Occasionally. a performer emerges from the musical quagmire with an image so unique that he manages to totally circumvent those industry forces that have been trying to carbon-copy any money-making sound on the scene. Elvis Costello, rock's angry young man, is one such performer.
Since the release of his debut album, My Aim Is True, in 1977, Costello has solidified his position as the most successful, and perhaps most controversial graduate of England's new-wave rock school. His appearance resembles a deranged Woody Allen. and he intrigues us with a style that combines pop accessibility with punk aggression. His melodies are seasoned with scathing lyrical forays, and over his sewn album career, he's managed to attack everything from the record business to the British government. This bold stance elevated him from a talented pop performer to an important force on the rock and roll scene.
Costello has combined such divergent musical influences as country/western with reggae into a passionate vehicle for his lyrical urgency. Now, with the release of his latest album, Almost Blue, a country/western collection recorded in Nashville with ace c/w producer Billy Sherrill, he has added another intriguing chapter to his complex story.
"I just play what I feel," he said recently. "I try to please myself. That's all any musician should try to do. We each have different likes and dislikes and anyone who tries to appeal to everyone is bound to create something so bland as to render it virtually worthless. Music to me is an outlet, and if others can share my outlet that's fine. Just don't expect me to bend to meet their demands."
Born Declan Patrick McManus in London the 27-year-old Costello seemed destined for a career as a computer programmer until his late teens, when, with a second-hand electric guitar picked up in a neighborhood pawn shop, he began writing songs that displayed his wide-ranging interests in top-40 pop, country, and vintage rock and roll. He sent tapes of his material to various British record labels, none of whom showed even the slightest interest in his work.
But, Jake Riviera, owner of Stiff Records, got hold of Costello's tape and heard something instantly appealing. Riviera, whose street-wise smarts catapulted Stiff into the forefront of England's burgeoning "punk" movement, recognized the unique synthesis of new-wave anger and pop commerciality in Costello's work, a combination that he thought could bring the new-wave movement instant world-wide recognition.
Through Riviera's efforts Costello landed a contract with Columbia Records and My Aim Is True was soon released. The album sold over 350,000 copies, an unprecedented number for a new-wave performer. Costello quickly developed into a prolific rock and roll artist, and released a total of seven albums over the next five years, including Get Happy, Armed Forces and last year's Trust. While a number of detractors were turned off by his apparent fixation with the negative aspects of the human condition, Costello's appealing and memorable melodies have drawn an increasing number of followers to his special brand of music.
"I don't know if rock and roll is actually the proper name for my music," he said. "I'm not saying that it's necessarily better than that, just that it's a little more expansive. If people will accept what I do as rock and roll, however, that's fine with me."
Almost Blue — an album that eschews Costello's writing talents in favor of presenting cover versions of country/western classics — showcases Costello's unique ability to switch effortlessly from pop to country/western while building musical bridges between the two forms.
By presenting his version of such c/w standards as "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" and Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me," Costello has deftly risen above his new-wave classification and shows that he remains an innovative musician. In an industry where predictability has begun to drain the medium's lifeblood, Costello's compelling style is a much needed energy transfusion, bringing the spark of originality back into rock and roll.