Goldmine, February 17, 2006

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Goldmine

US music magazines

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Complicated Shadows:
The Life and Music of Elvis Costello


Tierney Smith

Though he didn't interview Elvis Costello for this meticulously researched bio, journalist Graeme Thomson talked to several people intimately acquainted with Costello, from ex-classmates to friends and lovers, which collectively brings the man and the artist vividly to life. The former Declan Patrick MacManus' lifelong passion for a wide range of music began early. His father was a vocalist with The Joe Loss Orchestra, the U.K.'s most famous Big Band, and Costello, writes Thomson, was from birth "simply immersed in an ocean of wide-ranging sounds as an integral part of a rounded, liberal and socially aware upbringing."

In his early 20s Costello was fronting the pub rock band Flip City (which he now dismisses as "just a regular bar band"). Their signature tune, "Radio Soul" was, according to Thomson, an "earlier, gentler version of 'Radio Radio' " and "a straightforwardly affectionate nod to the wireless rather than the withering attack it later became." Thomson's album-by-album examination of Costello's work brings a wealth of new insight into his songs, often revealing the inspiration behind many of those tunes (such as how Costello's tempestuous union with first wife Mary fueled the ire present in his early songs). Always a multifaceted songwriter, Costello nevertheless embraced a punk attitude at the onset of his career, "astute enough to know it gave him the perfect opportunity to make his mark."

His lauded 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, which Costello terms "the only songs in a rock idiom where a guy is admitting absolute defeat. I'm talking about being a complete loser," firmly established his persona as an angry young man. As it turns out, that was no mere image. Costello's antagonistic stance toward his audience and his tense, sometimes volatile relations with his band, The Attractions (whose members never bonded as individuals), are detailed here as are the tumultuous American tours plagued by the band's "loutish rock star behavior." That includes the well-publicized dust-up at a Columbus, Ohio, bar with Stephen Stills and his entourage which found a drunken Costello hurling racist invective at the mere mention of James Brown and Ray Charles' names, an incident that served to slow down Costello's commercial momentum.

Thomson doesn't gloss over the sometimes dirty details of Costello's private life, from his stormy affair with model/groupie Bebe Buell (which seemed to bring out the worst in him) to his subsequent marriages to Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan (much to the consternation of her band, who heaped taunts and abuse on him) and jazz singer Diana Krall.

Costello's eventual transformation into a kinder, gentler, more press-accessible artist mirrored the changes in his music. Moving in and out of the mainstream, Costello went on to tackle classic country and pop, but, as revealed here, was frequently stung by criticism of his work and disappointed by less-than-stellar record sales. The author notes that Costello's "almost pathological eclecticism and fearsome drive" seemed motivated by "a keen awareness of his own legacy, a desire to ensure that his musical obituary will be as monolithic and far reaching as humanly possible."

Considering the wide scope of Costello's career, the only thing missing from this deeply illuminating bio is a handy discography.

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Goldmine, February 17, 2006


Tierney Smith reviews Complicated Shadows: The Life And Music Of Elvis Costello by Graeme Thomson.   (page 64)

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