"Every Elvis has his army" appears in a handwritten scrawl that closes out the liner notes to When I Was Cruel, Elvis Costello's first solo disc since 1996. "It is actually something my wife said to me," Costello says. "I told her it sounded like a line from a song. She told me I could use it. So I did."
"Every Elvis has his army" ended up as a line in "Episode of Blond," a song on the new disc that begins as a bitch slap to the tabloid press and ends as an obscure sermon filled with images of artistic bankruptcy. "It is the perennial fork in the road. I think every artist gets to one" is Costello's take on the phrase.
So, has England's Elvis ever been drafted away from the road he was on into taking one less traveled? "No, I haven't yet. Or my road just keeps winding into more bends. Can we leave this road metaphor behind?" Fair enough. Still, Costello's musical journey the past few years — which, please imagine, was metaphorically undertaken by ship, plane or any method that doesn't involve travel by road — has taken him to surprising places and to sounds far different than those that he first became famous for 25 years ago.
When He Was Cruel
It was in the midst of England's punk explosion in 1977 that 22-year-old computer programmer Declan Patrick MacManus transformed into Elvis Costello: a hyperactive, bitter nerd with buckling knees, Buddy Holly glasses, low self-esteem and a real attitude about girls who say, "No." If Costello never actually made punk music, his image was in the spirit of punk. Costello rejected the leather-panted clichés of '70s rock gods like Robert Plant, as well as the portentous art rock of Pink Floyd's mannerist theater. Instead of being larger than life, Elvis Costello reinvented the rock star as a geek's revenge fantasy.
Costello's songwriting was remarkable from the first: subtle, melodic, complex and varied. Of the legendary British class of '77, only the Clash had songs that could be considered equal to Costello's early efforts. But the Clash, like most punk, rejected rock's past: "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones," Joe Strummer shouted on The Clash's statement of purpose, "1977." But even back then, Costello distinguished himself from his peers by his catholic musical tastes. At a time when the Sex Pistols famously expelled a band member just for admitting in an interview to liking the Beatles, Costello, from a punk standpoint, was flaunting far more shameful influences. In concerts from the period, Costello covered "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" by the very un-punk Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis.
Many fans and critics failed at first to grasp Costello's wide-ranging musical tastes. Some probably still do, based on the general surprise that greeted Painted from Memory, Costello's 1998 collaboration with Bacharach. But Costello was never a snob in drawing musical boundaries, even back when writing the songs on his debut, My Aim Is True, released in 1977.
"On a song like ‘Watching the Detectives,' I heard orchestras; it's just that all we had was a little electric keyboard," he says. "You do the best you can with the tools available to you at the time."
But as good as the songwriting is on My Aim Is True, it is Costello's voice that steals the show. Though blunt, stilted and limited, Costello's singing still manages to convey to perfection the rage and hurt of the boy who didn't get the girl. Pitched between a denunciation and whine, in song after song, Costello, a scorned suitor poisoned by bitterness, spits out each line with a focused rage that always appears about to collapse into complete despair.
On "Miracle Man": "Why do you have to say that there is always someone who can do it better than I can?"
On "No Dancing": "Oh, I know that she has made a fool of him. Like girls have done so many nights before, time and time again."
On "Alison": "I don't know if you've been loving somebody. I only know it isn't mine."
On "(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes": "Oh I said, ‘I'm so happy I could die.' She said, ‘Drop dead' and left with another guy."
On "I'm Not Angry": "You're upstairs with the boyfriend while I'm left here to listen. I hear you calling his name, I hear the stutter of ignition. I could hear you whispering as I crept by your door. So you found some other joker who could please you more."
On "Watching the Detectives": "She looks so good that he gets down and begs."
All that My Aim Is True lacked was a band worthy of Costello. For the sessions, Costello's manager hired Clover, an American band later to become famous backing Huey Lewis as the News. But before recording My Aim Is True, Costello hired a backing band whose playing was as intense, tight and furious as his own: the Attractions.
Over the next four years, while punk, then new wave came and went, Elvis Costello and the Attractions released five more albums of intense, brilliant and literate rock with enough leftover outtakes to fill a couple more discs. There was constant touring and even a collection of country covers. Costello's sales, though, remained modest. By the early '80s, Costello needed to have some hits. It was time for the angry young man to grow up.
"I wanna bite the hand that feeds me. I wanna bite that hand so badly. I want to make them wish they'd never seen me."
— from "Radio, Radio"
In 1977, Elvis Costello and the Attractions were a last-minute replacement on Saturday Night Live for the Sex Pistols. But after starting "Less Than Zero" off My Aim Is True as planned, Costello brought the band to a dead stop on live television. "I am sorry, ladies and gentlemen. There is no reason to do this song here," he said. Costello then launched into the then-unreleased "Radio, Radio."
