I recently went to see a certain Declan MacManus, also known as Elvis Costello, in Dublin’s picturesque Iveagh Gardens. I’ve seen the 62-year-old play numerous times over the years. The vibe is different every night, and his arsenal of songs range across many subjects and genres.
We all know Alison and Oliver’s Army, but let’s have a look at his ten most under-rated songs.
Welcome To The Working Week (My Aim Is True, 1977)
The opening track on his debut album runs at a mere 1 minute and 22 seconds, but it’s straight to the point. It’s opening lines speak about some sort of page 3 girl being “rhythmically admired”, before Costello remembers his days working as a young computer programmer “Oh I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you.”. Straight in, no kissing. It’s an absolute classic. Then, before you know it, it’s over.
Hoover Factory (Get Happy, 1980 – reissue 1994)
While this song didn’t see the light of day until the 1994 re-issue of 1980’s Get Happy, Hoover Factory is actually one of Mr MacManus’ earliest songs. He speaks about the “splendour” of the art deco building, located in west London, and how it “must have been a wonder when it was brand new”. Today it is now a Tesco supermarket, which makes the song even more poignant. Clever songwriting.
Beyond Belief (Imperial Bedroom, 1981)
Probably the most complex and multi-layered lyrics in all of Costello’s arsenal, Beyond Belief is a master of songwriting with clever and, in parts, simple chord structures. Lyrically it can be interpreted in many ways as I’ve read different views on the lyrics over the years, but the musicianship from the phenomenal Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and (no relation) Bruce Thomas really throw this number into the stratosphere. With lyrics like “Charged with insults and flattery/Her body moves with malice/Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?”, what’s not to like?
A Slow Drag With Josephine (National Ransom, 2010)
Josephine was a mainstay in Costello’s live set between 2010 and 2014. It’s a clever and witty piece of music that sounds like it could have been written in 1921. Lyrically it seems to be about an affair with imagery of 1920’s Britain and phrases such as “Adieu, my little ballyhoo” and “skeddle-daddle-do”, it’s a vastly under-rated number that will likely never, and cruelly, be on any forthcoming best of Elvis compilations albums.
Indoor Fireworks (King of America, 1986)
This song has a different feel to much of his recordings, mostly due to the change of personnel for the entire King Of America album (The Attractions weren’t involved on this record and the likes of T-Bone Burnett and Jerry Scheff featured). It is about a turbulent relationship between two lovers. “Sometimes we’d fight in public darling with very little cause,” he sings. “But different kinds of sparks would fly when we got on our own behind closed doors”. Simple and brilliant.