Costello: the 'tigerish irritant" sharpens his teeth.



Elvis Costello's last two albums were released back in 1986. Despite their excellence, the combination of King Of America and Blood & Chocolate suggested that while Elvis still had the songs, he was no longer sure where he stood. While Costello spent the mid-'80s playing with his identity and exploring various musical styles, he was in danger of becoming merely familiar. The tigerish irritant of My Aim Is True was becoming a good old boy, universally admired and yet with his teeth blunted by approval.
In the intervening years between Blood & Chocolate and these 16 songs produced by Costello, T-Bone Burnett and engineer Kevin Killen, Elvis has sat in with all manner of artists and signed a major deal with Warners. Perhaps the first achievement of this triumphant return is to teach us how much his corruscating voice has been missed.
If Blood & Chocolate was a helter-skelter affair bashed out with Nick Lowe and The Attractions, the new collection has been amassed with a rare attention to detail. Costello has used four studios for this record and the cast of musicians and the tenor of the arrangements vary between London, Hollywood, New Orleans and Dublin. Yet while Costello draws on musicians as varied as Paul McCartney, New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band and such stalwarts of Irish traditional music as Donal Lunny and Davy Spillane, he has managed to unite his material with the newfound authority and detachment of his singing. Costello's voice is capable of withering sarcasm, intimate confession and a jesting detachment that is as dark and stricken as the satires of pre-war Berlin. If there is a dominant note in this collection, it is Costello's sustained performance as a vaudeville jester whose scathing jibes and political broadsheets are pumped up by the chattering brass chorus of The Dirty Dozen.
Yet Costello doesn't stick to vaudeville throughout and while he remains a detached storyteller recounting all manner of sexual and political betrayals, he now sounds too determined and too saddened to flinch in the face of what he's seen. Amidst a wealth of treasures, the Brecht-Weill mockery of God's Comic stands out as a piece of Swiftian satire that pictures God in his heaven listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Requiem and wondering if he should have given the earth to the monkeys. Alongside this towering performance emerges the Irish balladry of Tramp The Dirt Down, Costello's most affecting political piece since Shipbuilding. Part lament, part invective, this song is a curse that never preaches. Instead of repeating the usual dismayed shake of the head rejection of Thatcherism, Costello plunges in and winds up vowing to trample on her grave.
Costello once looked as if he would never find a voice simple enough to wed his complex vision to the directness of delivery of his first records. Here he makes every note count and yet retains a vaudevillian detachment that enables him to confront the world's iniquities while shielding him from none of the pain or the pity. God may be a comic as the song suggests but Costello has all the best lines.*****
Mark Cooper