Few people are willing to swallow the whole loaf when it comes to Elvis Costello. The man has simply had too many distinct phases, stylistic shifts, etc. If you like his early ‘revenge and guilt’ output, you might have a hard time appreciating his classical forays. Or you dig the blue-eyed soul of Get Happy!, but his 80s chamber- and synth-pop leaves you flat. Or you love his Americana experiments but the organ-heavy amphetamined This Year’s Model is too jarring or cynical or samey for your tastes. Or maybe his singer-for-hire soundtrack work this past decade casts a pall on everything post-1982. You get the idea. The guy is restless, a real musical chameleon as they say. Of course, his diehard fans would claim that that is a huge part of his appeal; regardless of the backing group, Elvis is always Elvis. His take on life and relationships is always witty and urbane, and those melodies, even when ‘over-written’ (a frequent criticism), tend to burrow down into your subconscious.

I find that the main persisting misconception about Elvis Costello is that he is a rocker and not a balladeer. Or at least, that it’s an either/or situation, and if not, then that’s somehow evidence of a lack of integrity. He is both. True, the ballads can get a little boring, esp when he overdoes the vibrato, but if you are interested in his latter-day work (90s and 00s), that is where the majority of the gems are to be found. In fact, I would argue that his last truly great record was Painted From Memory, the one that he made with Burt Bacharach in 1998, and the highwater mark of that album is the stunning ballad “God Give Me Strength.” Elvis has rarely dealt with religion in an non-ironic or non-satirical mode, so the track comes as a bit of a sucker punch. But musical prayer-songs simply don’t get any more profound: Elvis confesses not only his inability to get over a lover’s rebuff, he prays that his rival would suffer, acknowledging the ‘boundness’ of his emotions with every note. The song is a cry-for-help of the most honest and articulate kind:

There are many others we could highlight, several of which are devastating, but perhaps none with quite as much gravitas, spiritually-speaking. A brief list might go like this:

Top 11 Elvis Costello Ballads of the 90s and 00s

  1. God Give Me Strength – Painted From Memory
  2. My Favorite Hour – Brutal Youth
  3. All This Useless Beauty – All This Useless Beauty
  4. The Birds Will Still Be Singing – The Juliet Letters
  5. That Day Is Done – All This Useless Beauty
  6. The Judgment – The Delivery Man
  7. The Comedians – All This Useless Beauty (bonus)
  8. Poor Fractured Atlas – All This Useless Beauty
  9. In The Darkest Place – Painted From Memory
  10. Still – North
  11. The Sharpest Thorn – The River In Reverse