My dog-eared copy of the Trouser Press Record Guide (1991) gushingly declares Elvis Costello, at that point a mere 14 years into his career, to be "the King Kong of modern music." Another decade and a half later, the cyberspace-era TP equivalent Pitchforkmedia posed the question of "when, exactly, Costello became unbearably lame."
I would contend that EC circa 2006, while certainly no dominating musical behemoth, is also not some doddering, clueless has-been. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that Costello may just be the most consistently successful (in both artistic and commercial terms) recording artist of all time.
He's certainly among the most ambitious. Right from his 1977 punk-era debut, the Liverpudlian bandleader's son seemed compulsively restless, trying on every style of pop music that his scrappy backing combo, the Attractions, could bring themselves to approximate, from the new-wave reggae of "Watching the Detectives" to the Mysterians-style Farfisa attack of This Year's Model to the straight reading of "My Funny Valentine," which showed up on the B-side of the ABBA-esque "Oliver's Army" single to the shamelessly Tamla-Motown-inspired Get Happy!! album. And that brings us all the way up to — what? — 1980?
The following year, Costello took this tendency past the brink of mere dilettantism, making the first of several potential career-suicide moves via the release of Almost Blue, an LP consisting entirely of country-and-western covers recorded in Nashville. Members of his fan base split violently over the mere idea of their erstwhile "punk" hero doing George Jones and Loretta Lynn tunes, but the album arguably laid the template for the entire alt-country movement, with country-inspired bands like Jason & the Scorchers and songs like R.E.M.'s "Rockville" rendered implicitly hip with the imprimatur of the ber-hip Brit rocker. Personally, Almost Blue was an awakening for me: At the time, I was mindlessly prejudiced against all country music, but my teenage respect for Costello allowed me to see past my musical bigotry and to begin to appreciate the songwriting genius of Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, in much the same way that Talking Heads had hipped me to the charms of Al Green, James Brown and Parliament.
And so it went from then on with Costello's career: always refusing to stand still long enough for anyone to draw a bead on him, continuing to release eclectic rock albums at an alarming rate and even reaching No. 36 on the U.S. singles charts with "Everyday I Write the Book" in '83. In fact, Billboard magazine credits Costello with the surprising achievement of having released the most Top 40 albums of any artist during the '80s — mainly because nobody else released as many albums in the '80s, period.
In 1991, Costello shocked and annoyed his already overtaxed following once again with the release of The Juliet Letters, a chamber-music song cycle composed in collaboration with the Brodsky string quartet. Costello's record label was at a loss for how to market the disc, but the suite did find a fan in none other than sophisticated pop maestro Burt Bacharach, with whom Costello would soon collaborate, to great effect on both men's careers.
It was with the release of Bacharach and Costello's Painted from Memory CD that Costello's career distinctly diverges from those of pretty much all of his peers and predecessors. As a microcosm of this transformation, I offer the following anecdote from my days in music retail.
It was 1997, and PBS had recently aired an episode of Great Performances following the genesis of the Bacharach-Costello partnership. A middle-aged female bank manager who was a regular customer at my store in Chicago came in raving about how "wonderful" the special was, and particularly how charming that suave, porkpie-hatted English singer was. She purchased Painted from Memory and loved it so much that every time I saw her, she would ask me if I could sell her "anything else like that one." Eventually, she bought a copy of Costello's All This Useless Beauty CD. Afterward, this lady was so offended by that (fairly tame) record's relatively rocked-up arrangements that she pretty much never spoke to me again. She seemed to feel that I had deliberately spit in her coffee by selling it to her. Which, oddly enough, was how many of Costello's rock fans felt about the Bacharach disc.
And therein lies the subtle brilliance of Costello's current career mode. It's understandable that the rockist young snarkmeisters at Pitchfork would be baffled by the seeming inconsistency of the now fiftysomething's recent output (the computer-assisted rock of When I Was Cruel followed by the jazz balladry of North, in turn followed by the simultaneous release of the roots-rocking Delivery Man and Costello's first full-length symphonic composition, Il Sogno), but it's hard to picture EC losing too much sleep over the diss. The fact is, Costello has managed to score an unprecedented recording contract with the Universal Music Group that allows him not only complete artistic control but the ability to release each record on the Uni subsidiary deemed most appropriate for reaching its intended audience. Hence, Delivery Man came out on the country-friendly Lost Highway label, while North and Il Sogno were both released under the classical-centric Deutsche Grammophon imprint.
Even more impressive, this diversification scheme is working: While reviled by rock fans, North went to No. 1 on Billboard's Traditional Jazz chart, while Il Sogno spent 14 weeks in the top spot for Contemporary Classical. None of which hindered Delivery Man from sailing to his traditional No. 40 on the pop chart.
Costello's latest Deutsche Grammophon release is another groundbreaker: a head-spinning live performance of old and new songs recorded at the North Sea Jazz Festival that finds Costello singing in front of the massive Metropole Orkest and easily holding his own. It's this bigger-than-big-band approach that he'll be replicating this week when he and longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve hook up with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
We should all be so "unbearably lame."