|The Elvis Costello
Article about Elvis Costello and lyrics
Transport the imagination
That's what all great songs do, says Elvis Costello. Arguably the best lyricist of the past quarter-century, he's back with a new album, his first solo effort in years. Here's how an Angry Young Man evolved into a Destiny's Child fan.
By Steven Chean
Elvis Costello has just mentioned Ira Gershwin and Destiny's Child in the same breath. The free association of an unstable man? No. It's the calculus of a pop music aficionado who has traveled time, space and taste to unlock the mystery of the Great Song Lyric. "There's no one thing they all share, except the ability to transport the imagination," he muses. "Destiny's Child's "Say My Name" is as good as anything [Motown's] Holland-Dozier-Holland ever wrote. It's a simple story anybody can recognize, done with tremendous panache."
If Costello, 47, knows his way around timeless lyrics, it's because he's been penning them for a quarter-century, ever since the fiercely intelligent wordplay of 1977's "My Aim Is True" introduced the masses to the knock-kneed punk in Buddy Holly glasses. And although he's long since outgrown his Angry Young Man persona, his wordplay remains, giving coherence to his schizophrenic output: the blue-eyed soul on "Get Happy!!", the orchestral pop on "Imperial Bedroom", the classical sequences on "The Juliet Letters".
"His lyrics can be savagely funny or just plain savage," says "Rolling Stone" contributing editor David Wild. "He's not so much setting a standard for singer-songwriters -- Bob Dylan already did that -- but rather living up to that standard when painfully few even come close."
Then again, painfully few were home-schooled in the sound of music. Long before pairing The King's first name with his mother's maiden name, London-born Declan Patrick MacManus was doing what the son of a big-band crooner and a record-store clerk does well: listening. "One time, my dad gave me a stack of albums he'd been listening to: Jefferson Airplane's "Surrealistic Pillow", Charles Mingus' "Oh Yeah", a Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell record and the first Butterfield Blues Band album. In one go. I was exposed to more records than any one boy deserves."
"Every scratch, every click, every heartbeat/Every breath that I bless/I'd be lost, I confess". So goes "45", Costello's love letter to music and the opening track on his new CD, "When I Was Cruel". He describes the April release as "a rowdy rhythm record," a return to form following his recent collaborations with Burt Bacharach, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the Mingus Orchestra. "Words used to drive my songs, but writing with Burt -- that was the most exacting job I've ever had, and I felt I'd come to a sort of conclusion with lyrics. But I can't seem to pack them away properly."
"That's part of the package," says David Sefton, director of UCLA's performing arts program, where Costello is its first Artist in Residence. "We chose Elvis because you can strip away the music entirely and have this incredibly dense, intense volume of poetry. He's an artist on every level, and he takes risks every chance he gets."
Ever since a teenage Costello informed his school's career counselors of his musical ambitions, he has faced the arduous task of explaining himself. "They assumed I wanted to be on 'Top of the Pops'" -- the music showcase on British TV -- "and have a Rolls-Royce," he says, laughing. "I didn't give a damn about that. The only thing that's ever interested me is putting words and music together in the most challenging ways. I've no doubt paid handsomely for that attitude."
Unlike many of his peers, Costello doesn't have estates on five continents. He owns an apartment in London, which he rents out, and a modest house in Dublin, which he shares with his wife, former "Pogues" bassist Cait O'Riordan. "We spend a lot of time together. She's 10 years younger than me, and she likes different things. Her favorite group growing up was U2, which I didn't register because I was too busy with my own career. But seeing the group through her eyes, I've grown to have a great appreciation of them."
And although the couple is fond of traveling -- rigorously avoiding the "sit-on-the-beach holiday" in favor of the "stimulating, activity-filled holiday" -- there's no place like home. And where there's home, there's music. Shelves upon shelves of albums line the corridor of Costello's music room. In his car: an Ethiopian compilation, a blues-and-hillbilly mix tape and the first Dr. John album. "There have been four generations of musicians in my family," Costello says, "so I'm no stranger to this obsession. But I long ago cut out meat from my diet, and the drink went six years ago. The records stay."
"I was only interested in putting words and music together in the most challenging ways I could imagine."
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2. "Use your mentality