In Nick Homby's razor-sharp treatise on love, music, male guilt and list-making, a character wonders "What came first — the music or the misery?"
It is an interesting notion, because if anything, pop music exists (that is real pop music, not stuff like N'Sync or Celine Dion) to serve as catharsis. We listen to what we listen to because we need to experience a release of emotion and rage. We need to have these feelings ripped from our bodies and tossed into the air where they can dissipate like the wisps of emotionally crippling smoke they are.
Whether it's a bad relationship or bad day, or good relationship and a good day, we all have the appropriate songs or albums we turn to that either confirm or deny our emotional states.
Critics of Elvis Costello would offer that with him the misery always came before the music. Costello sings like a man possessed. He shoots his mouth off (occasionally shooting himself in the foot), rides through torrents of words and images all because if he did not he would simply bottle everything up and explode.
Costello has been called many things throughout his long and varied career (mostly by folks who rely of adjective ejaculations of critics and don't actually listen to the music themselves) — misanthrope, misogynist, sex obsessed and most over-used of all, "an angry young man." While elements of each exist in his canon, most people overlook the underlying humanity throughout his songs.
Certainly the man has written some of the greatest raging rock songs in the history of pop music. Much of Costello's work is riddled with the stray bullets of adolescent angst.
Targets are as disparate as fascists ("Night Rally"), rapists ("Kinder Murder"), night clubs ("Clubland"), the military ("Oliver's Army"), himself (virtually anything off of This Year's Model), a girlfriend's new hairstyle ("Baby's Got a Brand New Hairdo") and the awkward sexual fumblings of youth ("The Beat"). On the surface the sheer sonic assault of these tunes are enough to make the listener pound their fists and nod their heads in agreement with a musician who has somehow found a way to communicate emotions most folks could never hope to put into words.
It's music to listen to while alone in your car, blazing down a highway and screaming with impunity. It's for times when the only things existing at that moment are your emotions and the tumultuous confusion of things like life, politics, love and regret.
Even at his most ferocious, Costello has always demonstrated a noticeable sympathy. His most visceral recording is the 1978 masterpiece This Year's Model. This Year's Model is the sound of insecurity and emotional scabs being flayed open and rubbed raw by the gradual realization that idealism is good, but doesn't always work.
Firing off verbal mortar blasts like "I don't wanna be your lover / just wanna be your victim," Costello embodies what could best be described as the Costelloian idealist — a man for whom life should be fair, but is persistently undermined by the ignorance and shallowness of things like the media, school, government, peers, etc. In the face of women being objectified and distilled to images of cheap, tawdry sexuality ("This Year's Girl") or dealing with sexual relationships that are both demeaning and fulfilling, Costello somehow finds a way to tit through the swaths of uncertainty and contradiction.
He reaches the point where he places the flurry of worry and disgust within a realistic context, and the only way to not let everything wear away one's resistance is to simply, para-phrase a line from kis first release, My Aim is True, no longer he disgusted, but amused.
After This Year's Model, Costello's work continued along one of the most unpredictable tracks in the history of popular music. From the lush Sgt. Pepperesque chamber pop of Imperial Bedroom to dabbling in classical composition with The Juliet Letters to the rootsy rockabilly and R&B of King of America, Costello is the rare artist whose work demonstrates a breadth and intelligence that permeates from every word and every note he has recorded. It bleeds from the CD or vinyl (with the exception of his one recorded atrocity, Good-Bye Cruel World).
Elvis Costello didn't write the songs that made the whole world sing, he just wrote the songs that made those lucky enough to hear them think about their life and serve as an outlet for fear, worry, regret and helpless idealism.