In terms of artistic consistency, Elvis Costello stands a black-framed head above the rest. When the critically acclaimed “Buddy Holly on acid” burst onto the scene with 1977’s My Aim Is True he provided a clever counterpart to the ongoing punk revolution that was stealing scenes across the nation. Desperate to slap a label on everyone and everything, pundits dubbed the approach “new wave,” a term which we can all agree does no justice to the man’s bold body of work. After 1977, Costello continued to release a studio album a year for the next 8 years (and he released two in 1981). While such output may not phase the likes of the ever superfluous Robert Pollard, the records Costello was making were not merely good, they were classic. While his first three garner the most affection (the aforementioned My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model and Armed Forces) his following two (Get Happy!! and Trust) captured the essence of Costello so well it’s a wonder they get swept under the table.
While Get Happy!! marked the beginning of a new decade for the world, Costello was still churning out the type of mirthful and defamatory pop goodness that had come to define him. It’s not so much that his style was “new” as it is was “smart;” expanding on old romantic conventions with tortured wisdom and caustic grins. “Love For Tender” kicks off the album with these precise elements, a twist inducing organ touch coupled with the second to none rhythm section of the Attractions’ Thomas brothers, the play-on-words title alone suggests the unctuous charisma and de-beautification of romance the lyrics come to reveal: “So in love, I’m so sincere/Just like a well-known financier/You know I’ve never been corrupt/I’ll pay you a compliment/And you’ll think I am innocent/You can total up the balance sheet/And never know if I’m a counterfeit/You won’t take my love for tender…“
Like a jester at a funeral, Costello’s best gift was the ability to combine the heartache with the party, although to anyone who paid close attention it seemed the majority of the time he was faking a smile while dying on the inside. On “The Imposter” he confronts this notion as a jilted lover attempting to change the direction of a former flame—”You’ve never been this far/You’ve always been too smart/And you know all our boys/Are really girls at heart.“
Stretching his vocals chords to untamed territory, Costello tackles a daring and inspired cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down)” and continues in a similar though less daunting vocal vein on the classic “High Fidelity” both tracks channeling his more soulful and abrasive tendency. As a whole, it’s hard to imagine these twenty caffeinated injections in any other order as the album makes itself so complete without ever feeling as if it were laborious to finish. While standout tracks such as the acoustic driven tale of apprehension “New Amsterdam” and the mid-tempo groove stomp of “Black and White World” fit the flow of the album perfectly, the final track “Riot Act” sums up the broken man behind the smile flawlessly. With an ominous piano piece playing alongside Costello’s two-faced persona, we get a feel for exactly what has been danced around throughout the album—the mask of confidence and the boyish romantic, the vengeful and the apologetic. In these lines, we see Costello go from the heartbreaker to the heartbroken and learn in the game love, fair is foul and foul is always fair.