It's been five years since billboards featuring a spindly-legged, knock-kneed fellow with horned-rimmed glasses began to pop up around London. "My aim is true," the fellow professed. It must have been, because Elvis Costello remains one of the few strong survivors of the new wave explosion that hit Britain then.
With tight, charging rhythms and harmonies, a sense of barely controlled defiance, and acerbic lyrics about the failings of love and politics, Costello and the Attractions captured the airwaves of the U.K. and the U.S., and held sway with a succession of albums and collectible singles.
And the same style waved over an audience last Sunday at Kansas City's Starlight Theatre.
The best thing about Elvis has always been the way he could appropriate the tactics and melodies of early rock and meld them with his wry wit and heavy-duty production values. When all around him were clamoring for music to stick pins through your nose to, Elvis was studying Buddy Holly and sneering at the follies of his contemporaries.
All the while, his aloofness, his celebrated late-night brawl with Bonnie Bramlett and other episodes have encouraged rock writers to ascribe all sorts of mystical significance to Costello. The latest line, coined by the New York Times, has Elvis impersonating Cole Porter.
It's not such a bad comparison, Costello and Porter. A few years ago. Elvis made a minor splash with the import release of the single "My Funny Valentine," later added to Taking Liberties, a compilation of non-album singles. It seems like Elvis has been struggling for an affinity with the subtle songster of romance, employing similarly lilting melodies and sophisticated lyrics, delivered with true torch-era panache — smoky, sinuous and sad.
Imperial Bedroom, Costello's latest album, brings this similarity into focus with its wide range of musical directions and his Starlight concert emphasized it. For one thing, Elvis was friendlier with the audience than many who had seen him more than once could remember.
"It's been a long time," he announced, and the audience ate it up.
Then there were other clues. Here's Elvis, lamenting the "Long Honeymoon." Here he is, a little later, casting off his guitar for "Almost Blue," wailing pathetically into the mike with a breathy, throaty voice like a tenor sax. After a twisting and empassioned "Beyond Belief," Elvis belts out "Cluh-uheuh-uhb-land" like a man at the end of his bottle.
The net effect is a sort of classiness unfamiliar with rock, an identification at once intelligent and carefree between artist and audience. It is as though Elvis is setting himself up as the lyrical voice of a troubled generation, much like Porter was.
Adding to this aura was the musical range and spirit of the Attractions. Sure, they did most of the "hits," and many of them were unrecognizable. They Just keep coming up with new arrangements, every tour. "Red Shoes" featured heavy layers of synthesized effects and strong counter-rhythms. He got into a raucous "King Horse," a chilling song about being on top of the hill, by way of "The Back Stabbers." Was that a few bars of "Here She Comes" floating out of a heavy dub-effect version of "Watching the Detectives?"
While Elvis has evolved into a soulful crooner, keyboardist Steve Naive has matured into an electronic chamber orchestra. Naive is one of the chief strengths of the band, whether soaring on wild synthesized flights or pounding out barroom counterpoint or filling with ornamental trills.
Five years is an entire rock and roll generation — time enough for countless one-hit bands to appear and disappear, and time enough for a talented performer to elaborate a personal aesthetic. Five years after Bowie sang "Five Years," critics were calling him the new Sinatra, a tag that, another five years later, fits awkwardly. The name Cole Porter fits Elvis Costello awkwardly, too, but he's likely in another five years to rival the cultural phenomenon of a Porter or a Sinatra.
Costello is poised to take the lead in a new era of rock, one that has adopted the silkiness of jazz, the sultriness of emotional lyricism, but retained the hard, rhythmic edge of the rock beat.