Elvis Costello's Best Bitter Ballads Not Named “Alison”
Costello at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, circa 2010
Tomorrow night Elvis Costello and the Imposters will make their triumphant return to Houston at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, opening for Steely Dan. Fans might notice that this is the first time Costello has been to Houston since he played the Pavilion opening for the Police in 2008. Who knows when Costello will grace us with a headlining show again (the last one was in 2005), but his opening sets are always stellar. One feature of his last performance here was a stirring rendition of his tortured love song “Alison,” accompanied by Sting.
“Alison” is one of the all time great songs in Costello's vast discography, but it's just one of many great ballads dedicated to lost love and bitter, jilted people. These are a few we'd love to hear him play tomorrow.
“I Want You”
One of the most famous and popular songs of Costello's career, “I Want You” was the greatest highlight of his 1986 album Blood and Chocolate. It still stands as perhaps his greatest songwriting achievement, as he venomously calls out a former lover accompanied by a sparse backing of electric guitars. Maybe the best performance of the song ever though wasn't even sung by Costello. Rather, he played the guitars while Fiona Apple sang Costello's words as if they were being ripped from her very soul.
“The Name of This Thing is Not Love”
From Costello's 2004 album The Delivery Man, this short one is a little bit more upbeat and rocking than most of his ballads, but the lyrics describe a mutually abusive relationship in a a vague way, leaving your mind and the atmosphere provided by the vaudevillian piano accompaniment to fill in all the details.
“Heart Shaped Bruise”
Another great one from The Delivery Man, “Heart Shaped Bruise” features an incredible guest appearance from Emmylou Harris and is one of Costello's best flirtations with country music and Americana.
When Costello first went to work with T-Bone Burnett on King of America, deviating wildly from his earlier, more British-inflected albums, he dove straight into country with songs like this one. What propels it from standard Americana is Costello's soaring vocal performance, which is particularly soulful and Motown-influenced.
Almost a companion to “Poisoned Rose,” this song came from King of America as well, and features a similar sound and performance from Costello. Where “Poisoned Rose” finds Costello soulfully begging for mercy, “Indoor Fireworks” is a softer and more desperate recitation, comparing his failing relationship's highs and lows to that of fireworks in a striking extended metaphor.
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