Can it really have been an entire decade since gawky young Declan MacManus walked into Stiff Records' London office and walked out with a recording contract as Elvis Costello? Alas, it has, and Costello is well aware that even though he is one of the finest songwriters alive, he never has made it beyond cult status. "I was a fine idea at the time," he writes here, "now I'm a brilliant mistake." That appellation can only apply to his failure to break through to a mass audience; there is nothing on this, his 11th LP, that could be labeled a mistake.
Rather, it is a showcase of 15 songs (with a running time of almost a full hour) that finds Costello at the peak of his ability. He keeps circling back to that notion of not being appreciated; the LP's first single is a cover of the old Animals classic "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," which he virtually makes into a personal theme song, wrapping his heart and soul and throat around it. "If you don't know what is wrong with me," he writes in another song, "then you don't know what you've missed." Sure it's self-absorbed, but so was Bob Dylan through much of the '60s, and Costello's best songs call to mind much of Dylan's early work: obsessive strings of outrageous images that, taken individually, are hard to penetrate, but that, taken as a whole, communicate a great deal. Costello has left behind some of the deep, Dylanesque bitterness that figured in his first few albums, but still knows how to twist the knife and get a chuckle: "She said that she was working for the ABC News / It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use."
Costello's former backup band, the Attractions, figures in only one cut. The rest of the time, Costello is backed by various studio musicians, and he and producer T-Bone Burnett keep the arrangements sparse and subservient to the well-developed melodies. As to the strange billing, apparently Costello is Costello no more. He said in a recent interview he is going back to being Declan MacManus, and the copyrights credits on the album reflect this.
Just what "The Costello Show (featuring Elvis Costello) means is unclear, except that it's mother ironic reference to his view of himself. How long can one remain an enfant terrible? Like Norman Mailer, with whom he has absolutely nothing else in common, Costello will always be an enfant terrible, even as he grows older and up. Only those who appreciate that can keep Costello from being misunderstood.