Soundtrack of my Life: Ten Best Elvis Costello Songs

If I want some snark, some verbosity, some damn fine songwriting, I turn to Elvis Costello. There is something about how his songs play out. He’s fearless about genre (and occasionally language itself). And sometimes he shows up in the most random of places. Austin Powers cameo? Sure, why not! Host my own talk show* where I interview songwriters? Abso-fucking-lutely.

*Spectacle is well worth finding and watching.

I’ve discussed E.C. songs before, and his King of America album is one of my favourite albums of all time. But I found my beloved E.C. late in my teen year. His largest impact before that was with the song “Veronica”, which I used to like but for reasons that will remain mine can no longer listen to. As part of my ongoing, life-long series, I have decided that sometimes, a list for a specific artist is simply necessary.

Because I have discussed “God Give Me Strength” already, it will be left off this list. but below are ten songs by the one and only Declan Patrick MacManus that have impacted me greatly.

10. “So Like Candy” Mighty Like a Rose (1991)

One of the songs written during Costello’s collaboration with Paul McCartney, the song tells of the one who got a way. In her absence, she left clothes,  makeup, and a note saying “I like your taste.” The songs begins with a single chord and Costello’s biting tenor before amping up in the chorus. “What did I do to make her go?” he spits out. A mix of frustration and contemplation weave through the song, along with a soft dynamic that is punctured with acidity, it’s one of the finest songs of Costello’s post-Spike era. And in the aftermath of a broken heart, it sits right where I don’t want it to- where self-loathing meets self-realization, and all the things you hate about yourself are clearer in view to you than what you champion about yourself.

9. “This Is Hell”  Brutal Youth (1994)

It is telling that the line that means the most to me in this song is the line “”My Favourite Things” are playing again and again/ But it’s by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane”.  It always spoke to me of what hell would literally be, especially considering how much I hate The Sound of Music and how much I adore Coltrane. Over the music box piano supplied by old Costello stand-by Steve Nieve, Costello describes how heaven is literally hell turned over on itself, and that when we create hell, it never changes. You just get used to it.

8. “Shipbuilding” Punch the Clock  (1983)

Robert Wyatt’s stunning cover is the stuff of legend, and it is worthy of the love it gets. Costello’s own recording of his anti-Falklands War song  wins out ultimately because of Chet Baker’s trumpet. The easiest way to my heart is always with jazz. But aside from that, Costello’s song is also more contemplative, more anguished, and generally more broken. Costello is one of the most covered songwriter’s in the world, but there is something to be said for the man’s own recordings of his songs in comparison to the interpretive abilities of others. Costello is not only a master wordsmith, he is a master interpreter.

7. “Less Than Zero” My Aim is True (1977)

It is a striking opening line, one that actually began his entire career: “Calling Mr. Oswald with your swastika tattoo/ there is a vacancy waiting in the English voodoo”. Written in a rage after witnessing Sir Oswald Mosley being interviewed and denying his Fascist past, Costello’s first single is a cutting commentary on how history in the 20th (and subsequently, the 21st) century  gets rewritten by the media, who are willing to do anything to get the interview, including selling out to villains. Eventually, it got the fascists elected in multiple countries. Most people don’t pay attention to history, and now deny history as it happened, and as always, refuse to learn from it. The historian in me is bitter, and the storyteller in Costello is equally acrimonious. The song feels as urgent today as it would have in 1977.


6. ” Alison” My Aim is True (1977)

Elvis Costello writes the songs about unrequited love that tell that I should run the other way. “Alison” is about the girl who married his friend, only to settle into an unhappy life. He can’t stand to see her like that (sweet), so he contemplates murder (not so sweet). Unrequited love is a fucking bitch, it makes the one in love think awful things sometimes. In my experience I turn to self-destruction, not homicidal impulse. But the song itself is a gentle ballad, in direct contrast to the slightly deranged MRA style lyrics. That contrast makes the song memorable for the right reasons, as it shows a wit and a self-control that many other songwriters who have written about the same same subject lack.

5. “Indoor Fireworks” King of America (1986)

King of America remains my favourite EC album, without question. Still pulling from the country music he had been dabbling in over the previous few years, Costello sings about a tumultuous love affair that eventually burns everything in its wake. I love this song, It’s clear-eyed view of toxic love is without much sentiment, acknowledging passion but the inability to stop each other from destroying what they are. As I come to terms with heartbreak and the toxicity I can inflict on the person I love most in this world, it’s a needed reminder. “Indoor fireworks can still burn your fingers.”

