The Short Version:
That Fatal Mailing List is a regularly-scheduled publication devoted primarily to exploring the songs of Elvis Costello, one at a time, in random order. And there’s other EC stuff as well.
If you are a fan, I hope you will love it. If you are NOT yet a fan, I hope you will come to love EC. And if you want to know WHY you should care about Elvis Costello, read on…
Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977.
Just a few weeks earlier, Elvis Costello was “born,” with the release of his first album, My Aim is True.
If the artistic agendas of a frustrated truck driver from Memphis and a frustrated computer programmer from England can have anything in common, it's a constant fire to incite, one that slowly extinguished for Presley as his popularity skyrocketed and that Costello has fed as the fuel of his career. The same instinct that propelled Presley to mumble "Let's get real, real gone for a change" into a Sun Studios microphone and ignite his band into a frenzy on "Milkcow Blues Boogie" would drive Costello’s own “I don’t wanna kiss you/I don’t wanna touch” sneering on 1978’s “No Action,” as the Attractions collapsed into precision chaos behind him.
Over the years, Costello has diversified beyond the "angry young man" persona for which he first became known. But when you first hear Elvis Costello, whether it's his latest album with the Impostors or any of his previous work, you hear a little or a lot of that anger–the jerking, fire-spitting spite that is the soul of his music.
I found my way to Elvis in college. He was a scrawny, clever pop star who spit venom about girls; I was a scrawny, clever freshman who couldn’t get a date to save his life. Like many of my fellow geeks, my interests made me feel intensely alone even as they pushed me into cultish communities of Trekkies and fanboys. I often felt a few steps out of sync with the rest of the world; Costello took that feeling and jammed it back into my head through my eardrums.
My first Costello record was Spike, which I bought because it had the song "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" on it, as well as Costello's wistful pop hit "Veronica." At the time, I was busy pretending that Costello's lyrics on "Deep Dark" somehow applied to my contemporaneous crush: "One of these days you're gonna have to face a deep dark truthful mirror/And it's gonna tell you things that I still love you too much to say."
After tracking down Spike and his debut, My Aim Is True, I happily exploited the Columbia House Record Club to build out a full library of Costello’s Rykodisc reissues of his entire catalog. By cleverly borrowing the “address” of my dormmates, I’d end up with his entire recorded output in the span of a few months. (And then I had to pay full price for shit I absolutely DID NOT WANT. Still worth it.)
As I combed through this treasure trove of pop brilliance, it was Costello’s 1986 record Blood and Chocolate that sealed the deal. Again, part of it had to do with reading my own situation into one of the songs; "I Hope You're Happy Now" seemed written for a guy who had made my own life a living hell because he couldn't get over the fact that I'd started dating his ex-girlfriend. If there was anyone who I thrilled to imagine "like a matador with his pork sword while we all die of laughter," it was this guy.
Then I really stopped to listen to "I Want You," six minutes of seething desire burned onto plastic, and I could not believe my ears. Forget the invective in the lyrics themselves. Here was this guy who not only harbored all these sinister desires toward a woman who'd left him in the cold, but could also sustain this constant level of menace for a full six minutes, past any logical point of conclusion, and then let the song come to a gentle stop. Only it wasn't gentle at all, because you knew it was an ending with no resolution; the singer would simply build up his anger to the point where all this fury would just come bubbling out again. It made the "I Want You" songs by Dylan and the Beatles sound like frolicking musical postcards.
I've never been much of a rock evangelist, but I couldn't resist. I played "I Want You" for my girlfriend; she hated it. Some of my friends were confused and it made a few people uncomfortable. Still I raved on throughout the dorm, until one guy finally paid me some real attention.
"This is amazing," I said. "I can't believe this exists."
"What do you expect?" he replied. "It's Elvis Costello."
I think it’s no coincidence that each of Elvis Costello's first three albums opens with his voice. Before a note of music is played, you hear him sing.
Just like Elvis the First, Costello is first and foremost a voice. For the King, it was a vocal swagger that would never fully die, even when the man was squeezed into sparkly jumpsuits a few sizes too small and lazily trotting through his past glories on a Vegas stage.
For Costello, that "voice" means so much more. It's the scissors that jab into your gut every time he opens his mouth, and it's the words that collide together in ways that I'm not even sure Costello himself could explain. It's a white-hot artistic totality. And it’s the company he chooses to keep, too; whether the Attractions or the Imposters, Burt Bacharach or Questlove, EC has always had a gift for attracting like-minded performers and marrying his own gifts to the abilities of those he admires.
Today’s lineup of the Imposters, which includes original Attractions Steve Nieve (piano) and Pete Thomas (drums), along with Davey Faragher on bass, is as nimble and fierce as any band on the planet. They’re sympathetic players, but without sacrificing any of their own gifts as instrumentalists; I’ve often thought that the Imposters don’t so much play together as they play complementary parts that happen to fit together, sprinting alongside one another in service of EC’s songs.
You can draw a line from My Aim is True to The Boy Named If, EC’s most recent album, and find the same themes groping each other within his songs. Every album he's ever released has touched me in some way, whether it inspires me to jump around like an ass in my room or moves me to bittersweet sympathy with his broken characters. And every time he puts out a record, I'm there the day it comes out, because he's uncompromising and he's almost never failed me.
But then, what did I expect? He's Elvis Costello.