatness. I can’t say exactly why I love it so much, but the mystery is part of the appeal.
10. “Either Side Of The Same Town”: A late career entry, this song is one that could only come with age. It’s a mournful reflection on what has come and gone, with some of the most affecting melodies Elvis has ever written. The chorus is mesmerizing, and when Elvis’ voice is on the verge of cracking as he reaches for the falsetto notes, it is as poignant as anything in his vast catalog.