Article about Elvis Costello
Globe And Mail, 1999-06-19
- Robert Everett-Green


The luck of the Elvis
No matter where his impish muse has gone over the past two decades -- from angry young punk to country crooner to Burt Bacharach partner -- Elvis Costello has turned the unlikeliest lead into musical gold.


Music Critic
Saturday, June 19, 1999

The Globe and Mail -- So there he was, striding up in a natty blue suit and a soft black hat, feeling lucky about how things had gone the previous night. Because it very nearly didn't happen. The show in Detroit had been in the open air, and the temperature dropped down to 10 degrees, and the next morning in Toronto he had no voice at all. It came back not long before curtain time, and the show went on, quite well by his reckoning, except for a few tight corners here and there.

Lucky man, Elvis Costello. He can't play any instrument properly (ask him yourself), and he sings in a kind of strangled tenor that no one would put up with had he not come into the world with enough grit and songwriting talent to stride very confidently to the top of his craft and stay there, for more than 20 years now. He turns 45 this August, which means the former Declan McManus has outlived the icon whose name he copped (The King) by three years.

A couple of dozen albums, and not a bad one in the lot (well, maybe Goodbye Cruel World, again by his own reckoning). More than 300 songs, some of them crafted with the likes of Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, who were both mighty happy to ride the updraft his collaboration gave to their distinguished but dormant careers. The boasting title of Costello's debut album,1977's My Aim is True, turns out to have been a pretty accurate prediction. He has wrangled words like no one else, run all over the lot musically, and somehow compelled everyone to sit up and pay attention to everything he did.

It hasn't always been the right kind of attention, which is to say it hasn't always been about the music. In the early days, especially, there were some nasty scenes at concerts (he would curse out audiences for requesting the songs they knew), then an ugly bar altercation with Stephen Stills, some punch-ups with photographers, and a romance with former Playboy Playmate and serial rock-star consort Bebe Buell (Liv Tyler's mother). And he broke up and reunited and broke up again with his crack backup band, The Attractions.

It all made for good copy, and another excuse for some journalists to remind themselves that Costello had always been a hard case, when all he really wanted to do was make good records, wind people up now and then, and be an entertainer like his dad, Ross MacManus, who used to sing with a major English dance band. "There's nothing wrong with being appealing," Costello said, snug on his hotel sofa, with a polka-dot velvet scarf draped over his neck. "Ingratiating, that's something else."

He put his thumb neatly on the difference years ago with Radio Radio, a song with a briskly appealing sound and some very uningratiating words about the industry most recording artists depend on to promote their stuff. ("And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel. . . . So you had better do as you are told/ You better listen to the radio.") What made it subversive -- and very helpful for Costello's stature as a rebel rocker, when he played it impromptu on Saturday Night Live in 1978 -- was not the bitter text alone, but the sweet stuff it was wrapped up in. Some programmers heard only the wrapping, and put the song on the air, till they figured out what he was actually singing.

Radio, of course, is the home of the format, a word that resembles formula, which in Costello's world is only for babies. He has strayed, catlike, across all the dotted lines that mark the places where rock stops and country starts (as on Almost Blue, his 1981 Nashville album), where protest pop leaves off and Bacharach begins (as on last year's Elvis-and-Burt disc Painted from Memory), and where the composer of Radio Radio might reasonably sneer at the very thought of ABBA instead of happily covering one of their songs (as he did near the start of his angry-young-man period). He has played the imp -- the name, as it happens, of his own record label -- pulling songs apparently without effort from whatever corner of the musical universe he happens to be looking at.

What other star songwriter would think of composing a whole album with a classical string quartet, and learning music notation (at age 37) to do it? That's what he did with The Juliet Letters, "a song sequence for string quartet and voice," spun out of a news item about an Italian professor who had been answering letters written to Juliet Capulet. That 1993 disc includes some fascinating notes about how the songs were cobbled together, by a master cobbler who doesn't really know how he does what he does.

"It just sort of happens," he said. "I don't have a method, much as I've tried to find one. I pick up a guitar and start working on something rhythmically and then the melody comes."

Often bits of melody and lyrics will come into his head at any old time, ragged and disconnected, with someplace to go but no way yet to get there. He gathers them up on a dictaphone or a notepad he carries in his pocket. Eventually he'll throw all the bits on a big white piece of paper, and start looking for things that fit together. He'll often spot linkages between ideas or phrases that occurred to him over a period of weeks or months.

