In this season of back-by-popular-demand, Elvis Costello would finally seem to be moving in step with the drumbeat of the music marketplace.
Pink Floyd returns to lay another brick. Eagles flock to refeather their nest. Steve Winwood dusts off Traffic as a brand name because his own is no longer bankable. Meat Loaf serves up another helping of aural cholesterol. Ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones. And Elvis Costello and the Attractions reconcile and try to pump it up again with their first record and tour together in eight years.
From this cynical point of view, the timing of the Attractions reunion would seem to be especially propitious — or suspicious. Costello's 1993 release, The Juliet Letters, found him collaborating with the Brodsky Quartet, a classical string ensemble. If part of his rock 'n' roll audience wasn't willing to follow him around that bend, the latest and most extreme in a career full of stylistic curves, what better way to reassure them than by reuniting the gang that brought us such fondly remembered rock-outs as This Year's Model and Armed Forces?
Far be it from Costello not to anticipate the cynic's viewpoint, having taken it himself in more than a few songs intended to lacerate, berate, mock and skewer. He knows how the regrouping of a band that parted on somewhat testy terms in 1986 might be perceived.
"I was resisting it, because I didn't want anybody to think it was one of these theoretical reunions, where there wasn't any (artistic) reason for it," the talkative Costello (age, 39; real name, Declan MacManus), said over the phone last week from Seattle, where he and the Attractions were about to play the second show on a tour that brings them to Irvine Meadows on Saturday.
The "it" he resisted was the last step in reassembling Elvis Costello and the Attractions, a process he said took place in unpremeditated, piece-by-piece fashion last year as he worked on his latest album, Brutal Youth.
Costello says the reunion unfolded like this:
He had barely finished work on The Juliet Letters when he decided late in 1992 to record some new rock songs. He adjourned to Pathway Studios, the hole-in-the-wall operation in London where he recorded his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True. His plan was to play all the instruments himself, except for the drums, which he would leave to Attractions alumnus Pete Thomas.
"I quickly found that to do the songs justice, I needed a proper band," Costello said. Around that time, he sat in as an observer at a rehearsal by Sam Moore, the soul singer of Sam & Dave fame. Costello had written a custom-tailored song for Moore, and among the players accompanying Moore was Steve Nieve, the former keyboards player in the Attractions. "They ended up not using the song, but Steve was playing great," he recalled. So he invited Nieve to come by and play on his own album-in-progress.
Nick Lowe, Costello's old friend and former record producer, was recruited on bass.
"He said, 'I can do some of these, but these other ones are not my speed,' " Costello said. It was producer Mitchell Froom's idea to enlist Bruce Thomas, the one missing Attraction, to play bass on the remaining songs.
That is when Costello paused and had a vision of cynics diagnosing him with reunionitis, that opportunistic infection common to aging rockers.
Thinking it over, Costello decided there was a legitimate reason for bringing in the last of his old comrades, and thereby re-forming the Attractions: "I thought, 'That (leaving Thomas out because reunions are suspect) is silly, because he is the man for the job."
One of the best things about popular music is that, for all the extraneous hoopla, image-making foggery and second-guessing about motives it always invites in its mass-marketed forms, the thing ultimately does speak for itself.
Brutal Youth, released earlier this year, is a very good album, and that justifies any means short of illegality and cruel coercion that Costello may have used in creating it. The Attractions play great, both in driving passages that feature Pete Thomas' distinctive, dry snare-snaps and the stately ballads in which Nieve's chiming piano sets the mood (putting a plug in for Lowe, Costello laments that the Attractions-reunion angle has led people to overlook "that sneaky sound Nick creates" on such R&B-based songs as the "Hang On, Sloopy"-ish "Rocking Horse Road").
Costello's new melodies are extremely hummable. That should be reward enough for those listeners who don't want to burrow diligently through the thorny thickets of metaphoric verbiage his lyrics sometimes grow into. Those up to the challenge of untangling meanings from the more dense songs will find that they yield a typically Costello-like range of amusement and disgust. Fans who like their rock straightforward and transparent can enjoy Costello at his simplest and most direct on the forlorn ballad, "Still Too Soon To Tell" and the crackling Stones/Faces/Replacements-style rocker, "Just About Glad." Those who like to watch an artful musical thief at play can chuckle as Costello nicks ideas and puts them to his own musically punning use. Check out "This is Hell," a wry vision of lives fallen into booze-fogged stasis. A harmony part in the chorus alludes stylistically to the Beatles' "It's getting better all the time" refrain from Sgt. Pepper's — except that Costello twists the wording to "it never gets better or worse" in keeping with own sardonic agenda.
For Costello and the Attractions, who worked together from 1977 to 1986, a reunion meant having to get past some ruffled feelings. Bruce Thomas (no relation to Pete) had done much of the ruffling by writing The Big Wheel, a 1991 book about a rock band's travels that was a thinly fictionalized rendering of life with the Attractions. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly praised Thomas as "an honest storyteller of the first rank," but added that "He's not always likable, as when his disaffection makes him belittle others."
Costello says there was no need for emotional amends and peace offerings. As he tells it, the band just got matter-of-factly back to work.
"It really wasn't very dramatic," he said. "That's all a bit of daytime television for us. We don't need to go on one of those stupid, 'My grandmother is a Nazi' type of programs and talk about our problems. You just get on with what you want to do, and everybody is getting along great. Not everybody's obsessed with this culture of forgiveness and redemption as people are here. There's far too much bloodletting and wound-watching for my taste in American culture, and I won't have anything to do with it. I'm not trying to be stoic, but it's best just to get on with it."