Reflecting on the incident in liner notes written last year, Costello still seems surprised by the controversy that resulted: "I believed we were just acting in the spirit of the third word of the show's title, but it was quickly apparent that the producer did not agree. He stood behind the camera making obscene and threatening gestures in my direction. When the number was over we were chased out of the building."
The SNL fiasco contributed to keeping Costello off American television for years. On top of that, "Radio, Radio" also trashed the primary medium for getting his music heard by the public. Programmers were happy to ignore the singer after hearing him sneer, "The radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin' to anaesthetize the way that you feel."
But the most damaging event of all for Elvis Costello was a drunken confrontation in March 1979 at a hotel in Ohio. Costello, on tour to promote Armed Forces, his third U.S. release, found himself in a Holiday Inn bar along with the old-guard entourage of Stephen Stills. Still the angry punk, Costello decided to be obnoxious to the hippies. But his desire to be as offensive as possible resulted in Costello using a racial epithet to refer to Ray Charles. It worked. The comment was offensive by any measure, and the argument turned physical. Though Costello claimed five of Still's road crew had attacked him and dislocated his shoulder, other reports say it was the result of just one punch thrown by none other than singer Bonnie Bramlett.
Costello held a press conference to apologize and has demonstrated repeatedly over the years that those comments were simply drunken palaver and never reflected his actual views. "Drunken talk isn't meant to be printed in the paper," was Ray Charles' forgiving comment. Still, the incident was widely reported in the papers, and Armed Forces, which had been Costello's first release to enter the Billboard Top 10, fell off the charts. It would be two years before Costello returned to America. E! Online recently included the incident on its list of top-10 "Music Meltdowns."
By the end of the '70s, Costello was also having something of an identity crisis as a performer. Punk was dead and he wasn't. Also, the pose of loser was wearing thin as Costello was clearly now a rock star with all of the trappings. He was even keeping company with the famed groupie Bebe Buell (mother of Liv Tyler and a former consort of Todd Rundgren). It was at this point that Costello began to move the emphasis away from the attitudes expressed in his songs and instead released two discs that showed an increased interest in expanding his musical palette. The first was Almost Blue, a collection of country songs produced by Nashville legend Billy Sherrill. The other, Imperial Bedroom, was an original song cycle of lush, complex pop wedded to surreal lyrics, which remains among Costello's masterpieces. Neither record sold and Costello seemed adrift as to what to do next.
The well-named Punch the Clock featured an uninspired Costello, but did produce the hit "Everyday I Write the Book." In 1984, Costello appropriately rented a business office to write the songs for the even more workmanlike Goodbye Cruel World. This album produced the hit "The Only Flame in Town," which sounds suspiciously like a cynical attempt to rewrite "Everyday I Write the Book." Around this time, the once worshipful Rolling Stone magazine declared in a review that Costello was "halfway to hackdom."
Costello, of course, had artistic triumphs, too. The hard-rocking Blood & Chocolate" from 1986 reunited him with the Attractions and proved equal to past efforts. The musically varied Spike gave him the hit "Veronica," which he co-authored with Paul McCartney at the end of the decade. But the essential problem remained that Costello's music was increasingly well-crafted and professional, rather than inspired.
"I'm certain as a lost dog pondering a sign post. I want to vanish. This is my last request. I've given you the awful truth, now give me my rest."
— from "I Want to Vanish"
Sick of celebrity, bored of banged-out garage rock and disillusioned with the music industry, Costello spent most of the '90s out of the spotlight. But that doesn't mean he wasn't prolific or that he wasn't producing outstanding music. Brutal Youth in 1994 showed Costello could still make a great guitar album, and he could do it without the Attractions. Increasingly, though, Costello was looking elsewhere. He taught himself to read and write musical notation in order to pen arrangements for a collaboration with a string quartet. The result, The Juliet Letters, showed that Costello could engage his omnivorous curiosity to work as a worthy substitute for his flagging inspiration and lack of any particular musical direction.
Costello followed the album with Bacharach by doing For the Stars with opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter. A list of just some of Costello's other collaborators in the studio and onstage over the past decade is jaw-dropping: Paul McCartney, Brain Eno, Bob Dylan, Bill Frisell, Tony Bennett, Van Morrison and Lucinda Williams. If no longer a force in music, Costello began to evolve into something of an icon. He appeared in the Spice Girls movie and had a cameo performance with Burt Bacharach in Austin Powers - The Spy Who Shagged Me. In 1998, Costello won his first Grammy. In 1999, as if to underline his ascension from angry young man to pillar of the establishment, Costello, backed by the Beastie Boys, re-created his "Radio, Radio" debut for Saturday Night Live's 25th anniversary show.
