Elvis Costello

Paul Wong

This Year’s Model

Blood & Chocolate

Brutal Youth

Rhino Records

Martha Stewart, the Velvet Underground, Sonny and Cher, the Monkees, Dokken, Ray Charles, Spinal Tap, Kurtis Blow, Frank Zappa and Elvis Costello all have one thing in common: They have all appeared on Rhino Records. Odd as it may seem, Elvis Costello fits perfectly into Rhino’s reissue lineup and their scattershot formula for picking which records to release. This is because on all levels – from parts of songs up to entire eras of albums – Costello’s career remains a hit-and-miss affair.

Take This Year’s Model as an album and it’s great, but of course problems surface on a localized listen. “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” spits and snarls through an awesome intro and verse, but between there and the last line of the chorus, the song deflates under the weight of an inappropriate keyboard. This is the mix of exhilaration and disappointment that fans and foes have learned to consistently expect from EC and the boys.

As Costello writes in the liner notes for this reissue, after This Year’s Model came out, he was among the biggest names in music, but “Thankfully, for all concerned, I was just about to screw it all up completely.” And he’s not even talking about his stint with the string quartet! Either way, his statement holds true for the entirety of his output. Listening to Elvis Costello is like panning for gold – a lot of it is just empty myth; under that, the main component is dirt, but still further under that there lies some solid gold. It’s simply a matter of finding it.

This Year’s Model represents a pretty substantial nugget. Though it’s not quite New Wave’s Nevermind, Model rocketed the British New Wave to unprecedented levels. Despite Costello’s best (apparent) attempts at sabotaging his commercial success with “Radio, Radio” and its infamous “Saturday Night Live” airing, Model remains among Costello’s most successful albums – for good reason. The hits, like “Pump It Up” and “Radio, Radio” provide quick access for the uninitiated, but the real gems require a bit more digging. “No Action” should be considered among Costello’s best work, and “You Belong To Me” provides some solid throwaway pop.

Rhino’s reissue packing deserves commendation as well. The booklet includes a number of good photos and a very well done introductory essay by Costello. The layout is pleasing and well-presented, with attention to the original color scheme and feel – attention to detail horrendously lacking in so many reissues. In addition, a second disc presents non-album material from the period. “Big Tears” should have made the original album, as Costello comments in his notes, and stands as the only true outtake from the Model sessions. The rest of the bonus material originates from demos for songs that eventually made Armed Forces, live versions of period covers, solo demos of “You Belong To Me” and “Radio, Radio” and early studio versions of “This Year’s Girl” and “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.” Though these tracks won’t hold casual interest, they make this an attractive package for fans.

True to his wildly uneven form, Costello’s Blood & Chocolate inverts the ratio of good to bad and makes the prospector work harder to find glittering rewards – but they’re there. From the beginning, this album has big promise and little delivery. “Uncomplicated” starts with tension and declaratory threats, but instead of following through, the song goes nowhere: Its initial bark and holler relegated to a benign drone. Similarly, the over-long “Tokyo Storm Warning” could be great, if it was shorter and more dynamic. Similar misfires include “Poor Napoleon” and “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head.” But under this grime, “I Want You” should be considered as one of the creepiest mental breakdown’s ever preserved on tape. There are a couple other inspired moments on Blood (“Crimes of Paris” and “I Hope You’re Happy Now” in particular), and the packaging and bonus disc similarly compliment the bundle, but overall there’s more pyrite than pleasure on this record.

If there’s one thing you can count on from Costello, it’s his consistent inconsistency as Brutal Youth, the third reissue from this Rhino round, cements. It also lets Costello show his age (39 at the time) in both positive and negative ways. Most noticeably, acoustic guitars and pianos are prominent in the production, and Costello’s odd crooner vocal stylings crop up occasionally. Youth offers Costello’s usual assortment of misstep and asset. “13 Steps Lead Down,” “You Tripped at Every Step,” and “London’s Brilliant Parade” showcase Costello’s mature mode in its best setting: Solid, “new style” arrangements with pianos, acoustic guitars, harmonies and vocal accompaniments. The flipside to these, however, are half-realized numbers like “Still Too Soon To Know,” “Sulky Girl” and “Favourite (British sic) Hour.” It sounds as though Costello thought that, if he made these tracks sound out of character enough for him, he didn’t have to flesh them out or make them interesting.

Youth also contains a few throwbacks. Among them, “20% Amnesia” sounds like old school EC and the Attractions, but as good as it is, it simply serves as a reminder of the energy and rambunctiousness Costello and Co. used to channel. Without a dramatic change in direction, Costello could soon find himself on the same trajectory as Billy Joel and Elton John – relegated to remembering when.

Maybe now that they’re more readily available, Costello will listen to his old records and remember the angry young man with his electric guitar and oversized glasses just trying to get girls and the hell out of a boring Britain. A brutal youth it may have been, but at least it was a productive one.

TYM four stars

B&C two and a half stars

BY three stars

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