Elvis Costello has spent the past quarter of a century playing dress-up with music. He introduced nerd-punk to the world with his 1977 debut My Aim is True, and since then he's donned nearly every musical hat he could find: folk with the Chieftans, pop with Paul McCartney, jazz with Burt Bacharach and wife Diana Krall, even trip-hop with Tricky.
Whether paired with another artist or alone, he's never been afraid to try something different, something new — and if he has been afraid, the music has never shown it.
An elegant tuxedo or shit-kicking cowboy boots — Costello is at home in both.
Fans of his music have weathered almost as many reincarnations as Madonna: the oft-clichéd "angry young man" of the 1970s, the discovery of intricate melody in the 1980s, the mystifying "beard years" of the 1990s. The only constant in Costello's catalog is change — and the 2000s have witnessed his biggest, most exciting changes.
Last year, he released two completely different albums on the same day: The Delivery Man, a Southern rock-and-soul song cycle about life and love in a small town, and Il Sogno, his classical debut based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
These two albums, though polar opposites, are simply par for the course for Costello. His last two releases, the smooth and sleepy jazz of North and the fast-paced, shape-shifting rock of When I Was Cruel, were also great departures from his normally switchblade sharp wit and deft, deceptively light songwriting.
Nearly every album he's released in this new century is a success in its own distinctive way. So, where does a neophyte begin with Elvis? With a catalog so diverse, which albums represent him best?
Lucky for us, Costello's earliest albums have been re-released at least three times over by Rykodisc and, most recently, Rhino Records. This makes it easy for newcomers to buy a complete catalog — from his most recognizable radio singles to his most obscure B-sides.
The Rhino reissues include alternate versions of songs as well as rough demos and never released gems.
For the most part, Costello's earliest albums represent his most consistent musical period — smart British rock, cut with reggae and soul. While My Aim is True is one of the best debut albums of the 1970s, Costello really hits his stride with This Year's Model, his first album with his backup band, the Attractions. The musicianship of bassist Bruce Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas flesh out Costello's ideas perfectly.
The 1980s were worth skipping for many artists, but Costello is an exception. Some of his best efforts were released in the early part of the decade. Released in 1982, Imperial Bedroom was an experiment in sound and style, and is considered by some to be his masterpiece.
He broke away from the Attractions in 1986 for King of America, a clean, strong, country-tinged album.
Finally, Costello ended the decade in 1989 with Spike, an album that foreshadows his need to play outside of the box; Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Paul McCartney sit in for a couple of tracks, as well as the New Orleans group the Dirty Dozen Brass band. The result is a delightfully weird patchwork of soul, funk and even a little Celtic music mixed in for good measure.
It's in the 1990s that Costello really lets go and tries a little of everything — this is a decade that makes him or breaks him for many fans. It's not so much that what he does is bad — anyone who has heard Mighty Like a Rose can't deny that the songwriting is superb — it's just that he's all over the place.
He dabbles in classical with the Brodsky Quarter on The Juliet Letters, a loosely knit cycle of songs based on letters written to Juliet Montague by everyday people. It's a lovely album — if you have the patience to figure it out.
In 1994, Costello and the Attractions reunited for Brutal Youth, a brilliant return to rowdy rock and smart lyrics.
Later in the decade, Costello indulges his taste for the obscure with Kojak Variety, a cover album with little-heard songs by Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Screaming Jay Hawkins.
In another twist, Costello ends the decade by making a duet album with — of all people! — Burt Bacharach. The resulting creation, Painted from Memory, is an unlikely success — Bacharach's dramatic songwriting turns out to be a wonderful complement to Costello's lyrics.
Where does that leave a newcomer? Considering Elvis Costello has released more than 20 albums of new material, the casual listener could start anywhere and still be satisfied.
Still, it's important to remember that an artist like Costello doesn't stay still for long — a person should prepare his ears for a new and surprising experience.