Listening to his new album, Mighty Like A Rose, I had an abrupt, blinding thought: Elvis Costello is the Martin Amis of pop. For people who don't read many books and don't listen to many albums anymore, Amis and Costello are the only ones left who dare to go for the grand, over-arching vision of our time. They take the pulse of the age and diagnose the malaise. Nobody else has the ambition or temerity to take on this task, which is why Amis and Costello are seen, by some, as saving graces and solitary saviours.
Amis has made two stabs at encapsulating the fear and greed of the Eighties in Money and London Fields, with their Dickensian anti-heroes John Self and Keith Talent — repulsive incarnations of the era, pimples on the zeitgeist's backside. Costello, too, has been lunging for the Big Picture's jugular for over a decade. His albums are cross-sections of a diseased British body politic, drawing tile dots between personal and political squalor; between the husband's brutal fists and the election-winning war (Armed Forces was originally titled Emotional Fascism).
Against this backdrop of degraded private and public language, Amis and Costello dramatize themselves as solitary bulwarks against the moronic inferno of popular culture. Amis flinches and shudders at the masturbatory nature of remote-control culture (TV, porn, video games). Costello has produced perennial diatribes against tabloid culture, the "chewing gum for the ears" of conveyor belt pop. On his new album, "The Other Side Of Summer" is a predictably vituperative blast against dance culture: "The dancing was desperate, the music was worse." "Invasion Hit Parade" similarly dramatizes Costello as one of the few who refuse to collaborate with the new regime of "non-stop Disco Tex and the Sexolettes".
For Amis and Costello, one of the reasons the world is in such a state is precisely because no one reads books or listens to albums any more — or at least the kind of books and the kind of albums that tell you what a state the world is in (precisely the kind they write and record). Both mourn the disappearance of substance in a world of superficial slogans and clichés, the withering of attention spans. For Amis, the role of the author has been usurped by soap operas, the gutter press, even style mags. For Costello, the problem is the decline of the songwriter in the face of a pop culture organized around videos, 12-inch remixes, the sampler and the DJ. In their embattled world view, the kind of audience they demand is an endangered species: people who've absorbed a lot of literature, who are schooled in the rock canon, and well-versed enough to get the references that riddle the Amis/Costello oeuvre. The prospect of a "disliterate" population (technically literate, but who never bother to read anything), or, in Costello's case, a rock culture no longer based on the reverential interpretation of lyrics, is terrifying. A future based around TV/ video/12-inch, rather than novels or albums, bodes a nightmare world of emotional illiterates, like John Self in Money, who doesn't have the self-analytical skills to know why he's fucked up, or the teenage girl in "The Other Side Of Summer" who's "crying cos she doesn't look like a million dollars", but "doesn't seen to have the attention span" to work out how media and advertising have messed with her mind.
In the Amis/Costello universe, things are always dying: love, language, truth, the planet are all on their last legs. America has a particularly diabolic status; it's the leading edge of the apocalypse, the original moronic inferno. The replacement of politics by advertising, the castration of rock 'n' roll, a junk culture where porn is the biggest grossing leisure industry, mugging, yuppies, MTV — you name it, the US trailblazes it. Amis and Costello document a Britain slowly succumbing to the crappiest aspects of US mass culture, but without the space and the naivety that is America's saving grace. In America, the born-to-run reflex is a safety valve for class antagonism: people just move on. In Britain, rage festers and turns to bile. Amis and Costello have a vivid grip on the stuffiness of English culture: Amis is good on the modern British pub, stuck between the fustiness of tradition and the plastic tackiness of the future. Costello could have been a Springsteen, but, growing up in more confined circumstances, became a poet of claustrophobia rather than of wide open spaces.
In their early days, both of them were regarded as bitter and twisted misanthropes. Costello talked of how he only understood two emotions, "revenge and guilt"; Amis was renowned for stories that left a bad taste in the mouth. Both have mellowed with age, but their forte is still the banality of evil and the evil of banality: portraits of bastards, brutes, cheats and crushed inadequates. Revealingly, neither of them can "do" women. Manipulative or manipulated, their female characters are ciphers. Nicola Six, the "heroine" of London Fields, is even compared to a black hole, the ultimate misogynist metaphor.
Ultimately, this misogyny is just a facet of a general misanthrophy. Amis and Costello belong to a peculiarly British strain of satirical imagination, a tradition that includes Evelyn Waugh, the Ealing and Boulting Brothers comedies, and Private Eye. In this world, there are no heroes, only shits and the shat upon — an odious, privileged minority and the loathsome, downtrodden multitude. "Good" characters aren't admirable, but despicably unworldly and naive, weak and gullible fools like Guy Clinch, the amorous fall-guy in London Fields.
Amis and Costello give this black, bilious brand of satire an apocalyptic, fin de siecle twist. London Fields was at one stage entitled "Millennium"; new Costello songs like "Invasion Hit Parade" and "Hurry Up Doomsday" are panoramic panic attacks. Through Amis's paranoid upper-crust eyes, the Portobello Road is transformed into a Hell's Kitchen of lowlife iniquity. Costello's distempered gaze pans across a culture rank with the stench of mendacity, rife with "professional liars" and "perpetual suckers", zombies and bloodsuckers. Like all apocalyptic visions the Amis/Costello line is prone to overstatement, over-ripe imagery, a certain stylistic overkill. And one problem always looms for the professional prophet of doom: how to keep on upping the apocalyptic stakes.
While Mighty Like A Rose suggests Costello is condemned to spurting exquisitely crafted bile in perpetuity, Amis has taken a sideways step with an oblique angle on the Big Picture. His work-in-progress, Time's Arrow (previewed in Granta 31), borrows its premise from science fiction: the protagonist experiences time running backwards through the eyes of an American doctor called Tod Friendly. This has the salutary effect of making our everyday human procedures and transactions seem eerie and absurd; all power and energy mysteriously originates from the toilet bowl, kind-hearted pimps give money to whores who then squander it on old men, doctors make their patients sick and ambulance men rush victims from their hospital beds and painstakingly insert them into wrecked cars. Although the device has been used before in science fiction and comics, Amis does it well: after reading the Granta excerpt, it takes a while for the uncanny feeling of time running in reverse to wear off.
Abandoning the omniscient eye-view for a baffled and bemused first person is a smart move for Amis, and timely, too. The judgmental gaze is too sneering and know-it-all for these dazed and confused post-modern times. The leading edge in contemporary fiction and music aims to mirror chaos, not offer salvation from it. But this cutting edge can be hard to grasp for those who cling to an old-fashioned idea of art as re-inforcer of values or source of guidance. These people still look for an angry voice of sanity, a Big Figure to tell them what's going on.
Deploring the waning of literacy and the craft of songwriting, but lacking the energy to keep up with the state of the art, such middle-brow types look to Amis and Costello for reassurance: firstly, that the culture is still deteriorating; secondly, that they are on the side of righteousness. In reality, they're part of the problem.