I wanted to interview Elvis Costello. Badly.
He’s been an idol of mine since the first time I heard “Every Day I Write the Book,” some 30 years ago. I know, hardcore fans probably don’t consider that particular tune to be one of his very finest, but I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. The marriage of literary metaphors to reflections on the act of making music and the entanglements endemic to romantic relationships is as close to brilliant as pop music gets.
I wanted to tell Elvis – aka Declan McManus, Liverpudlian and musician’s son – all about this. I probably would have mentioned that I named my own son Declan in his honor, too, even though I told myself I shouldn’t, because he’d probably think it was a little bit creepy. Alas, none of this mattered because he wasn't doing interviews in advance of his current tour dates, which include a stop Nov. 2 at Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
So no Elvis chat for me. Regardless, I still love the guy, and ever since his Shea’s show was announced, I’ve been working my way through his catalog for the umpteenth time, trying to draw a definitive conclusion concerning his very best work in a canon that now numbers in excess of 25 albums, give or take a collaborative effort or two. I whittled it down to five essential releases. Which is a little bit reductive and stupid, if you think about it, but hey, these list-type things are all the rage on the internet, right?
"Armed Forces" (1979). “Accidents Will Happen,” “Oliver’s Army,” “Goon Squad” – for his third album, Costello dropped any of the punk pretense thrust upon him by the press who apparently heard “My Aim Is True” as something it wasn’t, and dropped an album stuffed with unabashed left-field pop masterpieces.
"Trust" (1981). The dark one. Costello has said that he was drinking and abusing substances during this period, and “Trust” does indeed sound a bit like the work of a man coming unglued. “Clubland,” “Watch Your Step” and “White Knuckles” don’t exactly paint an attractive portrait of the rock lifestyle, but they are but a few timeless tunes on an album filled with them.
"Spike" (1989). Whatever he might have lost following the acrimonious departure of bassist Bruce Thomas – one of the most creative rock bassists this side of Paul McCartney – Costello made up for with a wildly eclectic, yet somehow cohesive collection of incisive and melodically alluring songs. (Also, he got McCartney himself to play a little bit of bass, which must have crushed Thomas.)
"Imperial Bedroom" (1982). This is one of the finest rock records of the 1980s. It meant more to me than the Smiths and R.E.M. combined. Snarky, mildly pretentious perfection.
"Wise Up Ghost" (2013). Teaming with the Roots, Costello made the funkiest music of his entire career. In an age when radio mattered and people actually purchased albums, this thing most likely would have been huge. In this actual age, I’m not sure too many people heard it. It didn’t sell all that well, but then, not much does anymore. If you’ve never encountered it, do yourself a favor.