Article about Elvis Costello, and review of concert at London, Royal Albert Hall on 1999-04-15
- David Mogolov
Reminiscing about angry-young-man-turned-pop-Pavarotti Elvis Costello, on the eve of his return to American stages.
BY DAVID MOGOLOV
Like most of the world in the 22 years since the release of his debut album, "My Aim Is True", Elvis Costello has changed in ways no one would have foreseen in the '70s.
It may be taken as a rare sign of long-term stability, then, that in 1999, Costello would still be taking the stage at London's Royal Albert Hall with Attractions keyboardist and career-long co-conspirator Steve Nieve. Those who were old enough to hear the two the first time around may grow nostalgic upon hearing them play "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" and "Temptation." To them, Costello and Nieve's five-night British tour is a reminder of things past and permanent.
To others, though, including Costello himself, nights mostly spent revisiting Elvis Costello and the Attractions songs are not a trip backwards, but a celebration of what Costello's work has become, and what it continues to become with each performance. The songs, though familiar in lyric and melody, are no longer the songs of the angry young Costello, who fought his way through the hellhole clubs of '70s London and came out with a pack of rabid fans, including every critic whose ears got in his way. They are now the songs of an eclectic 44-year-old artist who's lost touch with his anger, but not the humor and humility that tempered it.
He may have acted like a punk then, but he wasn't riding on the same bus as Sid Vicious. His diverted down the same road as Joe Strummer's, before leaving the road, crashing into a river with Roy Orbison and floating out into the wide ocean. Now, the same lyrics he would have shouted in '77 might be delivered with accompaniment by the Brodsky Quartet, a banjo-wielding Nick Lowe, or God forbid, Burt Bacharach.
The self-described "young and impetuous" Costello was seen as a threat to straight society, but he and Nieve now look every bit a part of it. Nieve looks like a political science professor, and Costello could well be mistaken for a tenured member of any biology department.
Appearances, though, are not what they seem, and Elvis would probably still make unacceptable company at Buckingham Palace dinners. Commenting onstage that Margaret Thatcher "is a fucking disgrace for going to tea with that mass murderer" former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and referring to NATO spokesman Jamie Shea as "a skilled liar" destined to be struck by a lightning bolt from God, he made clear that his political views are still anti-establishment.
On the other hand, his politics were always at least somewhat obscured by lyrics which focused more on storytelling than moralizing. Songs such as "Oliver's Army," "Pills and Soap," and "Less Than Zero" are all products of Costello's political conscience, but never explicitly say "Margaret Thatcher is a fucking disgrace."
"Shipbuilding," one of his few overtly political songs, is more memorable for its beauty than its message. Chet Baker's trumpet part alone is enough to make the Falkland Islands seem insignificant. At the Albert Hall last week, stripped of everything but Nieve's piano and Costello's voice, the song was like a jangling nerve between the shoulder blades. Costello's voice evoked the quiet, disconcerting impact of a faraway war on ordinary people. The positioning of the song in the setlist between "Oliver's Army" and "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" was a deliberate one, giving the third of his four encores a timely thematic sweep, a question subtly unasked about whether or not England ought to be bombing yet another country. As has long been typical of his presentation, half of Costello's point isn't in what he says or does, but how he says or does it.
The recent British mini-tour, part of the global march the two have dubbed the "Lonely World Tour," has allowed Costello to touch-up some songs he'd thought himself done with, and has given him the opportunity to display a voice many people don't realize he has. "Painted From Memory," Costello's 1998 collaboration with pop composer Burt Bacharach, demonstrated that in two decades Elvis' voice has gone from being one of the most distinctive in contemporary music to one of the best. The praise he has garnered must have gone to his already immodest head at least a little bit. He's turned upbeat songs like "Watching the Detectives" and "Radio Sweetheart" into chances to croon, and has become something of a vocal gymnast, performing the songs he penned with Bacharach with all the bravado of a pop-Pavarotti.
Closing their show at the Royal Albert, Costello and Nieve performed "Couldn't Call It Unexpected # 4," Elvis standing on the edge of the stage sans microphone, alternately belting out and whispering the lyrics while Professor Nieve gave him just enough backing to remind him he wasn't singing a cappella.
His lyrics are more tortured than ever before, often focusing on mortality and folly with a bizarre melancholic glee. But despite the darkness of his words, the singer seems more serene than ever.
In '77, Elvis told a reporter that "the words are the content for me, the most important part. If I wanted to write really good music, then I would make instrumentals." This year, speaking to a reporter following a concert in Australia, he claimed that he wasn't nearly "so interested in words as people think I am." His focus, he says, is the music. Lyrics are only a part of the song, and rarely the part which requires much effort for him.
Maybe it is for this reason that he is quick to point out, as he did onstage at the Royal Albert, that "a lot of people seem to think that maybe Burt wrote the music and I wrote the words [for "Painted"], but in fact we sat side by side at the piano and fought it out." Going head to head with seasoned composer Bacharach was a gutsy move from a performer who admits to recording nearly a dozen albums before even learning to read sheet music.
Gutsy, maybe, or just confident. Even in 1976, after five years of writing songs and at least two of trying to get a record deal, he knew he was a good songwriter. While recording his second album he told a Dutch interviewer: "For the best part of a year I was utterly convinced that I was right and everyone else was wrong. I thought to myself, I won't get angry, I have all these songs, no one pays me any attention, but every time I heard the terrible stuff on the radio, I got the feeling that I couldn't be wrong. And that the record labels were wrong to keep rejecting me."
Soon after the release of "My Aim Is True" on Stiff Records, ABC, who'd rejected him a year earlier, offered him a deal. His confidence hasn't waned since. His records routinely go over budget because he isn't satisfied with them. His tours aren't entirely profitable because he chooses venues he wants to play instead of venues that make sense economically. When he wants a particular session player, he walks up and introduces himself, and when he doesn't like the way something is done, he does it himself. Some things, even after 22 years haven't changed. Elvis Costello is still a stubborn, self-indulgent man.
What makes him wonderful to listen to is that he's always indulged good tastes. His vocal extravagances are a pleasure to hear, and his perfectionism usually makes his attempts to master new styles successful before they even begin. Were he to have tried some of what he's done recently when he was in his twenties, he may well have not succeeded. Lack of experience might have done him in. And the critics would have pummeled him anyway, for biting off more than an amateur could chew. But maybe it's no wonder he continues to revisit songs he wrote 20 years ago he knew then that he was on to something.
David Mogolov and Elvis Costello will both return to America this May.
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