4. “She” Notting Hill: Music from the Motion Picture (1999)

This is the only song on the list EC didn’t have a hand in writing. Written by famed French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour (along with Herbert Kretzmer), Costello recorded it for the 1999 Hugh Grant- Julia Roberts film Notting Hill. It remains the only Julia Roberts film I actually enjoy.  It’s a schlock love song. But it’s a schlock love song that speaks to what everyone ultimately wants from the person they are in love with. You have to put up with the worst to get the best, but as long as you face it together, it seems possible to survive life itself. If you are strong enough, lucky enough, blessed enough, you spend your life with the person you love above all else.  Even if you spend the rest of your life never seeing them or talking to them because you just can’t get it together, their impact is indelible. You still cry over them, every night. You can only hope that you mean enough to someone in which this song takes on meaning above meaning.  I still hope someone is out there who does, but I’m fairly certain he does not exist. In Costello’s capable hands, it’s not sentimental in a way that is saccharine. It’s laced with a wistfulness and a warmth, but it also has a layer of sweet sadness to it.

This song makes me cry.

3. “Watching the Detectives” My Aim is True (1977)

Another track from his legendary debut album. Over a fantastic and basic reggae beat, Costello sings of a sexually frustrated man desperately trying to get the attention of his TV watching girlfriend. It ends badly for everyone. Written after listening to the Clash’s debut, and running on instant coffee, Costello created one of his most beloved tracks after staying up for thirty-six hours. Needless to say, the song sounds like nervous, caffeinated energy set to a reggae beat. It’s just fun to listen to.

2. “Man Out of Time” Imperial Bedroom (1982)

The screeched, punk rock intro and outro of the song belies the mid-tempo centres bitterness. Another one of EC’s contrarian masterpieces, he has said that there is both a private and public meaning to this song. The verses are wordy, cynical, and angry. The chorus is a brief moment of remorse. “To murder my love is a crime, but will you still love a man out of time?” he laments, over country influenced guitars and beautiful shimmery piano. There is a loveliness to the music, and an exhausted tone in his voice, that makes the song irresistable. The man has written so many incredible songs (32 albums in forty years- pretty damn prolific by all accounts). It’s always a blessing to find gems hidden amongst those more mainstream offerings like “Everyday I Write the Book” and “Veronica”.

1. “Brilliant Mistake” King of America (1986)

I don’t know how many times in my life I have listened to this song. It is far and away my favourite Elvis Costello song, and is easily on that list of songs that are my all-time favourites.  Folky guitars, mid-tempo,  written when he was at his lowest and most self-loathing. It speaks to me on levels I don’t even understand myself yet. His biting humour had not abandoned him, his acid tongue turned to the superficial nature of Americans for much of the song. But when we come to the last verse, it’s clear he’s not all to happy with himself either. His inability to sell grand musical ideas to the masses rankled, and his use of drugs and alcohol diminished his perspective.  He points out that the American dream was in fact “a trick they do with mirrors and with chemicals”, and that the Elvis Costello mask was “a fine idea at the time, now I’m a brilliant mistake.” Elvis Costello never sold as many records as he should have, never became the star many thought he would. Much of this could be attributed to some of his late 70s behaviour, and some of those incidents were rightfully exposed and he was rightfully condemned for them. He has taken the criticism and lived with it, sometimes trying to explain, frequently falling short of forgiveness. The constant pull of artist verses real life sometimes makes it hard to appreciate art in the face of scandal (see: Mel Gibson or Casey Affleck).  I look for what they do in the aftermath. The aftermath of his scandals has brought a healthy dose of self-loathing and a certain frustration by 1985. He also showed a lot of remorse., actively engaging in Rock against Racism long before it became “Cool”, and if his work with the Roots shows anything, he has become increasingly empathetic to a word that was foreign to him in the 1970s. On “Brilliant Mistake”, he finally battles his own public persona, which he tried to walk away from but the record company insisted he keep. It’s a brutal moment, rife with sadness and frustration. He wrapped it up Springsteenian Americana, and gifted it to his most devoted fans, and believe me when I say I am grateful for it.

And for a bonus: All Blackpool fans know this song. Don’t we?