Melbourne Age, January 14, 2006

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Costello's great escape

Michael Dwyer

Elvis Costello has kicked with all his might against ending up in the pop factory knacker's yard, even when fans and critics pushed him towards it.

Wayne was a spiked-blond speed freak with angry piercings who dossed in the cool student house across the street. He sneered like Billy Idol when he heard the slick soul-pop of Everyday I Write the Book, claiming final proof Elvis Costello had lost it. Sold out. Dried up. That was in 1983.

Last week the most mercurial songwriter of his generation issued his 25th album. It's a live recording with a Dutch jazz orchestra, titled My Flame Burns Blue, an act of intense creative combustion that perhaps gets as close to musical alchemy as modern materials allow.

In his notes, Costello describes a crucible of inspiration that includes hard-bop jazz maverick Charles Mingus, 17th-century baroque composer Henry Purcell, the film noir scores of Bernard Herrmann, his late-'90s mentor Burt Bacharach and his latest electric-guitar band, the Imposters.

As these and many other threads weave into a unique symphony of high passion and intrigue that defies glib categorisation, I can't help wondering what ol' Wayne is into these days.

To say the least, no punk was ever meant to make it this far. The new-wave momentum that propelled young Declan MacManus out of Middlesex and up the pop charts 30 years ago came with built-in restraints, as symbolised by the iconic bondage pants Sid Vicious lived and died in.

Look at Iggy Pop, the punk movement's revered figurehead, a 60-year-old intellectual whose best offer this summer is the stagnant ritual of the Big Day Out. With the rock band he outgrew in '74, the Stooges, he's back in Melbourne in a fortnight to replay three-chord golden oldies in the creative hell of an endlessly recycled pop scene.

The same week, as he plays his new orchestral score Il Sogno with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Elvis Costello will cut a far more rebellious figure. He's the punk that got away, maybe the only one not trussed up in the invisible bondage pants of rock'n'roll: corporate greed in spastic step with a lobotomised youth culture.

Costello's unparalleled Houdini act has been far from easy. A decade ago, he seriously considered giving up music when one of his finest albums of impeccably crafted pop songs sank somewhere between a disinterested record company and an oblivious public. Its title was prophetic: All This Useless Beauty.

His liberation from the jaded pop singer-songwriter archetype began with Painted From Memory, an album of richly orchestrated torch songs inspired, co-written and co-produced by Bacharach. The kids, by and large, were not mad for it.

On a couple of albums since, he has enthusiastically revisited his early "rowdy rhythm" palette (he dislikes the term "rock"), but he's more often sought to stretch his parameters. Thus we've heard an operatic song cycle; an orchestrated album of romantic ballads, North; and the aforementioned Il Sogno, his first long instrumental work.

We shouldn't be too surprised. The son of a Merseyside big-band singer and trumpet player, Costello has been kicking against the rock-pop pigeonhole since he shrugged off his accidental punk affiliations in 1978. When explosive singles such as Watching the Detectives, Pump It Up and (I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea cast him as the fresh prince of rock vitriol, he already had an escape clause.

"The thought of me drying up doesn't scare me so much as the thought of me just repeating myself in a series of diminishing echoes," he said at the time.

Shortly afterwards he called a moratorium on interviews, the better to short-circuit the media cult that had presumed to write his life script. And so began a vicious relationship with the music-media establishment, a stubborn face-off between artist and industry.

Costello's first perceived departure from type arrived only four years after his skinny-tied new-wave debut. Almost Blue was an album of heartfelt country music covers that frankly incensed me, doubtless Wayne, and even the man who CBS Records somehow convinced to produce it, Nashville great Billy Sherrill. Not that any of us were really listening.

According to Costello biographer Graeme Thomson (Complicated Shadows, Canongate, 2004), Sherrill "viewed it as an Englishman's indulgence, a cultural holiday in music he didn't really understand". John McFee, an American pedal steel player Costello hired for the sessions, had a different take: "Actually, he really loves country music. He's totally sincere, I think he's a great singer and he wants to make a real country record."

There were wider accusations of dilettantism and pretension around Costello's next radical turn, The Juliet Letters, a classically arranged album composed and performed with the Brodsky String Quartet in 1993. After seeing them play a series of Shostakovich quartets in 1989, he'd been moved to learn musical notation - an optional unit in pop since Lennon and McCartney did without it, but one that would transform his work.

To many casual fans and (especially classical) critics, The Juliet Letters was pure conceit. Even some of the artist's closest allies lacked the imagination to give it the benefit of the doubt. Costello told Thomson that a senior executive at his then record company, Warner Brothers, had told him The Juliet Letters "would be all right if it just sounded more like Eleanor Rigby".

The corporate mindset was based on old top 40 charts; art could take a hike, and Costello did so after three more frustrated albums with Warner. On the final, contractually obligated hits collection, he quoted his song So Like Candy on the back cover: "Here lie the records that she scratched." Then came the abyss, then came Bacharach, and eventually the exhilarated reaffirmation of My Flame Burns Blue.

But one man's spectacular escape from the pop factory knacker's yard is only half the point of Elvis Costello's triumph. The other half is what it represents. There are myriad options to be explored by the curious and/or maturing pop musician. Why is so little of real invention being released?

But a larger reason that he finds himself an eccentric aberration rather than a leading light in pop culture is his breathtaking disregard for its values: lowest common denominator appeal and consequent enormous commercial reward. That, of course, is what pop means, so it takes exceptional imagination and daring for a musician to maintain focus on the culture side of the equation.

When pitching The Juliet Letters to Warners in 1992, Costello predicted it would sell 100,000, a big call in a classical music pond where 15,000 is good fishing, but a huge pay cut for an internationally renowned pop artist. Then something remarkable happened. The Juliet Letters sold 300,000.

"That showed there were far more curious people in the world than even I thought existed," Costello told me recently. "If you go around thinking nobody wants to hear something new, you'd never let yourself do anything different. You'd make the same record over and over again and that would be boring for you and for everyone else."

Lord knows, the evidence is out there.

Today, Elvis Costello lives in New York City with his new wife, jazz artist Diana Krall, as far as he can reasonably get from the pop-obsessed culture that first lauded and then all but rejected him. The trouble with England these days, he reckons, is that "culture and pop culture are the same thing".

"Some (British) artists cultivate a kind of cherished old-uncle relationship there, but I never got that cosy. You know what? I don't like English people that much! I've got friends there that I love to pieces but the culture I can't stand. It drives me crazy. Too many people in too small a room, breathing too little air."

Somehow, that reminds me of the cool student house across the street that Wayne used to doss in.

Elvis Costello plays the Sydney Festival, between January 20 and 25, variously with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Brodsky Quartet and pianist Steve Nieve ( My Flame Burns Blue is out now.

Tags: Everyday I Write The BookMetropole OrkestMy Flame Burns BlueCharles MingusHenry PurcellBurt BacharachThe ImpostersIggy PopIl SognoSydney Symphony OrchestraAll This Useless BeautyPainted From MemoryNorthRoss MacManusWatching The DetectivesPump It Up(I Don't Want To Go To) ChelseaAlmost BlueNashvilleBilly SherrillGraeme ThomsonComplicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis CostelloJohn McFeeThe Juliet LettersThe Brodsky QuartetJohn LennonPaul McCartneyWarner Bros.So Like CandyDiana KrallSteve Nieve

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The Age, January 14, 2006

Michael Dwyer profiles Elvis ahead of four shows with Steve Nieve and Greg Cohen at the Sydney Opera House, NSW, Australia.


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