Carleton College Carletonian, September 23, 1983

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Elvis Costello: his diverse career, his album,
and his summer tour

Jon Pettigrew

When Elvis Costello came onto the popular music scene during the first aftershocks of the so-called punk explosion, he was widely lauded as the finest singer-songwriter to emerge from the "New Wave." Though the Sex Pistols and others opened the minds of record executives to new music like Elvis's, he shares little besides an initial proximity of time and place with the punks, perhaps the only quality of Costello's music which invites comparison to punk is his intensity and hostility. The music of his low new wave pioneers has degenerated into stale self-parody more directed toward provoking anger than expressing it, while Costello's music and the bitterness expressed in it is still thought-provoking , interesting and honest. Whereas the Sex Pistols are like rage personified, presenting themselves as products of a corrupt society and culture, Costello comes across as a person enraged, an individual battered from without and, more importantly, from within.

And whereas punk music tends to become a featureless blur of anger and alienation, Elvis Costello has been able to shape a unique and intriguing artistic personality.

Unfortunately, for a long time Elvis' personality did seem limited by his obsession with bitterness, cynicism and guilt. Costello thus got himself labeled as an "angry young man," an epithet which fit all too well the hard-edged, sarcastic singer on This Year's Model,and une• which he spent little effort onstage or in the studio trying to escape. Although much of his later music contains large amounts of frighteningly articulate nastiness, an image of Elvis Costello as merely an "angry young man" as an injustice to the writer of songs like "Allison," "Man Out of Time," and "Just a Memory."

The complexities of Elvis Costello can be seen even in his most straight-forward "angry" songs like "I'm Not Angry," and "Lip Service." He gives these and all his songs a wide range of subtle shades of meaning and feeling, shadings which are often hidden by Elvis's fondness for clever wordplay and twisted figures of speech.

But writing intelligent lyrics is only a part of Costello's genius; his achievement as a popular songwriter is the mating of these lyrics to some of the very best and most diverse pop songs of the last ten years. He masters the interplay of brightly polished, catchy music and rather dark lyric content. Costello's ability to keep his complex, idiosyncratic lyrics consistently interesting and accessible is due to his skill as an original and clever pop song writer. He incorporates a variety of styles into his music, including rhythm and blues, country-western, swing, and of course, good old rock and roll, but his songs all remain distinctively his own. Somehow Costello manages to give even the simplest pop hook a characteristic wrinkle — some odd instrumental flourish of unique melodic construction.

On his Imperial Bedroom album, Costello really began to throw off the "angry young man" label which has haunted him since 1977. Just as the music on Imperial Bedroom seems superficially more accessible and within the popular music mainstream, so the lyrics seem to show a more humane and mellow Elvis than he ever hinted at before. It certainly is a surprise to hear him sing "I love you," several times, quite clearly. surprised or not, I can't criticize the basic emotion he expresses. What is open to criticism is how well he expresses himself. He just didn't seem quite comfortable expressing warmer sentiments because too often he retreats behind a smokescreen of wordplay. Attempting to penetrate this smokescreen, however, can be exhilarating if bewildering. More importantly, what's behind the smoke is worthwhile and far from sappiness. Elvis did not lose his characteristic edge or relentlessness when he began to open his music to new feelings and influences, but neither did Imperial Bedroom come completely to grips with that sphere of life beyond anger and cynicism.

Elvis Costello has long realized the creative limitations of hostility as material for his music; it's a realization that most punk music would do well to investigate. Happily, Elvis at least seems to have made a big step toward putting this realization into his music more fully. As he breaks further out of the "angry young man" image, let's hope that Elvis continues to move in the new directions he started out in last year on his latest album Punch The Clock.

Elvis Costello

Dane County Coliseum, Madison

Campy Craig

It used to be that the only people one would see at Elvis Costello concerts were hardcore Costello fans. This was due to the fact that Elvis apparently decided that he wasn't interested in providing a real energetic show — he walked on stage, played a set, and left. No encores, no jams, no apparent interest in what he was doing.

This was during Elvis' insolent stage, which was paralleled by his brilliant, yet nasty first three albums. Now, with the advent of the new Elvis Costello, complete with his new brass ballad album Punch the Clock, we have a changed Elvis in concert. Backed by the returning Attractions (Steve Nieve on keyboards, Chris Thomas on drums), Costello boldly took the stage bedecked in a drab suit accented by sparkling red shoes. The set started, unsurprisingly, with "Let Them All Talk," as Costello lived up to expectations that the concert would emphasize his latest stuff

Despite the fact that Costello did indeed blatantly promote his latest effort, this was a concert that achieved what the album itself was aiming for. From the brass opening of "Let Them All Talk" to his stunning encore of "Pump it Up," Costello rocked with an intensity I didn't think possible from the man who only weeks earlier had released an album, however excellent, that was about as quiet as "rock" albums go.

