London Guardian, September 19, 2003

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London Guardian

UK & Irish newspapers

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The Guardian profile: Elvis Costello


Jeevan Vasagar

Though fans applaud his musical courage, dedication and aversion to pigeonholes, critics have turned on the self-exiled Briton, savaging his latest album, North. But the artist has scant regard for his detractors

It has not been a good week for Elvis Costello. For a musician who quit Britain 13 years ago, the harsh reviews of his latest album, North, may have confirmed the decision to leave.

While the Guardian's reviewer believed that "with every play the album becomes, like love itself, impossible to fight off," it was described elsewhere as "total agony." One Sunday paper's critic dripped alliterating bile: "pompous, pretentious ... this soporific pseudo-Sondheim sucks."

Then on Wednesday, on Radio 4's Today programme, a long interview was edited down to a few minutes of airtime asking why musicians like Costello, famous for his attacks on Thatcher and the Falklands war, were now ducking politics.

The British media seemed to be ganging up to savage both his musical worth and relevance of a singer who had outlived punk but now seemed to be flirting with every genre but the one for which he was first adored.

By the most commercial reckoning — Amazon's product listing "Customers who bought this title also bought" — Costello is bracketed with a generation of thoughtful, energetic "alternative" music: the Clash, Talking Heads and Squeeze.

But Costello has made a country album (Almost Blue) and collaborated with the Brodsky Quartet to make classical music. Next month he plays in a festival of "sacred music" at the Royal Festival Hall. With North he has released a set of Tony Bennett-style crooning love songs.

Admirers and those who have fallen out of love with him respect his eagerness to fight his way out of pigeonholes, even if he does not carry all of his fanbase with him.

Robert Wyatt, who sang his famous anti-war lyric "Shipbuilding," praises "the seriousness with which he applies himself to the cause of being a musician, he never seems to make do.

"He seems to be a David Attenborough of music. He just explores every nook and cranny that intrigues him.

"If he wants to try country music, he goes to Nashville. He's really brave. He wants some trumpet playing on his definitive 'Shipbuilding,' he gets Chet Baker.

"Rock people develop a Little Lord Fauntleroy front with their entourage and all that stuff. He just likes to write, he just loves music."

Costello's dedication to the craft is what made him stand out from the punk bands with which he was tagged, agrees Glenn Max, producer of contemporary culture at the Royal Festival Hall and a Costello fan since he was a schoolboy in the 1970s.

"I came from a very backwards place. Not far from New York City, but with a very backwards mentality," he says.

"Elvis Costello was very alternative ... the thing was, to me punk seemed, most of it seemed to be hype and media-manufactured.

"I was a kid in the 'burbs. Elvis Costello represented an alternative to the stupidity. He had the edginess of punk but had craft.

"I remember going to see Elvis in 1978 or 79 on the Armed Forces tour. The only person in the school I could find that would go with me was not really a friend but was derelict enough that he would come along."

Costello denies now that he was ever a "Khmer Rouge punk" who believed in a musical year zero, but there were moments of nihilism.

The infamous low point was when, in a bar in America in 1979, he described Ray Charles as an "ignorant, blind nigger." He later described the remark as "speaking the exact opposite of my true beliefs in an attempt to provoke a fight."

He was labelled a misogynist, too. "It's easy to read into those songs," says Jim Irvin, a contributing editor to Mojo. "I'm prepared to believe he wasn't, but you can see why it happened.

"There was a lot of bile being directed at the second person in the song — 'you' is in for a hard time, and 'you' was assumed by the listener to be female."

But what the fans overlooked the flaws for was the music, as angular as the man himself, and the bitter wit of the lyrics, lines like:

I said 'I'm so happy I could die'
She said 'drop dead' and left with another guy

In the 1980s the anger had a political focus, as with perhaps his harshest lyric, from "Tramp the Dirt Down," a song dedicated to Margaret Thatcher.

There's one thing, I know, I'd like to live
Long enough to savour
That's when they finally put you in the ground
I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down

The fans were the alternative boys and girls, some who saw themselves in an awkward-looking computer programmer who called himself Elvis.

