The epitome of the intrepid artist, Elvis Costello has never been content with producing mere rock 'n' roll. Over the years, he has ventured with various collaborators into far-flung territory, from country to classical, Celtic to cabaret. But pursuing this eclectic muse doesn't rule out rock, as evidenced by the graceful return of his classic combo, the Attractions.
Out Tuesday (14) on Warner Bros., All This Useless Beauty is notable not only for being the first full-length Attractions reunion in years but for the imaginative, enthusiastic promotional campaign that Costello and his label have concocted on its behalf.
Always relishing opportunities to promote his work in a novel fashion, Costello once played three clubs in one night in New York, and a few years ago, he undertook a carnivalesque tour complete with spinning "request" wheel. For All This Useless Beauty, Costello plans various small club shows preceding a world-wide Attractions tour, as well as special broadcasts and impromptu promotional events.
"In-stores are forgotten the next week — it's difficult to make that sort of thing original," Costello says. "People in retail and radio want to get excited, too. So we want to do things that people won't forget in an hour, things that'll leave 'em talking."
In late April, Costello played a series of solo gigs and broadcasts in Europe to set up the new album. This month, Costello comes to North America for a handful of intimate club gigs in major cities with Attractions pianist Steve Nieve. The two will play songs from All This Useless Beauty, as well as unrecorded material they composed together.
The Attractions will come to America for a tour of larger theaters and amphitheaters in August. In the fall, the band will travel through Europe, including such neglected territories as Greece and Sicily, and will then trek to Japan. Costello's tours are booked by William Morris.
On May 8, Costello performed on Late Show With David Letterman froin San Francisco, pulling a geographical coup: He has now played the show from four cities on two continents. Costello will also appear on the syndicated World Cafe radio program, and he is filming a segment for VH1's new Storytellers program.
"Elvis is a dream artist," says Jeff Gold, Warner Bros. executive VP/GM. "He manages himself and comes to the table with loads of his own marketing ideas. He even thought up the print ad campaign that revolves around lyrics from the album."
Gold adds, "This is the first time since [1989's] Spike that we've had Elvis available to promote a new album on release in America. We're going to take full advantage."
All This Useless Beauty marks Costello's fifth album for Warner Bros. after years with Columbia. (The early Attractions catalog has been reissued in commendable fashion by Rykodisc.) The new record features a diverse, top-flight batch of songs that may hint subtly at past Attractions efforts but more prominently points to a new stylistic fluidity.
"There is some expressive life left in rock 'n' roll, even for us," Costello says. "Having a 'sound' can be dangerous. But I think we've dismantled ours successfully . . . we have more to offer."
One tie to past glories is co-producer Geoff Emerick, the man behind the board for Costello's landmark Imperial Bedroom album from 1982. Though the new record is no redux, such songs as "It's Time" recall the sprawling sonics and inspired melodic invention of Imperial Bedroom.
"Geoff was the ideal man no as he was 14 years ago," Costello says. "Like then, there are a number of different kinds of song on the new album, and if you didn't make each sound vivid, the whole could sound fragmented."
With its dread-filled lyrics and guitar-fueled energy, the track "Complicated Shadows" demonstrates that the Attractions — Nieve, Pete Thomas on drums, and Bruce Thomas (no relation) on bass — can still rock with panache. The album also displays a sensitivity to Costello's recent classical turns, as on the delicate "Poor Fractured Atlas," with its quotes from Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata. And "I Want To Vanish" features string backing by the Brodsky Quartet, Costello's associates on The Juliet Letters, the artful song cycle from 1993.
Three tracks on All This Useless Beauty have a built-in profile as past Costello collaborations with other artists. 'Til Tuesday first recorded the dramatic ballad "Other End (Of The Telescope)"; the Byrdsian "You Bowed Down" appeared on a Roger McGuinn solo album; and the rockin' "Shallow Grave" is one of a series of songs Costello has co-written with Paul McCartney. Costello's compositions are published by Plangent Visions (ASCAP).
On May 1, Warner Bros. serviced triple-A radio with the first single, "You Bowed Down." The label issued the full album to triple-A and select commercial alternative and album rock stations May 8.
According to Jason Parker, music director with Constantine Consulting, "You Bowed Down," "Other End (Of The Telescope)," and "Complicated Shadows" are among several tracks that should find an eager audience at triple-A radio.
"Since last year's record ['Kojak Variety'] was all covers, there's a lot of pent-up demand for great new Elvis songs," Parker says.
Bob Bell, Wherehouse Entertainment new-release buyer and a huge Costello fan, says, "The new album is one of Elvis' best in years," adding that the special promo appearances surrounding All This Useless Beauty should help it surpass sales of 1994's Brutal Youth.
Brutal Youth featured the first Attractions tracks in seven years and was a back-to-basics effort after Costello's adventurous rococo'n'roll albums Spike and 1991's Mighty Like A Rose. Brutal Youth was a critical success and sold nearly 180,000 copies, according to SoundScan. Moreover, the album and subsequent tour paved the way for the Attractions' rapprochement after years of dissension.
Regarding Costello's iconoclastic bent beyond the Attractions, it's safe to say that Warner Bros. was elated, and not a little surprised, at the warm reception given the album and tour of The Juliet Letters. The commercial and artistic success of the neoclassical project helped demonstrate the advantages of Costello's alternative pursuits. The album has sold more than 300,000 copies worldwide, according to the label.
"We applaud Elvis for the risks he takes," Gold says. "His side projects may be less accessible to a general audience, but they keep him interesting to his core fans and show his continuing viability as a cutting-edge artist."
Costello's latest "outside" work includes "My Dark Life," I ghostly collaboration with Brian Eno that appears on Warner Bros.' X-Files soundtrack. In late '95, Nonesuch U.K. released the gorgeous Deep Dead Blue, a limited-edition live album featuring Costello duetting with avant-jazz guitarist Bill nisei on an intriguing batch of new and old tunes. He also composed the song "God Give Me Strength" with Burt Bacharach for the film Grace Of My Heart, due in the fall.
Of late, Costello has deepened his foray into the classical realm with some of his most intrinsically rewarding collaborations. He recorded several settings of Shakespeare with English saxophonist/composer John Harle for his next Argo album, Terror And Magnificence. Also, inspired by the melancholy fantasias and haunting songs of 17th-century composer Henry Purcell, Costello composed the lament "Put Away Forbidden Playthings" for U.K. viol consort Fretwork and counter-tenor Michael Chance. As for the supposedly archaic nature of this music, Costello says, "Sometimes the further back you go, the further forward you go."
Costello and the Brodsky Quartet toured Spain last year, performed in Copenhagen last month, and plan further work together on records and in concert. They already have enough material for a new album, Costello says, including ballads in an expanded chamber-jazz mode. Also, Costello is composing a new work for the Brodsky and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter.
This creative renaissance only adds to the renewal of the Attractions, Costello says, adding that he is confident of fans' ability to grow as he grows.
"You don't even need to talk in terms of strict divisions or crossover anything anymore — that's ancient history," Costello says. "The audience is much, much smarter than the industry often gives it credit for."