Yet, excepting "Pump it Up" and an interesting "Watching the Detectives" with full brass backup, the old songs Costello played were disturbingly perfunctory. Sure, I would have been pissed off if he hadn't played "Allison," but the real effort seemed to be expended on the new songs, and they made the concert. With Nieve weaving and bobbing frantically on piano, the Thomas brothers providing an incredibly tight rhythm section, the TKO horns adding the swing and Costello hammering away on guitar, this band was hot.

True, Elvis was able to pull off this trick of transforming a fine low-key album into an equally fine high-key concert last August in Madison, but can he continue? If not, he may have to rely on his old tunes, which certainly weren't the highlights at this show. With the energy of the Attractions and the hawaiian-shirt fun of the TKO horns behind him, though, Costello has a good shot.


The Carletonian, September 23, 1983

Jon Pettigrew profiles Elvis Costello.

Gordon Moore reviews Punch The Clock.

Campy Craig reviews Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Saturday, August 27, 1983, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, Wisconsin.


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Page scans.

Punch The Clock

Gordon Moore

Since his entrance to the music world in 1977, Elvis Costello has remained one of popular music's most mysterious figures. He has been called everything from a rocker in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis to a balladeer a la Cole Porter, but each label has failed as a complete description of such a diverse individual. One aspect of Costello's career has been clear, however. There have been few artists in the last decade who have produced such consistently interesting and provocative music as Elvis Costello has, and, in Costello's case, without the support of commercial radio. His newest album, Punch The Clock, is a step back from the solemn introspection that characterized his 1982 release, Imperial Bedroom, but it shouldn't disappoint his fans,as it contains most of what we've learned to expect from Elvis: most notably strong songwriting, complete with the usual assortment of double entendres and epigrams, along with strong back-up from one of rock's best supporting casts, The Attractions. Add a new upbeat brassy sound and Elvis's distinctive nasal vocals, and voila!, one has a strong record, to this point one of 1983's finest releases.

If there is an area where Punch The Clock stumbles, however, it is simply 'because it is too much of a "generic" Costello album, if it is possible to classify any of his work as such. It's not that the album is weak — much to the contrary, it is quite powerful — just that it is for the most part Elvis-as-we-know-him, instead of his past adventuring on albums such as Almost Blue, Trust, and Imperial Bedroom. More specifically, on Punch The Clock the Elvis self-indulgency wears thin, especially on songs like "Charm School" and "The Greatest Thing." Unfortunately we've heard similar mournful tales before, and one's reaction now may well be less sympathy for Elvis and more for the poor women who have made these songs possible.

But perhaps we've just been spoiled, as the majority of Punch The Clock is excellent, "generic" or not. The production is splendid, Elvis' voice is in good form, and most importantly there are some great songs on this album. Two songs deserve special comment, however; two ballads which make one believe in the Elvis-Cole Porter (or whomever) comparison. "Shipbuilding" is simply stunning, one of the most emotional, beautiful songs that popular music has produced in quite some time. Written during the Falkland Islands "conflict," it is a condemnation of militarism which works superbly without demagoguery. "Shipbuilding" is subtle yet powerful, and with the addition of a Chet Baker trumpet solo and Elvis' wonderful crooning becomes one of Costello's finest moments. "Pills and Soap" is another poignant ballad which shows how Elvis' bitterness can be put to effective use. The song is initially a commentary on insensitive media tactics surrounding a famiy tragedy, then becomes a savage attack on the English social structure, with an intensity that will cause many to take the proverbial grain of salt and turn off the stereo, but few will forget it.

Other highlights of the album are "Every Day I Write The Book," a charming courtship metaphor that is kept light enough to work, "The Invisible Man," a dose of Costello neuroticism, and the rollicking "Let Them All Talk," wherein Elvis rhetorically asks the following: "Listening to the sad song that the radio plays. Have we come this fa-fa-fa to find a soul cliche?" The obvious answer to the inquiry is no, and surely never from Elvis Costello, a musician who popular music is indebted to, for his energy and dedication are representative of a select group of musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Graham Parker and Van Morrison who refuse to let their products deteriorate for the sake of popularity. These individuals are important because without their kind, who except perhaps the people at MTV could take popular music seriously?

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