At some point a career goes on long enough where it starts to divide the true fans from the people who just got into the artist because they were in the ether, but sometimes the critics will continue to care and sometimes they won’t. I don’t know where exactly that point is with Costello but I do wonder if this record is part of that post-exposure period. There’s a lot of ink spilled on this record, about his reunion with the Attractions, about its sound, and a lot of other stuff. People really care. As someone who admires both Costello’s songwriting and his willingness to try any genre that suits him, but who really doesn’t care as much as the real fans and the critics, the ink spilled on this record is a little much.
This is a good set of songs, which is usually the case with Costello’s ’80s records. I haven’t listened to any of his other albums recently, but it definitely competes with many of those earlier albums that are near-classics. Whatever reservations I had about Costello as a songwriter when I first started listening to him have long since disappeared. He is the best songwriter to emerge from new/wave post punk and I don’t think it’s very close. (Nick Lowe fans are mad. Sting fans shouldn’t be.)
People talk a lot about the volume and the grit displayed here. And its’ true that this is a louder record, perhaps it’s the loudest one he’d yet made. It’s also likely it’s rawer than most of them albums he’d made to this point. Neither of these things means that Costello “anticipated” grunge and to say so is to lose yourself in this weird world where American alternative rock doesn’t exist (it had existed for 4 or 5 years at this point!) and where your comparison for loud, grimey rock music is, like, The Smiths. This music is “loud” and “gritty” in comparison only to the radio of the time. But too much as been said about how this record is some kind of massive departure into loud rock music, it’s just not that true. It still very much sounds like the Attractions, only a little louder and rougher and, yes, filtered through the prism of some underground ’80s rock music, albeit barely.
I have the usual production reservations – despite Costello’s commitment to zagging when his contemporaries were zigging he still manages to let the ’80s creep in a little bit. I suspect I would be more receptive to the idea that this is some loud rock album if it was produced more like a loud rock album, whether your choice for that is what was then mainstream (not that I’d enjoy it) or whether it was to look to the production strategies of American alternative. Either way, the production is not great.
But because Costello is such a great songwriter, this remains a good record despite all the bizarre hype around it.