ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS All This Useless Beauty (Warner Bros.)

Perhaps the great man’s recent lengthy "Later" appearance had something to do with it, but "All This Useless Beauty" - (his seventeenth album, and the first to actually credit The Attractions in a decade) - already sounds like a classic; it reeks of solid, dependable songwriting craftsmanship, with tightly dovetailing verbals and melodies that would make just as much sense played by a full orchestra as they would arranged for tabla and kazoo. Or perhaps it’s due to the production presence of Geoff Emerick, whose stewardship of 1982’s "Imperial Bedroom" made it, to these ears at least, the undoubted high watermark of Costello’s career. Certainly "All This Useless Beauty" - partially comprised of songs originally written for other singers - is the best of the rather erratic series of albums Mr MacManus has served up in the 90s (thumbs up to the jagged and electric "Brutal Youth", not for the overweight, overproduced and overbearded "Mighty Like A Rose", the bizarre "Juliet Letters" and the pointless covers album "Kojak Variety"). Best bits include the burbling "Little Atoms", the almost emotional "Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone?" and the marvellous title track (even though it’s not a patch on June Tabor’s version). Besides being a darn good album, "All This Useless Beauty" might also be an object lesson to certain other veterans of 1977 in how to grow old(er) gracefully.


Declan and Burt first collaborated on a song for the soundtrack of "Grace Of My Heart", the film about a fictional romance between a very Carole King-like character and someone who could’ve been Brian Wilson if you squinted a bit (a soundtrack that also gave us Dinosaur Jr’s swansong "Take A Run At The Sun"...and, come to think of it, director Allison Anders also cast J Mascis in her earlier film "Gas Food Lodging"...but we digress). That song, "God Give Me Strength", reappears here alongside 11 new tunes, many of which have that distinctive Bacharach brass sound that you’ll recognise from just about every Bacharach and David composition ever. For the most part Costello restrains himself from bellowing and actually gets down to a pretty close approximation of crooning, and the melodies are all twisty-turny interesting - think "Imperial Bedroom" with a Herb Alpert-style Hollywood easy listening polish rather than Geoff Emerick’s "Sgt. Pepper" trickery - without being particularly memorable, although "In The Darkest Place", the aforementioned soundtrack tune "God Give Me Strength" and the title track come closest to being hummable. If I were running some kinda swanky restaurant somewhere I’d seize upon "Painted From Memory" as background manna from heaven, because it’s hip as Elvis ever was and you can eat over it (imagine attempting that with "Blood And Chocolate", for example!). The fact that it isn’t also a fantastic listening experience seems sort of irrelevant in context.

ELVIS COSTELLO AND STEVE NIEVE St David's Hall, Cardiff 8 November 1999

Trailing in the wake of his recent career-spanning double CD "Very Best Of" retrospective and musical (and physical, in the case of the latter) cameos in "Notting Hill" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me", and accompanied only by long-time cohort and former Attraction Steve Nieve on keyboards and all manner of electronic trickery, you might be forgiven for thinking that Mr McManus' first Cardiff show in a decade might be an excuse for a wallowing nostalgia fest. From the first song onwards, a noisy, spiky thing, played in almost complete darkness, that was unknown to me but which I'll call "Alibi" because that word seemed to crop up a lot in the chorus, that was plainly not the case.

In a mammoth 135 minute set, during which I counted four of what laughably passes for encores these days and 34 songs, Elvis crammed in 20-year-old b-sides ("Radio Sweetheart", drawn out into an epic with crowd participation sections and great chunks of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile" welded in as well, "Talking In The Dark", "Girls Talk") and dramatic, if not entirely successful reinventions of old favourites ("Temptation", still with no clue as to the cosseted celebrity who originally provoked such a steaming stream of bile, and a punch drunk, drum machine-addled lurch through "Clubland", saddled with lengthy improvisational fusion guitar soloing - a legacy of spending too much time with Bill Frisell, perhaps?).

They jostled for room with acknowledged masterclasses in the art of late 20th century popular song ("Watching The Detectives", with a manic Steve Nieve providing percussive punctuation by slamming down the lid of his piano and scraping its strings, "Oliver's Army", "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" and "Accidents Will Happen") and new songs and works-in-progress ("45", "The Delivery Man" - part of a story he's working on, apparently, you read it here first! - and "You Lie Sweetly"). And of course there was the unavoidable slew of personal faves that, on top of all the aforementioned wonderment, made the evening for me: the mighty "Man Out Of Time" played two songs in, "Shipbuilding", still a choker after all these years, "I Want You", as vicious as ever, and in a remarkable climax (having already demonstrated his vocal virtuosity several times during the evening by bellowing lyrics way out of microphone range) a completely unamplified take on the neglected classic "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4", just Elvis' ravaged throat and Steve Nieve's battered piano captivating the pin-drop hushed concert hall.