Costello leaves the emotional bloodletting and wound-watching for the people in his songs, who do it compulsively and to the extreme. The Englishman, who lives in Ireland with his wife, former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan, was bemused to land in America last week, turn on the TV and find the scenario of one of his new songs, "Pony Street," being played out on one of those "Oprah"-type talk shows he despises (Costello says he sometimes lands on them when he's trying to catch the news and can't help being lured in). The song, which leads off Brutal Youth, is a testy exchange between a baby-boomer mom and her daughter. Mother wishes the girl would follow in her own free-spirited footsteps; daughter finds mom and her generation a bunch of self-indulgent embarrassments. Costello referees the tiff, giving the two equal time.
Since he was sitting in Seattle, spiritual home of today's brutal rock youth, it seemed appropriate to ask this baby-boomer and member emeritus of the Angry Young Men of Rock Club what he makes of the grunge movement.
"I saw Pearl Jam last year opening for Neil Young at a big festival in Ireland," Costello said. "I really enjoyed the show and thought they threw themselves into it with complete conviction. Something real was going on. Then I bought the record, and if I'd bought the record first, I never would have listened to them. Something like 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' was going on."
As for Nirvana and the late Kurt Cobain, he said, "I heard the records. I think they had some very good tunes. That's just a bad thing when somebody can't think of a reason to live."
Costello says it's appropriate to have generational divisions over music — although he also expressed delight that a good number of fans in their teens and 20s turned out for his tour-opening show in Vancouver.
"Nobody wants to feel like their parents" about music, he said. "And the last thing I want to do is feel I understand and am at one with every new trend. If it speaks to me, I'm delighted, but I don't expect it to. I'd be delighted if some 20-year-old has some revelation for me, but I'm not counting on it."
Costello credits his 19-year-old son, Mark, with helping him to one revelation. Costello had never been a big Jimi Hendrix fan, but his opinion changed a few years back when his son got into Hendrix's records.
"It's very interesting to hear him discover the music. (He'll say,) 'Have you heard this guy Coleman Hawkins, this guy Cannonball Adderly?' He listens to a lot of jazz and a lot of funk stuff that I don't know. I collected rare hillbilly records; he's collecting rare '70s funk records, Bernard Purdie records that I didn't know existed."
Costello says he doesn't try to guide his son's taste, except that "I might buy him a record for his birthday and say, 'If you like that, there's a chance you'll really love this (other artist).' "
Costello says he owes much of his own broad palette of influences to his parents. He remembers his mother taking him as a boy to classical concerts and to a show by Tony Bennett, with whom Costello dueted last month during the veteran (and suddenly hip) pop-standards crooner's MTV Unplugged performance. Costello's father, Ross MacManus, is a professional musician — a jazz trumpeter who later in his career became a dance-band singer.
"He brought a lot of different music into the house," Costello recalled. "He's 66 and has scaled down a lot. He sings maybe a weekend a month, in what they call 'working men's clubs.' There aren't any working people in England anymore because the government put them all out of work. But they still have the clubs."
Costello hit with a rush in the late-'70s, with an opening streak of frequently manic and irate rock albums — My Aim Is True, This Year's Model and Armed Forces — that were better-played, and therefore more accessible, than the era's punk rock. Along with some testy offstage behavior, his music got him pegged as one of rock's angry young men. But moving into the '80s, Costello chose to broaden his reach. Get Happy veered in an R&B direction, Almost Blue paid homage to country influences, and "Imperial Bedroom" explored pop-rock forms that were dense, baroque, and less easily accessible. Sales clearly were not his chief priority, and instead of the mega-stardom that seemed possible after Armed Forces, he settled for a large cult following.
It will be interesting to see whether today's much-disgusted, seldom-amused grunge contingent can make the sort of stylistic and emotional leaps that Costello managed after his initial burst.
"There's a little bit too much value placed on anger for anger's sake, as if that's a representation of real feeling, and anything pitched at that level makes it real," Costello said. "I think that's one of the fake things about rock 'n' roll, that simply shouting makes it right."
As for his stylistic explorations, he said, "If every musical style was a possibility to you as a child, that becomes a kind of folk music," a basis for natural experimentation and evolution. "Rock 'n' roll and saloon songs, jazz and country songs — I don't see anything inhibiting" in attempting to sing them all. "The only thing is, can you sing the notes, and does it mean anything to you?"
The Juliet Letters brought Costello far from in-your-face ire. Not only was the format classical chamber music, but the framework for the songs was epistolary. Each song was conceived as a letter, and Costello says he and his Brodsky Quartet collaborators were conscious of observing some of the conventions and formalities of literary English. With some exceptions — the scrawls of a ranting madman, the plaint of a frightened child, the comical spleen of an old woman toward money-grubbing relations — the songs honor the reserve and detachment common to the written word, while still allowing vivid emotions to come through.
Costello, who learned to read and write music so he could work with the Brodsky Quartet, is moving forward with more classical projects. He said he has completed a strings-and-woodwind score for a children's recording in which Monty Python alumnus John Cleese narrates the story of Tom Thumb. He also has been commissioned to write a piece to be performed next year to mark the 300th anniversary of the death of English composer Henry Purcell.
But Costello views that as an aside to his main — and prolific — career as a songwriter. When the British pop starlet Wendy James asked Costello to write a song for her, he and wife O'Riordan responded by knocking out an entire album's worth — a job Costello says was finished in a single weekend. The 10 songs, released by James last year as an album called Now Ain't the Time for Your Tears, form a cohesive, barbed and insightful look at the pursuit of rock stardom.
"I didn't know much about her except what I picked up from newspaper articles," Costello said. "I've only met her once, even now. She asked (for a song), and the idea developed very quickly. It was a piece of cake. It doesn't mean everything comes that easily. But so long as I want to pick up a guitar and do this kind of music when the mood takes me — why not?"