Like the Elvis who preceded him, Elvis Costello has gone through several career phases. Unlike the previous Elvis, Costello is not a superstar.
Both Elvises started off with plenty of attitude, but although the King of Rock mellowed, the King of America — as he dubbed himself on a 1986 solo album is still spewing vitriol.
Fort Worth/Dallas fans of the second Elvis will get a rare chance to see him live Saturday, when he plays Dallas' Starplex Amphitheatre. It's his first concert here in over five years, at a venue that might seem a little large and corporate for a guy who made the lines, "I used to be disgusted / Now I try to be amused." into a rock 'n' roll bumper sticker.
Those lines helped Costello burst onto the U.S. scene in 1977, with the release of his debut album, My Aim Is True. By early '79, he had released three critically acclaimed albums: Aim and, with the Attractions, This Year's Model and Armed Forces.
The first two albums — especially Model, with its fierce energy and snotty attitude — had some people mistakenly considering Costello a punk rocker, but Forces helped correct that. Although it still registered pretty high on the sarcasm meter, Forces put a stronger emphasis on melody and hooks — all in the service of songs that attacked politics, whether they be governmental, professional or sexual.
After those albums, Costello started dinking with his sound, for better or worse. Get Happy (1980) was a tribute to Stax-Volt recordings, hampered by muddy sound (reports are that recently reissued CDs have cured that and then some); 1981's underrated Trust, a finely crafted singer-songwriter move that is the best display of Costello's vocals; and 1982's Imperial Bedroom, a lushly produced disc that earned Sgt. Pepper's comparisons.
But since Bedroom, Costello has been uneven. That actually started with 1981's Almost Blue, a misguided country move. But it continued with 1983's Punch The Clock, a pale rehash or Bedroom, and with forgettable LPs like 1984's Goodbye Cruel World.
Still, despite several other false moves, Costello has managed to stay in the critical limelight with albums like King of America and last year's The Juliet Letters. The former was co-produced by Fort Worth's T Bone Burnett and sounds completely unlike anything Costello has done before or since; the latter was a song cycle recorded with The Brodsky Quartet, resulting in an album that's neither rock nor classical, but somewhere in between.
Most critics hailed this year's Brutal Youth, which reunited Costello with the Attractions (although they don't get cover credit), as a return to form. But the album seems more like an attempt to recapture former glory: as Costello's songwriting has grown more complex, it has lost a lot of the rawness that made it so appealing in the first place.
Still, it's encouraging that an artist who first made his mark in the '70s — and who is still around — isn't a classic-rock staple. The guy's staying power is such that groups that outcharted him in 1977 are now on reunion tours, often performing nothing but greatest-hits packages.
That's something you won't see from Costello; not only has he at least made an effort to stay fresh, he hardly has any hits. Sure, he's made enough of a mark for his record label to put out a couple of compilations, but how often do you actually hear the songs on the radio?
And that's just one reason that the prospect of a Costello concert — especially after such a long layoff — is so intriguing; his set will be anything but predictable, his song list anything but one-dimensional. This, after all, is the guy who broke off in midsong to tear into a ferocious "Radio, Radio" on Saturday Night Live; this is the guy who, legend has it, has remained on stage as long as audiences could throw requests at him.
No telling what Saturday night's show will bring. It might be great; it might not. But it's likely to include a lot of great rock 'n' roll and bring back some memories. And in that way, this Elvis is quite similar to his namesake.