Elvis Costello's musical career has been as varied as that of any "survivor" in the past twenty years. Since he emerged at the vanguard of the late 70s' new wave, Costello has made forays into both country and popular music, exploring classical and avant garde textures in his songs. First and foremost, Costello has always remained a songwriter in the tradition of Bob Dylan, more than anyone else. And, like Dylan, his artistic relevance has been called into question quite often over the past several years by pop and rock critics (I remember a review of his last album, Brutal Youth, in Spin magazine, which cited the work as a product of his "warmed-over genius").
Costello, like Dylan, is just a pseudonym — a guise — for the real man behind the songs, and on Kojak Variety, a collection of songs recorded in the studio five years ago, Costello assembles a sweet and luminous homage to his musical influences. The fourth track on the album is a Bob Dylan tune entitled "I Threw It All Away," a simple, straightforward about a lost love from Dylan's 1969 album Nashville Skyline. That album reflected Dylan's infatuation with country music stylings, and it's just one facet of the "rhythm & blues/popular ballads" dating from the 1930s through the 1970s which Costello explores on his album.
The songs don't share any common theme except that they're Costello's personal favorites. They're uncommon, too: Even the Bob Dylan tune is a relative unknown. Nevertheless, Costello easily traverses different genres (blues, pop, r & b) and infuses each song with expression and soul. In this context, songs by the Supremes and Randy Newman fit comfortably with the softly-rendered blues of Willie Dixon and Mose Allison.
Costello has assembled a group of stellar studio support that faithfully interprets these songs without overwhelming the vocals. Unlike Eric Clapton's highly overrated From the Cradle, the musicians don't perform the songs to perfection: They take cues from the lead vocalist and approach the material with the same relaxed wit and verve. Neither the revamped country or blues numbers here betray indifference or lack of imagination. Costello's voice has its limitations, but only on Little Richard's rocking "Bama Lama Bama Loo" does it show signs of strain.
Two of the tracks are definitive renditions. I haven't heard Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy" before, but what was once undoubtedly a blues number becomes a pained, impassioned ballad with the Costello's gently caressing voice. On Ray Davies' "Days" (previously released on the Until the End of the World soundtrack), Costello's double-tracked backing vocals add an ethereal quality to the lines "You took my life / And then I knew that very soon / You'd leave me." Costello contributes guitar to this song, using it for reverberating feedback which he admits in the album's liner notes "happened to sound exactly like the tree-frogs that could be heard in the trees after dark." It's weird, yet it's also oddly fascinating.
Kojak Variety is a great album: The liner notes provide a rather extensive insight into his inspiration for choosing these songs. Since Costello leaves the songwriting to other people, he's free to explore his musical techniques rather than lyrical density. These songs provide a piece of the puzzle in his enigmatic career, chronologically between the solid, mainstream crossover bid Spike and the muddled wordplay of Mighty Like a Rose. Since I prefer his earlier work, I'll approach his future efforts with some caution. But Kojak Variety is a lyrical and aural treat; pop music that's mature and frivolous all at the same time.