Can this be Elvis Costello chatting calmly with Tom Snyder on the Tomorrow show? Can this shy guy be Elvis the mad-dog misogynist, the Angry Young Man, Mr. "Sometimes I Almost Feel Just Like a Human Being," the guy who just doesn't do interviews?
It can be, and it is. Costello, the best songwriter to survive the chaos of the British punk-new wave scene, has a new album out, and he is pushing it just like a human being, with a concert tour and a television appearance.
The Tomorrow interview was fascinating, if not entirely revealing. But those who saw the show can never again think of Costello as just the jerk who got punched by Bonnie Bramlett after a barside ethnic slur about Ray Charles and some anti-American remarks. Costello was polite and witty. Why hadn't he done a TV chat show before? "We've never been asked." He told Snyder that he admired Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart and Hank Williams. Most of all, Costello was being nice.
Nice is something Costello (born Declan McManus 26 years ago) is rarely accused of being. His first album, My Aim Is True, was the most articulate statement of pent-up anger, frustration, paranoia and revenge released in 1977, the year of punk.
Each successive record documented Costello's latest concerns, from the poor quality of radio ("Radio, Radio") to mercenaries ("Oliver's Army") to fascist organizations ("Night Rally"). But his favorite theme is human relationships, which he describes in the most devastating, acrid, even violent terms.
Puns and clever wordplay are Costello's favorite lyrical devices. For instance, in "No Action," on 1978's This Year's Model LP, he concludes a series of telephone references with "Every time I phone you / I just wanna put you down." His songs are strewn with lines like "a death worse than fate" and "Though you may not be an old-fashioned girl, you're still going to get dated." His fans' efforts to pick up all the messages are often thwarted by Costello's raspy voice — and his absolute refusal to put lyric sheets in his albums.
Costello's feelings toward women have become as much his trademark as his eyeglasses. From "Pump It Up":
"She's been a bad girl
She's like a chemical
Though you try to stop it
She's like a narcotic
You wanna torture her
You wanna talk to her.
Costello's women are always flirting with other men, leading men on, up to something. When he is in love, he doesn't expect it to last. In one song he decides, "I would be happier with amnesia."
All this is oddly endearing, because the words are supported by delightful, cheery melodies and often complicated song structures, all wrapped up in three-minute packages. Costello's band, the Attractions, adds just the right blend of charming keyboards, insistent bass and perky percussion.
This ex-computer operator is a prolific artist, turning out more than 80 original songs in less than four years (and recording several covers of old tunes). His talent has been recognized by Linda Ronstadt, the Outlaws, Rachel Sweet, Dave Edmunds and George Jones, all of whom have recorded his tunes. But the bespectacled one hates to hear women sing his songs, and is particularly annoyed with Ronstadt's rendition of "Alison," which brought him a load of money and recognition.
Although Costello is a major star in Britain, he has received little airplay in America, and even his most accessible singles have failed to make the charts in the United States. His refusal to talk to the press — or even to allow Columbia Records, his U.S. label, to make up information packages — has created a mystique, but it is difficult to determine what impact that mystique has had upon record sales.
But now, he is in the mood to reveal a little more. There's a songbook with the words and music to all the tunes on his first five albums (A Singing Dictionary costs $14.95). There's a new U.S. tour (just ended in New England), the Tomorrow appearance and, of course, the sixth album, Trust.
Last things first, Trust will alienate some of Costello's old fans, because it rarely moves at the breakneck speed of most past efforts. Costello is trying to do more with his voice; on Trust, he wants to be a crooner. Thus, we have "Shot With His Own Gun," the classically-influenced ballad with which Costello opened his set at Canada's Heatwave concert in August. This and other slow numbers are distinguished by tender vocals by Costello and exquisite keyboards from main Attraction Steve Nieve.
This album even has guest stars. On "From a Whisper to a Scream," Costello shares the vocals with Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze (Costello produced Squeeze's soon-to-be-released album). And Martin Belmont of the Rumour plays guitar on some cuts. But these changes are just cosmetic.
Several listens to Trust reveal the most important change: Costello just doesn't seem to be very angry anymore. Maybe he is more content than he was three few years ago — or maybe he is just trying to sell more records to women — but there's little of the hostility and resentment that used to pervade his records, and what is there seems forced. Though a good album, it is not as focused as the first four LPs; Costello comes across as intelligent and well-meaning, but lacking the inspiration that may have been fueled by anger.
He said it to Snyder, in answer to a question about his anger: "Some of the time it was nerves. We were trying to put it over forcefully. I want to present a wider picture now."
That's what he was doing in concert at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta two weeks ago. A slightly paunchy Elvis did his standards, but he also introduced the new material, and seemed anxious to wrestle with the ballads. He came onstage accompanied only by Nieve, and did a version of "Just a Memory" that cuts the Taking Liberties recording to ribbons.
He introduced a "New Wave number," then went into "He's Got You," a touching country tune popularized by Patsy Cline more than 20 years ago. It was the highlight of the show, and the report that Costello has recorded the song is good news indeed. Several standards were transformed, with a new introduction added to "King Horse" and a minute of Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster" inserted in the middle of "Watching the Detectives."
Despite some sound problems at the Fox, Costello put across what he wanted to say: Don't categorize me, and don't underestimate me. Trust says the same thing, if not quite as successfully.