I've always been simultaneously impressed and disappointed by the Attractions. Each of them is a talented enough instrumentalist to be the leader of his own band Bruce Thomas may be the best bass player in rock but they don't seem to know how to play together. The arrangements are claustrophobic, every moment stuffed with a fill, a lick, a scale. The melodies have no room to breathe, and the rhythms are smothered. Costello's songs were much better served by the loose pub-rock of My Aim is True.
By Trust, his songwriting had improved considerably, but the Attractions are still up to their old tricks. This is my favorite album of theirs, and it still leaves me cold in a lot of places. These songs, performed by another band, would be sensational - Costello is a melodicist of staggering talent. Listen to the verse of "New Lace Sleeves", or the chorus of "White Knuckles" and imagine them played by someone like Lawrence Welk. They're that good. And his singing is quite fine - his range has never been very big, but on this album recognizes it and doesn't strain too much. I love the delivery of "Watch Your Step" with the slight rasp, and in "Pretty Words" he takes advantage of the reverb by stretching out his sibilants.
The lyrics are Costello's usual gibberish. He seems to have decided that a good inspiration for rock and roll lyrics is Modernist poetry; unfortunately, records don't have footnotes. Someone please tell me what "I heard someone say where have we met before, but the one over the eight seem less like one or more like four" means!
But the Attractions are all over these fine performances like treacle on a croquette. In "Clubland" a bass lick, a keyboard line and the hook are all competing for the listener's attention during the refrain. "Luxembourg" is a soggy mess, with everyone going full guns in every bar.
Of course, there are plenty of great moments, too. Listen to the bass play off the piano in "New Lace Sleeves," and the way the rhythm section kicks the refrain of "Fish and Chip Paper."
It's all a matter of degree: if the Attractions could restrain themselves, and Elvis could write some lyrics that didn't require annotation, this record is easily an 8, the tunes are that good.
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