Imagine this. You are male, somewhere between 38 and 55, your recent purchases include recordings by the Hold Steady and that Robert Plant and Alison Krauss album, and you like to think you know about new world wine and the rough outlines of global warming. For nearly 30 years, your aesthetic universe has been constructed around a bandy-legged, bespectacled man who seems to have an innate sympathy with you and your lot, and though he has regularly tested your faith, you have clung on. You are, of course, an Elvis Costello fan.
Now, Costello's supposed brilliance has always rather escaped me, though I quite like his elemental 1986 album Blood and Chocolate, his Falklands war cri de coeur "Shipbuilding" and one or two of those early singles (such as the celestially gonzoid "Pump It Up"). There again, in a desperate and successful attempt to begin a conversation with Noel Gallagher, he and his then-wife once rudely barged me out of the way at a music industry party, which inevitably sullied my already lukewarm appreciation of his art — and besides, what with sporadic and decidedly unspectacular forays into classical music and a generally smug disposition, he has always struck me as someone who sums up the essential difference between clever and clever-clever. "Self-conscious pub-rock," was one friend's memorable verdict, which is surely as bad as it gets.
Still, my own indifference-cum-hostility to Costello is not really the issue — because this week's column is intended to sound a sympathetic and genuine note of emotional support for his thousands of British disciples, who have presumably foregone solid food and sleep in response to his latest move.
To get to the point, then. In this month's Mojo magazine, Costello — long resident in the US, let us not forget — is reminded of his performance at 2005's Glastonbury ("Fucking dreadful," he reckons), which prompts big news. "I don't care if I ever play England again," he fumes. "I'll say that right now. That gig made up my mind I wouldn't come back. I don't get along with it." On and on these brittle, angry sentences go: "We lost touch. It's 25 years since I lived there. I don't dig it, they don't dig me."
So there you are, Elvis-lovers. You might have tried, but the affair is over, and you never put the loo seat down, either. Who cares if you stuck with him through collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet, the opera queen Anne Sofie von Otter and Wendy James out of Transvision Vamp? What does it matter if you bought and tried to love such barren and fairly charmless works as Spike: The Beloved Entertainer and Kojak Variety (Kojak Variety!)? To paraphrase one of his own tunes, he would rather be anywhere else but here today. When it comes to his chances of selling significant numbers of future records on his home-turf, it all rather puts one in mind of a phrase common in the street-markets of the west Midlands: "Never make a mug of your punter."
Still, from CD-lined loft conversions across the country, wails of anguish are presumably still echoing down the stairs; so by way of restoring sanity and order, I can only suggest that his fans think a few very sobering thoughts. Remembering the aforementioned collaborations may do the trick. So too might dwelling on the exemplary lyrics from 1989's "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror": "A stripping puppet on a liquid stick / Gets into it pretty thick / A butterfly drinks a turtle's tears / But how do you know he really needs it?" (That's right, Elvis). For the clincher, try this: our man performed at Hillary Clinton's recent 60th birthday party, which surely encapsulates a stinky journey indeed — from playing "All You Need Is Love" at Live Aid to endorsing the Democratic hopeful most likely to endorse the bombing of Iran. Brilliant!
Much like the Dave Matthews Band and the occupation of Iraq, the other Elvis may actually be best left to the new world. The Costello hardcore should take note and brighten up: as a slightly superior songwriter once put it, now ain't the time for your tears.