I've waited a long time to see Elvis Costello in concert, having first discovered his greatness during my long post-GCSE summer of 1990, courtesy of a cheapy bin copy of the excellent "Girls! Girls! Girls!" compilation. Sometimes, on such occasions, you accept the performance provided unquestioningly, bowing to the right of the artist to present their work in what may appear to be a wilfully perverse fashion. (I'm thinking particularly of all the Van Morrison gigs I've been to when he hasn't played a note from "Astral Weeks"!) Tonight, I don't think there could have been anyone leaving St David's Hall less than utterly convinced that they had seen a master at work at the peak of his considerable powers. The stripped down approach might have been the last ditch refuge of every band from The Beatles to Spinal Tap, but Elvis Costello is still in fine fighting form, touring the kind of marathon show that we long-suffering concertgoers deserve but hardly dare expect. He gave, and, as at the Gomez gig reviewed above, the audience gave in return, so much so that when taking their final bows both he and Nieve seemed genuinely overwhelmed by the response. He promised to return soon: when he does, I'm sure I'll be going to see him, and if you still have a stack of dusty Elvis Costello albums somewhere in your record collection maybe you owe it to yourselves to do so too.


Mr MacManus' latest sideways career lurch sees him teaming up with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter, whose kudos is presumably the catalyst for the release of "For The Stars" on the Deutsche Grammophon label. Spurred to purchase by the excellent "South Bank Show" documentary covering their collaboration, I'm pleased to report that the results are as exquisite and exacting as you would hope from two such seasoned professionals.

All concerned went to great lengths to ensure that "For The Stars" wasn't labelled as some kind of crossover project, Costello pointing out that there was no such defined musical term. And it isn't: what it is is people singing and playing, nothing more, nothing less. Von Otter's vocal style might require a degree of acclimatisation for the casual classical listener, but her fluttering high register is worlds away from the kind of grandstanding operatic hollering you might be expecting/fearing. As for the songs, Costello's magpie eye and freestyling tastes bring covers of Beach Boys, Tom Waits, Beatles and Abba material amongst others, a few unusual selections from his own back catalogue, collaborations with string quartet Fleshquartet and classical composer Svante Henryson, and even a smattering of new songs of his own, which include the sparkling, shimmering title track. The ensemble are mostly local musicians (including pop messiah Benny Andersson; the album was partly recorded in Abba's old studios), although familiar names such as those of percussionist Michael Blair and former Attraction Steve Nieve also appear in the credits.

And, as if you couldn't guess, everything falls perfectly into place, from the material ("Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)", "For No One", an inspired medley of "Broken Bicycles" and "Junk", two songs that have been begging to be united for years) to the performance (uniformly magnificent). The result is some kind of sophisticated, intelligent chamber pop, twinkling bejewelled arrangements littered with enough non-rock machinery to match Brian Wilson at his most crazed and creative. (It can’t be entirely accidental that there are two songs from "Pet Sounds" here, can it?) Calling it easy listening with bite seems like a cop-out; a work as meticulously assembled as "For The Stars" demands and deserves your complete attention throughout.

ELVIS COSTELLO When I Was Cruel (Island)

Following two albums' worth of collaborations (with Burt Bacharach and Anne Sophie Von Otter) there seems to be a kind of collective gasp of relief in the press that Costello is back to singing his own songs with a band again. The fact that the band in question incorporates two-thirds of The Attractions (Davey Faragher deputises for absent bassist Bruce Thomas) seems to have contributed to the blanket warm reception bestowed upon "When I Was Cruel", some commentators suggesting that parts of it hark back to his throbbing-templed late 70s work.

I don't see it in quite those terms, finding the mountains of praise heaped on albums such as "This Year's Model" and "Armed Forces" baffling compared to the eloquence of some of his later work ("Imperial Bedroom" and "Spike" for example). This angry young man thing's fine as a hobby, Declan, but it won't earn you a living! So, in possibly deliberately attempting to echo those early records, "When I Was Cruel" is instantly diminished in my view. What compounds the problem is that Elvis appears to pile on distortion and tricky melody onto many of these 15 songs, ignoring the fact that what gave his old music such power as it possessed was mainly its clarity and directness, just four instruments and a man shouting finely-turned rhetoric at the front.