From there, he said, he can sometimes pull several songs together very quickly -- he wrote all the tunes for his debut album in two weeks, and 10 songs for singer Wendy James in one weekend -- though the gathering process may have stretched over a much longer period.

But each song has a different way of being born. He thought it would be easy when the first part of In the Darkest Place, which appears on Painted from Memory,sailed into his head while he was on an airplane. "I sang the opening, lyrics and everything, for maybe the first four lines, into the dictapone," he said. "I sang all the chords from top to bottom, all in the right inversions." A little while later he sat down with Bacharach to review what he had, and it seemed that the major work had been done. "But then I took a whole year to finish the lyric."

Other times it comes as easily as breathing. "The song I wrote with my wife [ex-Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan] for The Big Lebowski, we wrote in the yellow cab on the way to the studio."

Costello has laid down many a tune in strict 32-bar form, but he has also loosened the symmetrical song structures of pop. A song like Accidents Will Happen, from the 1979 album Armed Forces, is full of twists that defeat expectations -- the nature of accidents, after all. But occasionally the glue runs thin, and the song threatens to dissolve into a kind of melodic noodling (Imperial Bedroom, an album revered by many for its thematic unity, wanders this way at times).

As for lyrics, Costello can pack more thought per line than anyone since Cole Porter, though sometimes he'll be seduced by the sheer cleverness of a line that doesn't really go anywhere. "Till I speak double-Dutch/ To a real double duchess" (New Amsterdam, from the 1980 album Get Happy!!) expresses the point, with a tinge of self-parody.

But this is all a bit historical, simply because we haven't had an all-new, all-Costello album since Brutal Youth came out in 1994. There have been many pleasant distractions since then: He has written with Bacharach, toured with Attractions pianist Steve Nieve and a trunk full of old songs, turned out a movie tune or two, played cameo roles in the Austin Powers sequel and the Spice Girls movie, and even agreed to produce an album on Deutsche Grammophon (!) for Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter ("my favourite singer in the world today").

It's all busy fun ("like a holiday away from your real life"), but when the current tour runs out in July, it will be time for him to think about the next big thing from Elvis Costello. Expect only to get something that you may not expect.


How's this for weird? Every album Elvis Costello has done since 1986, except for last year's Painted from Memory, has been deleted. Everything he did before that date is still around. Yup, it's easier to find a first-rate reissue of My Aim Is True, which sparked his recording career in 1977, than it is to find a copy of Brutal Youth,which reached No. 2 in the UK in 1994.

Such is the kiss-off given to Costello by Warner Music, his major label from 1989 through 1997. Though some titles are still active in some territories (Warner Music Canada reports current listings for Extreme Honey and The Juliet Letters),in most of the world Costello's Warner albums are dead and buried.

"They really have shown a rather sinister disdain for what I do, in my absence from the label," said Costello, who has never numbered executives from any record company among his favourite people. "If I were a conspiracy theorist that might alarm me."

He seems to have known it was coming. On the back of the booklet included with Extreme Honey, a 1997 compilation album drawn from all the Warner discs, we read: "Here lie the records that she scratched." According to Costello, the promotional budget for that album was a paltry $1,000.

A spokesperson for Warner Music Canada said deletions are normal when an artist leaves for a different company (Costello is now with Universal). Costello's Warner discs will remain in limbo, she said, until someone buys the rights to reissue them.

Rykodisc did just that with the discs from before the Warner period, and did a bang-up job on the reissues. Each of the albums in this uniform edition comes with informative notes by Costello, and a generous handful of extended-play selections not found on the original records. There's never been a better time to buy such core Costello discs as My Aim is True, Imperial Bedroom, Punch the Clock and Spike. Rykodisc also has a great compilation disc, The Very Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

All this could change, however, and not necessarily for the better. Rykodisc's rights to the pre-Warner material expire at the end of the year, and Costello isn't saying what he'll do then.

"I once said I was going to delete everything in the year 2000," he said, recalling a remark made to Mojo magazine in 1996. "Maybe I'll burn them."

Or maybe he's having us on, just as he did to Warner with the cover of Spike, which features Costello's smiling mug, in black and white face-paint, grinning out from a wood and satin frame made in the shape of Warner's famous art-deco logo. Underneath this trophy there is a plaque, which reads: "The Beloved Entertainer." -- R.E.G.