Elvis Excursions: 5 Great Non-Rock Elvis Costello Albums

When Elvis Costello busted out in the late ‘70s as one of the New Wave/punk movement’s most talented songwriters, it seemed like he could easily have gone on forever in that vein. Few realized at the time that Costello had such a rich background in many different types of music. It was just a matter of time before he started exploring these other genres, which he has done again and again throughout his career with the same high level of excellence he brings to his more rocking material.

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In many cases, Costello has used these stylistic shifts as an excuse to collaborate with artists he admired who already had footing in what was somewhat new territory for him. Let’s take a look back at Elvis Costello’s most adventurous and successful forays away from his pop rock origins, from most recent to eldest.

1. Wise Up Ghost (with The Roots, 2013)

Costello has always been one of the most verbose rock songwriters, which is why a collaboration with hip-hop pioneers The Roots seemed like a good fit. Still, the way Costello, Questlove, and the rest of the Roots went about this collaboration was endlessly inventive.

In some cases, Costello wrote entirely new lyrics, while other songs featured lyrics that he’d used in past songs that were repurposed like literate puzzle pieces. The music is not entirely reliant on hip-hop beats. Instead, it’s a musical mélange that seems to transform from track to track. Highlights include the furious album-opener, “Walk Us Uptown,” the hushed “Tripwire” (featuring a clever sample of Costello’s “Satellite”), and the cacophonous title track. Truth be told, there’s not a miss on the entire record.

2. North (2003)

Some upheaval in Costello’s personal life helped to inspire this album of torch songs. His marriage to musician Cait O’Riordan ended a year prior to the album’s release, but he fell into a new romance with jazz singer Diana Krall (to whom he is still married). You can hear that transformation in the sequence on the album.

[RELATED: Behind the Name: How Elvis Costello Chose His Moniker]

The opening songs are filled with angst and heartache. But as North progresses, there are tentative moves to hope and happiness. This isn’t the type of record that’s going to immediately blow anyone away. But if you stick with it, it’s going to reward you with the beauty and sorrow of the music and, of course, with Costello’s lyrics, which delve into the hard truths of love in an attempt to come out the other side wiser—if a little bruised.

3. Painted from Memory (with Burt Bacharach, 1998)

Whereas many of the albums on this list confused critics and fans at first, Painted from Memory was met with universal acclaim almost from the moment it was announced. Costello’s admiration for Bacharach, the legendary songwriter and arranger of so many ‘60s and ‘70s pop and soul classics, made for a cohesive collaboration.

Costello managed to find a way to marry his lyrical complexity with the twists and turns of Bacharach’s melodies and chosen instrumental flourishes. The pairing brought out the best in both men, with towering songs of love and loss such as “God Give Me Strength,” “This House Is Empty Now,” and the title track as the end result.

4. The Juliet Letters (with the Brodsky Quartet, 1993)

Many rock artists have written classical works. Even more still have incorporated string quartets and other classical touches into their rock and pop songs (a la baroque pop). But few have attempted what Costello did with the Brodsky Quartet, in that he cedes the musical ground for the most part and instead fits his lyrics into what can best be described as bite-sized operas.

Don’t worry so much about the theme (apparently, people write letters to Shakespeare’s fictional heroine from Romeo and Juliet). Instead, just focus on the stunning beauty of individual songs such as “Jacksons, Monk and Rowe,” “This Sad Burlesque,” and “The Birds Will Still Be Singing,” and you’ll see why this unlikely pairing proved to be so fruitful.

5. Almost Blue (with the Attractions, 1981)

Many critics pounced on Costello when he released this album of country cover songs. That was a time in rock music when artists didn’t dare shift genres, and that accounts for much of that early response. Listening to it now, though, you can hear Costello’s excellent taste in terms of the song selection.

Meanwhile, the Attractions managed to fit their talents to the material in seamless fashion. The band even came away with a big hit (at least in the UK) with their take on the weeper “Good Year for the Roses.” Costello got to pay tribute to artists in the country genre who influenced his own songwriting, such as Merle Haggard (“Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”) and Gram Parsons (“How Much I Lied”). Don’t believe the negativity of critics at the time. Check out Almost Blue and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images

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