Florida Times-Union, April 27, 2012

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Smashing all boundaries: The music
of Elvis Costello

Heather Lovejoy

To some, Elvis Costello's 35-year career may come off like a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. When the tail lands on the gut, he unleashes an angry anthem. Near the heart? Time for a ballad. On a hoof? Must be the cue for a ballet. Right on the rear? How boring.

Not knowing what to expect is about the only thing you can expect from Costello. That, and his unmistakable, nasally voice. And a myriad of hats, nerdy glasses and a sardonic wit.

Versatility and a seemingly insatiable artistic curiosity have led the Englishman from new wave to Nashville to pop standards. But Elvis Costello is always Elvis Costello, no matter what he records.

He's been accused of having repeated identity crises, but perhaps that's unfair.

Pick up a music geek's iPod and put it on shuffle. Island calypso might be followed by anarchist British punk, which might then transition to an Appalachian flat-picking masterpiece. It's not necessarily a sign of uncertainty or lack of opinion, but instead can point to a listener rapt in the wonder of music itself.

As Costello has said as host on his television show, Spectacle, he's simply a guy who really, really loves music. Without limits. Maybe the only difference between him and the music geek with the erratic playlist is that he's not just a listener. He's also a creator.

He'll share his songs tonight at the Florida Theatre with his band The Imposters.


Having abandoned his pub-rock roots and birth name, Declan MacManus, he exploded onto the angry youth movement in England in 1977. It was the same year the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" was released, and punk and new wave were rising side-by-side. As the two genres became more defined, Costello's pop sensibilities aligned him stylistically with new wave. Just as with punk rock, the genre was marked by anti-government sentiments, disgust with societal institutions and what was considered a superficial and consumer-driven culture, expressions of sexual frustration, and an overall radical discontent. Costello, with his band the Attractions, was a major player.

Listen to:
"Watching the Detectives" from My Aim Is True, 1977
"Pump It Up" from This Year's Model (with the Attractions), 1978
"(What' So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" from Armed Forces (with the Attractions), 1979


Even as a new waver, Costello was writing slow ballads. His croon crops up throughout his discography, but is most clearly and easily recognized on some of his 1990s efforts, including All This Useless Beauty and Painted From Memory, the latter being a collaboration with singer/composer Burt Bacharach. He's never been 100 percent rocker, so while it may seem out of character, it's really not. Just a few years before the Bacharach album, his cover album included tunes by a couple of king-crooners, Randy Newman and Mose Allison.

Listen to:
"Alison" from My Aim Is True, 1977
"I've Been Wrong Before" from Kojak Variety, 1995
"God Give Me Strength" from Painted From Memory (with Burt Bacharach), 1998


Costello is hardly strictly a bluegrass man. On a couple of albums produced by T-Bone Burnett during the past few years, he displays a slight bluegrass bent, dabbling a bit with musicians who helped provide twangy and jangly picking. But on his album of country music covers, Almost Blue, there's a distinct jazziness. Plus, with his non-traditional songwriting, and distinct and decidedly non-bluegrass, non-country sounding voice, every song has an undeniably Costello feel. If you want to hear a true bluegrass album, pick up something by Flatt and Scruggs.

Listen to:
"Sweet Dreams" from Almost Blue, 1981
"Complicated Shadows" from Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (with the Sugarcanes), 2009
"National Ransom" title track, 2010


Classical music is a challenge few pop artists dare (or even care to) undertake. Not Costello. His artistic vines grew into chamber music for his project, The Juliet Letters, with The Brodsky Quartet providing instrumentation. It was not a one-off classical music experiment. He later composed a chamber music score to back a narration of the children's story Tom Thumb, and completed a full-length orchestral work, Il Sogno, a ballet inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The ballet debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's classical music chart.

Listen to:
"I Almost Had a Weakness" from The Juliet Letters (with The Brodsky Quartet), 1993
"Hermia and Lysander" from Il Sogno (performed by the London Symphony Orchestra), 2004


Jazz has been a part of Costello's life since childhood. His father was a professional singer-trumpeter and his mom a record store employee who took him to jazz and classical concerts. Those early jazz influences can be detected throughout his career, in his work with New Orleans pianist/songwriter Allen Toussaint, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and others. He wrote lyrics to some of Charles Mingus' compositions, and has performed those songs live with the Mingus Big Band. He's also a frequent guest singer and writer for The Jazz Passengers.

Listen to:
"Stalin Malone" from Spike (with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band), 1989
"Aubergine" from The Jazz Passengers' Individually Twisted, 1996
"Someone Took the Words Away" from North, 2003

Sources: Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello, by Graeme Thomson; elviscostello.com; allmusic.com; "Elvis Costello to Music Critics: "National Ransom' is not a bluegrass album," by Jenny Charlesworth for spinner.com; "Costello's Jazz Jones" by Christopher Porter for jazztimes.com.


Florida Times-Union, April 27, 2012

Heather Lovejoy and Matt Soergel profile Elvis Costello ahead of his concert with The Imposters, Friday, April 27, 2012, Florida Theatre, Jacksonville, FL.


2012-04-27 Florida Times-Union illustration.jpg2012-04-27 Florida Times-Union page E1.jpg
Illustration by Holly Exley.

Elvis and me: 35 years and counting

Matt Soergel

The Sony Walkman hadn't hit stores yet, but during boring classes in college I didn't need one: I could just replay Elvis Costello's My Aim is True album in my head, track by track, word by word.

Yeah, I was obsessed.

Elvis and me, we go way back. To the summer of 1977. Well, almost.

I had $450 from the donut shop saved, enough to last nine weeks on a bicycle trip around England. I decided to spend some of it to see Elvis; my friend Alan and I had fallen in with some punks in Coventry and went with them to a club to see Elvis play ("He's not really punk," they told us, "but he's really good").

Alas, Elvis canceled at the last minute (he'd gotten too big? gotten sick? I never knew) and was replaced by a snarling band with a singer who wore little more than Saran Wrap. And off in a side room, a little punk girl in black danced alone to the Stranglers' "Peaches." Memorable, but not Elvis.

But he was on my radar, and so when his first album came to America, I got it the first day. I was floored: Its streamlined music and its lyrics (pun-filled, bitter, thorny, never settling for the mundane) are imprinted on me still.

I didn't know that that's what I was looking for, but there it was, and my musical life was never the same.

I read somewhere, later, that for a certain generation of rock fans, Elvis Costello represented a dividing line in musical tastes. If you heard him and didn't see what the fuss was, you kept right on listening to Boston and Toto and Foreigner, and that's all fine and good.

But if you listened to Elvis and liked him, you branched off into a whole new direction: Never again would you be satisfied by the studio-perfect big guitars and wailing vocals and bombastic power ballads of those above bands and their ilk.

Sure, it could be a rambling journey, this new direction. But it's not likely to have been as rambling as Elvis'. Who knows where it would go next?

I'll admit I haven't always been able to keep up. But every time I manage to catch up, he floors me again: No performer has been so consistently innovative as Elvis, so passionate about almost every kind of music.

So here we are with his Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour at the Florida Theatre, with Elvis and the Imposters and a roulette wheel of assorted tunes. I'm guessing that wherever the needle lands, it's going to be just fine, another step on his ever-evolving tour through the music he loves.


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