By the time he'd filtered '60s soul through the reckless abandon of punk on 1980's most exhilarating pop release, Get Happy, Elvis Costello was fast emerging as the most consistent artist of the New Wave era, having banged out four amazing albums in as many years.
And this year's model, Momofuku, shows how much he still has left to offer.
But despite two solid pop hits in the '80s - Every Day I Write the Book and Veronica (the product of a brief but brilliant partnership with former Beatle Paul McCartney) - Costello no longer commands the attention that made his first release, My Aim Is True, the biggest-selling import of the year.
In part, it's just the nature of the business. As another generation's Elvis could have told him, no one gets to stay on top forever. But Costello hasn't made it any easier to stay the course with his constant departures from the sound that made him famous.
In 2002, When I Was Cruel became his first Top 20 effort since Get Happy, due in large part to an ad campaign proclaiming it his "first loud album " in several years. That's been part of the problem with selling Costello for decades. People like him loud and angry, but he's charted a career path marked by unexpected, often brilliant detours, from his Nashville album Almost Blue to North, his richly orchestrated exploration of the kind of album Frank Sinatra might have made. Along the way, he's baffled rockers by recording with a string quartet, an opera singer, jazz guitarist Bill Frissell, Burt Bacharach and New Orleans R&B/soul legend Allen Toussaint.
But Momofuku should prove easier to market.
It's a rocker packed with songs that could have held their own on any of his early classics, fueled by loud guitar, plenty of trash-rocking organ and the sort of vitriol Costello still spits out with more conviction than just about anyone. The more explosive tracks were born to take their place alongside Pump It Up and (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea in the set list. And as any fan who's stuck it out these past few decades knows, his live shows have become the stuff of legend, drawing on all corners of a catalog that's only gotten stronger, from obvious staples to lesser-known treasures, tortured ballads to electrifying rocks, in marathon sets that often go three hours.
As to where he goes from here, it's doubtful he'll release another Momofuku without dashing expectations first - perhaps another country road to pick up where this album's co-writes with Loretta Lynn and Rosanne Cash left off?
Of course, it's just as likely to be opera. Or possibly jazz. That kind of willful disregard for good career moves may have cost him the headlining spot on this Police tour, but his legacy is all the stronger for it.
Elvis Costello & the Imposters
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, May 24, opening for the Police
Where: Cricket Wireless Pavilion, 2121 N. 83rd Ave., Phoenix
Admission: $40, $90, $225
Elvis Costello's recent output may not generate the sort of hype that seemed to greet the singer's every move back in the day. But he's still out there adding bold new chapters to the legacy, including these four classics from the new millennium.
When I Was Cruel (2002) - Costello's first Top 20 album since the early '80s recaptured the youthful intensity of his earliest triumphs, but it also found him bringing new tricks to the table in a noirish title cut built on a tape loop of some old Italian pop song and a spooky surf-guitar lick.
The Delivery Man (2004) - This was marketed as Elvis gone Americana. But it's a far more interesting ride than that, with him taking back soul songs he'd given to Solomon Burke and Howard Tate, stuttering "p-p-p-peppermint gum" in the Trust-worthy Button My Lip and playing evolution for a wicked laugh in the Alley Oop knockoff Monkey To Man.
The River In Reverse (2006) - An album-length collaboration with New Orleans R&B/soul legend Allen Touissant, recorded with the Crescent City Horns and Costello's Imposters, this one finds him haunted by the devastation in New Orleans. But it also finds him outraged by the government's response and what it had to say about the sliding scale of what a life is worth in Broken Promise Land.
Momofuku (2008) - He's back in Blood and Chocolate mode on this, his most consistently electrifying batch of new material since 2002's When I Was Cruel. Fueled by Steve Nieve's roller-rink organ, the clang of Costello's electric guitar and a pop sensibility schooled in the British Invasion, he sputters his way through a dizzying stream of well-turned phrases with a savage wit and cruel intention.