I don’t know Costello’s career as well as perhaps I should, given his sheer volume and his reputation as perhaps (British) New Wave’s preeminent songwriter. But I feel like I know it well enough to mark this as the first record when he began his genre-driving. It’s not as drastic as a departure as some of the things he would do later in his career, but it’s relatively drastic compared to his first few records. Calling it “new wave” seems a little inappropriate but I guess it’s as good a name as any.
Everyone points out the sheer volume of songs here: 20, somehow squeezed into 48 minutes on one LP. (It’s like he’s Genesis or something. Or Nick Lowe or the engineers called Genesis’ people.) The songs are less immediate than his first few records but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less good. It just takes a little more time to get in to them, which might have been the point. And there are remarkably few “duds” (to paraphrase Christgau) given the sheer volume. Costello’s melodies are always good enough – even if there isn’t quite anything here to compare with “Less than Zero” or “Pump It Up” or whatever. But, of course, his lyrics remain excellent, which helps.
The vibe is very much “ska-ish” though never getting there. There is also a distinct R&B/blue-eyed soul vibe on some of the songs (especially those ones without a discernible ska/reggae influence). As I said, it’s a noticeable departure from his earlier work and it basically never sounds like punk.
The record sounds remarkably good for an album squeezed onto one LP. I guess maybe the technology improved since Genesis was squeezing 50 minutes onto single LPS 7 years earlier, or maybe somebody here just knew what they were doing. One of the positives about the style change is that the record doesn’t sound particularly “1980” to me.
This is one of those records I could see coming to love given enough listens but, for the moment, I just think it’s good. The lack of immediacy in the material creates more respect than it does affection, so find myself admiring it, if not loving it. At least so far.