So Costello takes the complex and intricate over the sharp and punchy whenever he can here, and the end result is a soggy, blustery album, perhaps typified by the fact that it's also his lengthiest yet. "When I Was Cruel No. 2" is, to my knowledge, the longest song in his catalogue, stretching cat-like over seven minutes. Given that you could listen to three tracks from "My Aim Is True" during that time it has to be pretty special to justify such girth, and its icy Portishead-esque spy movie feel is almost there. Powered by a shuffly Latin loop lifted from Mina's "Un Bacio Č Troppo Poco" (blank faces all round), it catalogues some bitter reflections of a younger Elvis ("You were a spoilt child then with a record to plug/And I was a shaven headed seaside thug"). The quote from "Dancing Queen" also tips its hat playfully to Steve Nieve's acknowledged plundering of that song's piano part on "Oliver's Army". "45" is an appropriately pungent opener, a vinyl-as-relationship-metaphor conceit that, like "Alibi", I first heard in somewhat less burdened form during Elvis' two-man show over two years ago.

But really, that's about it. The melodies are fiddly and complicated, worked upon to the point where any spark or joy they might once have possessed has been systematically hacked away - sample the single "Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)" or "Daddy Can I Turn This?". And although he writes from the bile duct, with occasional interventions from head and heart, there's still the odd wincingly sloppy or lazy line that the younger Elvis wouldn't even have attempted to slip past quality control. In context, "When I Was Cruel" is no disaster, and it will probably bed in nicely after a few more plays, but after a few albums in which he acquitted himself respectably in apparently alien territories, it's the musical equivalent of falling to earth with a bump.

ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS The Delivery Man (Lost Highway)

“The Delivery Man” collects the broken-backed remains of a sorta kinda semi-concept album that Declan was talking up as long ago as 1999, played by The Imposters (basically The Attractions with Davey Foragher deputising for deposed bassist Bruce Thomas). The only apparent conceptual continuity on display here is that many of the songs are assigned to one or more of the forgotten narrative’s protagonists – the names Abel, Geraldine, Ivy and Vivien, haunt the record like four characters in search of a storyline. In sound and song Elvis is firmly in pursuit of the Americana dollar, to the extent that the album has been released by Lost Highway, home to Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams. Renaissance man that he is, it arrived in shops simultaneously with “Il Sogno”, a Deutsche Grammophon release of his score to an Italian ballet company’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

The robotic, distorted opening maelstrom of “Button My Lip” attempts to serve up vitriol and contempt like it’s 1981 again, the way Steve Nieve’s piano solos hijack the riff from Leonard Bernstein’s “America” very consciously evoking his “Rhapsody In Blue” break on “Clubland”. It’s not a complete success, though: this is Elvis in new anger/new danger mode, the over-embellished kitchen-sink carnage of “When I Was Cruel” rather than the livid livewire act of, say, “Blood And Chocolate”. “Country Darkness” gently stirs the memory into recalling that he’s done this kind of Americanaeven before it wore the name proudly, on the masterful “King Of America”. And though he’s arguably done it better before as well, pitched somewhere between “Indoor Fireworks” and “American Without Tears”, this sparsely worded and played track is one of the album’s finer moments. Lucinda Williams sounds even throatier and more raucous during “There’s A Story In Your Voice” than at any point on her fabulous last album, “World Without Tears”, and although “Bedlam” seems such a quintessentially Costelloesque title that he must surely have given us a song of that name before now here it is, the “Tokyo Storm Warning” you can almost dance to. And somehow I can’t see it causing Mr McManus any great displeasure to write himself lines like “In a certain light he looks like Elvis” in the title track’s chorus, a listless song about listless people..

Emmylou Harris joins our host for “Nothing Clings Like Ivy”, “Heart Shaped Bruise” and “The Scarlet Tide”, the latter a piece for two voices and ukulele relocated from the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack. Despite Costello’s catalogued admiration for her former duet partner it’s not quite the kind of fire and ice musical relationship she enjoyed with Gram Parsons, but whilst the title of “Nothing Clings Like Ivy” might clunk self-consciously it’s nevertheless a moment of still and calm amidst all the thick tumble of words and sounds that surround it (“Monkey To Man” on one side, “The Name Of This Thing Is Not Love” on t’other). “Needle Time” again dredges up the clanking spectre of “Tokyo Storm Warning”, but, as if reading the listener’s disparaging thoughts, abruptly becomes a distorted, bluesy instrumental.

