Music News

Elvis Costello

Designed partly to pump up the reputation of Costello's latter-day compositions, these re-releases backfire by facilitating direct comparisons between the former Declan Patrick McManus at his best and worst.

On the "best" side, Aim and Model stand as collectors' money shots, sporting bonus tracks and demos from as far back as 1977. Many of them reveal the crucial role Costello's backing band, the Attractions, played in forging the sound that galvanized four-eyed geeks on both sides of the Atlantic. An early version of "No Action" offers a reedy-sounding Costello in the process of finding his voice atop keyboardless tracks that are frequently overwhelmed by Keith Moon-style drumming. Conversely, the acoustic "Mystery Dance" falls flat without the Attractions' propulsive pounding behind it. A nascent take on "Living in Paradise" offers steel-guitar strains that foreshadow the rural detour in the artist's sound; this quality is best captured on the more mature-sounding "Radio Sweetheart." With its mellow twang and a kinder, gentler version of Costello's signature snarl, "Sweetheart" lets the singer's affection for country speak for itself.

Of course, affection is hardly the subject of career-making cuts from Model. These include "This Year's Girl" and "Radio Radio"; the vitriol of both songs is no less pungent today than it was when they were written. Similarly snotty are "Pump It Up" and "Lip Service." Standouts from the accompanying bonus disc include demos of "Green Shirt" and "Big Boys." In both cases, Costello packs perhaps more attitude into sparse acoustic arrangements than was evident in the Attractions versions. Other outtakes from this collection -- including "Neat Neat Neat" and "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" -- lack the vibrancy and focus we've come to expect from Costello. And while such cuts might beat the best attempts of lesser new-wave lights such as Ian Drury, whose "Roadette Song" is included for reasons that remain unclear, Costello's ultimate misfortune is that he was too good at being the angry young man for us to accept anything less.

This explains why much of Useless Beauty is just that. The bonus cut "Hidden Shame" suffers from a vocal affectation that's as unnecessary as it is forced. Even more forced, however, are the straining vocals that render unlistenable virtually everything Costello did during his ill-advised attempt to reinvent himself as Cole Porter. Prime examples include "That Day Is Done" and "It's Time." While more restrained numbers including "I Want to Vanish" are easier on the ears, their self-pitying subject matter and maudlin delivery make tough listening for fans who remember the often cryptic but always cathartic scorn with which Costello sneered his way onto the charts in the first place. Fortunately, the previous selections are leavened by the relative swagger of "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" and the spunky "Veronica," both from Spike. But overall, the flood of Costello material now hitting the market makes it clear that he's at his best when he doesn't take himself too seriously. Alas, this has rarely occurred since Ronald Reagan left office.

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John Jesitus