Meanwhile, though he was so prolific — one weekend, on a whim, he co-authored 10 songs for singer Wendy James — it was hard to notice that Costello's solo albums were becoming increasingly rare. His last, All This Useless Beauty, recorded in 1996 with the Attractions, was primarily a collection of older songs written for other artists. Its final track, "I Want To Vanish," seemed horribly autobiographical. Costello concedes this in the liner notes for a re-issue of All This Useless Beauty, released earlier this year:
"I didn't want to pretend I was still 22. These words had a different point of view than those I'd written in the '70s. These songs were about betraying your principles, letting yourself down and being diminished. None of these lyrics contained any anger toward the characters, only disappointment that they had settled for so little. I could just as easily have been talking to myself."
Costello's lyrics weren't the only thing that had changed since the '70s. His singing, too, had changed, becoming deeper, richer and more subtle. Elvis Costello was now, ahem, a baritone. His songwriting had also become increasingly sophisticated and varied. Critic David Wild recently commented to USA Today that Costello is "not so much setting up a standard for singer-songwriters — Bob Dylan did that — but rather living up to that standard when painfully few even come close."
But despite the quality and range of his output during the years spent in collaborations, until When I Was Cruel, Costello seemed to have lost for good his great strength: a commanding musical identity. Rather than blending influences into his songs as he had in the past, he was instead customizing Elvis Costello music to fit into the traditions of different genres.
"When I Was Cruel is my first record for seven years. I've been singing so many ballads with other people recently that I was in the mood again for some rowdy rhythm."
— Elvis Costello's introductory notes to When I Was Cruel.
When I Was Cruel has been credited as a return to form for Costello, but that misses the point. Despite the guitar buzz, the disc sounds nothing like Costello's past efforts. It is instead Costello once again sounding inspired and bringing to bear an arsenal of new tricks: from dance samples to a newly evolved falsetto.
Costello, a stickler for definitions, even resists the word "rock":
"Beat music is what I call it. The production team I assembled to help me with this was young guys who didn't have any preconceived notion of how I should sound. People say the early albums were loud, but I never heard that. When I Was Cruel to me is a lot more raucous, though controlled, and for a purpose. I didn't want this to be a garage-rock album. At the same time, I wanted that certain energy. I'm happy with the sound we got."
To play with him, Costello formed a band that included Attractions Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve, along with new bass player Dave Faragher. Because it wasn't the Attractions, Costello, with a wink, named the group the Imposters, after one of his old songs. But the main attraction on When I Was Cruel is a reinvigorated Costello. His singing goes from a whisper to a scream, while his guitar is all tremolo and sting. The lyrics are once again a dense forest of puns, but with a far stronger sense of narrative than on his early music.
Costello has frequently spoken of his admiration for Dylan's Love and Theft. Like that album, Cruel shows a middle-age artist demanding attention from a public that long ago forgot about him. It is still too early to tell if the world will acknowledge that Costello is back and better than ever. But this time out, Costello is doing his best to bring the music to the people. Once contentious and hostile with the press, Costello has mellowed. Talking to him now, though it's clear he still doesn't enjoy interviews, he is always polite. He knows he has a monster album and he clearly wants to keep the focus on it. Asked about his old discs, he responds tartly, "I don't listen to my old records, ever, unless I need to in order to show someone a part."
However, he admits he did go back and listen to them recently in order to write liner notes for the re-issues. It was an odd experience for Costello:
"I couldn't try to write the notes from the heart that wrote the songs. That was too long ago. But I also think I have a different perspective now, which is useful to bring to those discs. Rhino was nice enough to give an extra disc's worth of space with each release, and it allowed us to assemble a sort of behind-the-scenes look with things that didn't make the album. I wouldn't say going back and listening to it changed or influenced anything about how I write and work now."
Back to the now!
Also, Costello is once again doing the promotional rounds for When I Was Cruel and back on the road — not a metaphor this time, but actual roads — playing a string of concerts, including Vegas. It is his first tour with a rock band in a while and the set list so far has reflected it.
"When we started rehearsing, we were doing early songs and some things from Imperial Bedroom and Blood & Chocolate, but then there was this gap. We've begun putting some things in to rectify that. We may be working on something from the record with Burt. But it will sound very different. I mean, I am not going to do it as a beat record. It is just inevitable with the band. Anyway, it isn't close to ready yet, but maybe we'll have it worked out by the time we get to your neck of the woods."
Costello's May 24 appearance at the Hard Rock, by the way, will be his third trip to Vegas.
"I was there the first time, before you really got started. But when I came back on the tour in 1999 I did with Steve Nieve, it was all built up. I love the fact that in these huge casinos you can walk for miles without ever going outside. Quite amazing, really, isn't it?"
A quarter-century on, the 47-year-old Costello is no longer the angry punk who was "Waiting for the End of the World." Instead, Costello has triumphed by showing the greater art is to be found in surviving. Still cynical about life, Costello once again has found faith in his music and that, for now, seems to be enough for him. As Costello sings on his new single "45," an autobiographical song written on his birthday: "Bass and treble heal every hurt."