Perhaps its troubled genesis explains why “The Delivery Man” sounds like the work of a flailing talent, desperate to cover as much territory as possibly whilst also serving it up as a neatly wrapped thematic bundle. As ever with Elvis, there’s much to chew upon here, but whether it’s still worth the time and effort is another matter entirely. And I await his hip-hop year with a mixture of interest and dread.

ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE BRODSKY QUARTET The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 27 April 2009


Arriving at The Bridgwater Hall bang on ticket time I find the foyer eerily deserted. Has the concert been cancelled due to some kinda hog fever epidemic spread by stringed instruments? Nope, more like an outbreak of punctuality, as, minutes later, Elvis and the Brodskys stride onstage. The quartet’s opening flurry eventually arranges itself into “Accidents Will Happen”, and Costello utters the immortal self-negating prophecy “Oh I just don’t know where to begin”.


Whilst one hand applauds Elvis’ Dylanesque attempts to keep his material fresh and interesting to himself and the more progressive sections of his audience, the other, as at the kind of classical gig tonight is halfway to becoming, finds it very difficult to know when to clap, what with the old familiars being so festooned with flourishment. Elvis, rocking the moustachioed, besuited lounge lizard look tonight, still hollers mightily, though, even in this relatively hushed company, at one point performing a new song in its entirety without the benefit of amplification. There’s the odd moment when his voice seems to waver and crack, though.


Divided into two main sets and some meticulously planned “encores” (how spontaneous can they be when the musicians already have the appropriate sheet music laid out for them?), the evening offers a haphazard canter through Elvis history. “The Juliet Letters”, Elvis and the Brodskys’ 1993 collaboration, is inevitably well-represented, a savage “Jacksons, Monk And Rowe” grinding to an early halt when cellist Jacqueline Thomas saws through a string. Less expected, if predictably more satisfying, are restrung versions of classics from the Attractions years, including “New Lace Sleeves”, “Pills And Soap” and a somewhat seasick “Shipbuilding”, with Chet Baker’s mournful, wounded trumpet solos transcribed for cello. A smattering of covers includes a rather fine “Raglan Road” and a couple of lines’ worth of “Wild Thing” sneaked into “Rocking Horse Road”. There are also generous splashes of new material, and an occasional drizzle from his first ‘classical’ album “North”.


For all the Brodskys’ scratching away like troupers, though, the overriding take-home feeling is wouldn’t it be nice…wouldn’t it be novel, even…to hear these songs with guitar/bass/organ/drums, as Elvis once intended, again?


ELVIS COSTELLO St David's Hall, Cardiff 24 June 2010


Appearing totally solo, save for a music shop's-worth of guitars ranged around the stage - at one point he quipped, "I'd like to welcome to the stage my special guest for the evening...me!" - Elvis cavorted through his capacious back catalogue in a manner guaranteed to delight the dedicated follower of Declan as much as it might frustrate anyone who only knows his work from one of its many compilation précis.


The set covers all points from "Poison Moon", a song written in the 20-year-old artist's bedroom that never quite made it onto an album proper, to previews from his next long player, which he promises will only be available on 78 ("With a free gramophone!"). Best-of buyers have to make do with "Alison" (into which he throws a verse from "The Wind Cries Mary"), a "Watching The Detectives" that morphs into an interminable demonstration of his new effects pedals, proudly showing off technology that perhaps hasn't yet found its most appropriate role, the warmly welcomed surprise of "Good Year For The Roses", "Every Day I Write The Book" (a song he admits to disliking until Ron Sexsmith showed him how it should be played), a slightly underwhelming "Shipbuilding", thrown off course by some new, or at least different, lyrics, and "Veronica", still lovely despite seemingly having most of its melody squashed out by the stripped-down arrangement. For the cognoscenti there's a clutch of 30-year-old b-sides ("Radio Sweetheart", which, thrillingly, becomes "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)", "Girls Talk" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love And Understanding"). "God's Comic" hams up the Beloved Entertainer theatricality and he plays one of those aforementioned new songs, described as his version of what a rock 'n' roll song would've sounded like in 1921, sitting on the edge of the stage, unamplified. "45" makes an effective set opener, winding a lyrical thread that I hadn't fully grasped before, but for me the evening peaks early with a magnificent rendition of the underrated, or perhaps just plain forgotten, "Suit Of Lights".


Always the polymath's polymath, in boiling down the essence of his music, from new wave to country rock, down to voice and guitar, Costello proved, as if there were any doubt, that it's all in the body of the song, not how it's clothed. A fine evening's entertainment, all told, albeit one prone to stray into occasional self-indulgence.