On the cover of his first album — can it be 10 years now? — he looked like Buddy Holly with a bad dose of constipation. But if you didn't let the picture turn you away, My Aim Is True was one of the best debut albums ever.
It was raw, refreshingly short on virtuoso musicianship. The music and the attitude was punk, the lyrics slicing, bitter and sarcastic.
Elvis Costello came of age when punk was king. Unlike so many of his contemporaries — The Clash, The Sex Pistols — Elvis Costello survived.
He has survived because he is rock's Last Angry Man. Others may have passion and a sense of mission. But few, if any, are as consistently teed off as Costello.
Costello's anger is what must keep him going back to the studio and recording all those albums — at least 20 to date. Some have been better than others; each has at least one gem of a song.
The most recent release, Blood & Chocolate, finds Costello adopting another name, or persona. On King of America, his previous album, he referred to himself on the music credits as the Little Hands of Concrete — a reference to his still-mediocre guitar-playing. On Blood & Chocolate, he's Napoleon Dynamite. You figure it out.
Whatever he calls himself, Costello still writes some of the most original songs around. He is a lyricist on the level of Cole Porter. Porter saw relationships as an elegant waltz between the sexes, full of surprising dips, spins, changes of partners. For Costello, it's a knife fight, and you carry the scars for a long, long time.
On Blood & Chocolate, Costello is again with the Attractions, his long-time band. The songs are typical Costello fare, enlivened by solid production (by Nick Lowe with Colin Fairley) and some fine singing.
Costello's nasal, strangled voice may not be a pleasure to listen to but still can be quite expressive. On this record, you can actually understand what he's singing without referring to the printed lyrics.
Recently, a New York Times critic complained about what he called "mope rock," a type of songwriting that, the critic said, always dwells on how difficult things are for the singer or songwriter, particularly in this decade.
I suppose you could stick the songs on Blood & Chocolate in that category, but it wouldn't be fair. Costello doesn't mope: He goes out and plays hard. He may not like what he sees, but instead of brooding, he gets even.
"Next Time 'Round" is one of those get-even songs, as is "I Hope You're Happy now." Costello, however, can still slip into a kind of self-pity: "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head," "The Blue Chair" (a song literally about sinking into depression), "Crimes of Paris."
Blood & Chocolate is another solid effort from Costello, though not as challenging or consistently good as King of America.
Costello is touring this spring with Nick Lowe. Go see him. He is that rare commodity in this age of synth-pop and video imagery, where the line between music and fashion is increasingly blurred. Elvis Costello is an original.