Whisky, LA — One of the most important reasons for live performances is that they give artists the opportunity to bring out aspects of their music that might not be captured on record.
Such is the case with Elvis Costello. Because of his ability to write inviting melodies and his distinctive voice and vocal style, it is easy to miss what he has to say.
In an impressive Los Angeles debut —only his third night of concerts in the U.S. — he brought forth that dimension of his character clearly and forcefully.
In person, like the cover of his Columbia album My Aim Is True, Elvis looks like a cross between Buddy Holly and Woody Allen. But the likeness to Woody Allen does not stop with mere physical resemblance. Like Allen, Costello often writes about the ordinary man's frustration in competing with Don Juan/Valentino types over women.
But while Woody Allen uses a comic, self-effacing approach, poking fun at himself as well as others, Elvis clearly is angry. In "Alison," for instance, when he says, "Somebody ought to put out the big light," he is talking revenge. The phrase "my aim is true" then takes on a literal meaning.
The man-woman problem, however, is just one off-shoot of a larger theme, which is his belief that society pays too much attention to the superficial and is insensitive to the things that really matter.
This, Elvis feels, has developed out of the boredom and complacency that comes with affluence. He points out the futility of seeking satisfaction by material means.
Prefacing a new song, "Living In Paradise," Elvis told the audience, "You've got your palm trees, your sunshine and your 24-hour breakfasts and you think you are living in paradise, but you're not."
Much like newsman Howard Beale in the movie, Network, Elvis says it's extremely important for us to get mad. We must get angry before television, movies and all the other superficialities lull us into a false state of euphoria that can't be overcome. His songs suggest that our whole set of emotions is becoming warped and his frenetic, almost threatening stage manner reinforces that message.
In "Watching The Detectives" he sings about a woman who is watching a TV spy because "he's so cute" but is emotionally numb to what's happening. "I don't know how much of this I can take / She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake."
At 22, Elvis Costello has the potential to become one of the major musical figures to emerge from this decade. His songs have a personal vision that is too often missing in today's music, and the new songs he performed showed those on his debut album are not just the result of a lucky fluke. Though some of his material is uneven, a good three-fourths of it is solid. He is a welcome arrival on the music scene and his progress should be watched closely.