The literate lyrics, written by a man who picked up the guitar at 15 and left school a year later, have inevitably spawned book titles; Nick Hornby's High Fidelity is named for a Costello song, as is Brett Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero. But that hip niche was one in which he says he never wanted to be placed, and he has done his best to escape.

Those who have worked with him say he is animated by a spirit of musical adventure. "Ever since I've known Elvis, more so in recent times, he's been one of the few people in the music world, that I've worked for who's able to give you some freedom," says Steve Nieve, the pianist on his 1977 hit "Watching the Detectives" as well as a collaborator on his latest album.

"I was some 18-year-old student at the Royal College of Music. All through the time I've known Elvis, he was extremely interested in all kinds of music.

"Having spent a year at one of the most prestigious musical establishments in England, I learned much more talking to Elvis about music."

But critics felt that an artist who boasted of writing a song a day needed reining in.

"He was too prolific," says Jim Irvin. "I just felt that he wanted editing. Sometimes his best song would be on B-sides.

"It just seemed significant that you would get one of his records and think, 'Why isn't this song on the album?'"

Costello, who now divides his time between Dublin and New York, has nothing but scorn for his detractors.

In a telephone interview from New York, he says: "The latest furore is such bollocks. The truth is that every single time I do something different there's a small — and totally untalented — chorus of people who jump up and down and make a fuss about it: 'He's betrayed himself.'

"Five years later, the same people are kissing my arse about the same piece of work. My view is that they should go straight to the last page and mail in their apology now.

"When people hide behind the safety of the byline, whether it's in the press or over the internet, it colours the way they express themselves ... it encourages them to say things they wouldn't say to your face.

"A songwriter has to get up on stage and do it in front of people. If you have particularly strident or provocative opinions people will respond argumentatively, whether it's to leave the hall or throw things."

Despite saying he still feels love and attachment to such places as London and Liverpool, where he moved with his mother when he was a teenager, Costello has not lived in England for 13 years and says: "I knew from the moment I left that it was better not living in London."

The new album was written after the break-up of his 16-year marriage to songwriter and former Pogues member Cait O'Riordan and the start of a new relationship with the jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall.

He hints that this is behind the critics' displeasure.

There is, he says, "a rather unpleasant English personality trait ... that of being uncomfortable in the presence of clearly expressed emotion."

He is reluctant to be drawn back into the discussion of why he is not writing about politics, but suggests that sweeping away of the old establishment has diminished the number of obvious targets.

"I mean in the sense that there isn't an obviously repressive regime in England [anymore]."

When he was younger, he feels there was "a divide between people in power and everybody else.

"A whole class of people who had gone to public school together who were running the country, then there were the rest of us."

Despite originating in a scene that made being against the grain fashionable, he insists he has never cared about trends.

"I've never been fashionable," he says. "I still see people coming to the shows dressed like a version of me from 20 years ago.

"That other people wanted to dress up like that was a problem for them and their tailor."

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The Guardian, September 19, 2003


Jeevan Vasagar profiles Elvis Costello following the release of North.

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2003-09-19 London Guardian clipping 01.jpg
Clipping.





Life is short


The Guardian

  • Born Declan Patrick Aloysius in Paddington, London, August 25 1954
  • Went to school in Hounslow before moving to Liverpool, where his father was a singer and played the trumpet
  • Left school at 18 and worked in a bank and then as a computer operator
  • Began as a folk singer in Liverpool and then in pubs in a band called Flip, which broke up in 1975. Using his mother's maiden name, became Elvis Costello and signed with Stiff Records in 1977
  • His first hit was "Watching the Detectives," his live debut with the Attractions in July 1977. Their debut album was Armed Forces. Produced "Oliver's Army," No 1 in the US
  • During the 80s produced albums for the Specials, Squeeze, Bluebells and the Pogues
  • In 1996 he collected Q magazine's songwriter award, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year


Elvis on his latest album: "It's the only record I've ever made that aspired to beauty as the prime objective."

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