Elvis Costello: Five Subjects and 12 Notes

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Elvis Costello

"Oh I just don't know where to begin," Elvis Costello sang at the beginning of "Accidents Will Happen." We feel the same way while attempting to encapsulate his remarkable career and stunningly prodigious output.


Since he emerged in 1977, Costello has released 25 studio albums, plus projects with the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint, and the Roots (and the CD reissues of his early records contain a huge trove of B-sides, demos, and live tracks). Costello's stylistic range is virtually boundless, encompassing rock, country, pop standards, soul, jazz, classical, reggae, and R&B. And the quality of Elvis' songwriting is as rich as the musical settings; his lyrics are witty, pointed, and tender, overflowing with insight and ingeniously turned phrases.


Greil Marcus wrote that Elvis "combined the brains of Randy Newman and the implacability of Bob Dylan, the everyman pathos of Buddy Holly and the uniqueness of John Lennon." (Costello has co-written 16 songs with Paul McCartney which have appeared on both artists' albums.) Elvis put it this way: "There are about five things to write songs about: I'm leaving you. You're leaving me. I want you. You don't want me. I believe in something. Five subjects, and 12 notes. For all that, we musicians do pretty well."


For more than 40 years—from My Aim is True in 1977 through Look Now in 2018—Elvis Costello has done it pretty well indeed.


Essential tracks: "Allison," "Accidents Will Happen," "High Fidelity," “Veronica,” “Complicated Shadows”

Essential albums: This Year's Model, Get Happy, King of America