What is it that makes one an artist? This has been a question that has plagued man for thousands of years. Is it an inner drive that forces the person to create, regardless of what the public wants or expects, or is it a response to fill the need of public desire? Surely the most popular have been those who have been able to accurately assess the fickle public's current affectations.
Does one equate, then, artistry with calculation, or is the artist a person who creates for his own sake, heedless of mass demand? Can one infuse artistic vision into popular forms that have come before and still maintain both integrity and personal continuity of style? When the name Elvis Costello is mentioned in regard to the music of our time, the answer is a resounding yes!
Elvis Costello, who to many will always be regarded as "punk," though the more enlightened have never considered him as such, has just released his seventh album, Almost Blue (Columbia/F-Beat Records), a collection of remakes of country and western standards. None of the twelve tunes included here are originals, which may appear quite odd to those acquainted with Mr. Costello's work. When Elvis burst onto the scene in 1977, he was considered by many to be the most innovative of the brash new breed of singer-songwriters. His debut album, My Aim Is True. introduced the world to "Alison" (later covered by Linda Ronstadt), "Red Shoes" and "Watching the Detectives" revealed his penchant for word plays, role reversals, and biting irony. No slouch, Costello, with his new backing group, The Attractions, had within five months released his second album, This Year's Model, and netted himself an underground hit with the anthemic "Radio Radio," a fiery indictment of broadcasting's tendency to numb our senses. The release of Armed Forces, his third effort, was triumphant, highlighted by "Oliver's Army," a tribute to mercenary soldiers, or perhaps people as mercenaries, in general. Elvis' live shows were noted for their brevity, but incredible intensity, displaying his rough and passion filled vocal stance. Get Happy followed in 1980, packed with twenty two-minute bursts of R&B joy. Early 1981's Trust LP kept the ball rolling with scorching rockers, tender ballads ("Watch Your Step"), and his fourth self-penned C&W song, "Different Finger."
Having amassed a reputation as a literate, inventive tunesmith, it came as quite a surprise for most of us to learn of Mr. Costello's endeavors in the Country music field showcased on the spanking new Almost Blue album. Or did it? Elvis had flirted with country through his career, evidenced by the originals "Radio Sweetheart," "Stranger In The House" (covered by none less than the immortal George Jones), "Motel Matches," and "Different Finger." One suspects that Mr. Costello was always a softy for country, deep beneath his tough-as-nails rock 'n' roll persona.
Flying to Nashville (where else could one go?) with the Attractions in tow, Elvis achieved his secret desire: to redo all country favorite using a real-live, slicko country producer, Billy Sherill, and to have the whole thing laced with steel guitar playing from John McFee. To round the business off, Elvis got some good ole southern girls to do the sweet oooh-ooohing in the background. Although all the songs are covered from other artists, such as Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," or Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do") Elvis' recurrent themes of betrayal and deception, the core of any good C&W tune, come shining through. Costello sounds convincing because he has played this game so many times before, only with an English slant. It is doubtful that country's new direction is his direction, but is probably more of a detour. Elvis Costello can turn a detour, however, into a tour de force.