Melbourne Age, March 10, 1989

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Angry words, vacant eyes

Shaun Carney

The young people who insist that they are Journalists and devote themselves to penning obsequious peaens to forgettable musicians in music papers have done it again. Elvis Costello is the latest object of their affections. Their line is: "EC is back. Thank heaven he has graced us again with his talent. Ooh, isn't he clever, bagging all those other artists."

Costello visited Australia in January and made himself available for interviews to promote his new album Spike. It was part of a global public relations offensive that has paid off handsomely critics in Britain and the United States have approximated sexual frenzy in their reviews of the record, Costello's 12th album and his first since 1986.

One might have assumed that in view of all this good press, Costello's longstanding (and renowned) antipathy towards journalists might have abated. Up to a point, I suppose, it has. If you simply want to write disguised advertisements for Costello and Spike he is very friendly. If you want to find out something about this very talented and very egotistical man, his words are polite but his eyes tell you to get lost.

There were a number of reasons why the interview for this profile didn't really work out. I did not see my role as simply a cipher for Costello's seIf-promotion so I tried to engage him in conversation. His reaction was to begin almost every response with "I don't agree" and he emerged as a sort of professional position-taker. After a while, his led to some rather idiosyncratic observations from the 33-year-old singer.

For example: he despises Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page, yet thinks Bon Jovi is a great band and 'Bad Medicine' is a marvellous record; he devotes a great part of his dialogue to decrying most pop music and pop music journalism as worthless - and gives examples - but says there is no point "just being cynical and complaining about everything"; he can't believe so much effort is wasted analysing and discussing unworthy pop music, yet he is clearly a living music encyclopaedia and devotee of music criticism.

So why spend an hour listening to Elvis Costello take positions and then form rationalisations when you could be doing something else, like visiting the dentist? In my case, because I happen to have been moved by his music since his first album was released in 1977.

How his career has changed since then.

In the beginning he was overtly bitter, angry, anxious to hit out at the establishment. Now, he is still angry but he also writes songs with Paul McCartney and is very much an established artist. Spike is a generally successful attempt by Costello to perform songs in a wide range of genres; it is a positive declaration that he no longer wants to be regarded as a rock performer.

Okay. so he isn't a rock performer. What is he, then? Certainly, he is one of the most respected writers and singers in the world. Even before Spike he had traversed so many styles that he had left critics who tried to define his artistic ambit slack-jawed in his wake.

But among the masses he is underappreciated and has not been a big seller for almost a decade. Does it hurt? "Not really. It's just a question of what you expect from it. I might be silly but I'm not stupid. I realise that if I wanted to tailor everything about what I do and court more mainstream acceptance, I know enough about how these things work that I could do it. But I think that nobody would believe me."

Costello did, back in 1984, attempt a "hit" album called Goodbye Cruel World, complete with up-to-date production sounds and a sure-fire single. But it was a shocker and he now quickly dismisses it as a mistake. The pain of that period appears to have reinforced his need for his credibility, and the awfulness of most hit music, to be acknowledged.

"I don't think home taping is killing music, bad music is killing music. There's just too many records released. Everything is put out and then written about as if it's the most important thing in the world. Every record that's released is genius. There are no geniuses in pop music, and I don't think there have been."

The ideas spew forth, often put cogently, occasionally rounding on what's gone before. Costello is just as angry now as he was all those years ago, only now he is able to direct the anger into a form more acceptable to adults.

When he slags off at Rick Astley and Phil Collins and Margaret Thatcher, the criticism comes not from some splenetic upstart but from a seasoned respected performer.

We have all got used to Costello being iconoclastic and he has grown clever by never letting down his guard. He can hit out and, because we have seen it before, it doesn't hurt as much as before. And he seems to have ensured that the blows will not rebound; he tells the world only what he wants it to know.

He genuinely wants us to think that he believes there are no geniuses in pop music. Yet he unabashedly admits that he was daunted working with McCartney because he had drawn so much through his career from the former Beatles' work.

And his assessment of his own importance within the music industry goes some way to debunking his debunking: "Most music that comes out is just deadly dull. It's made with no imagination, with no ambition, either commercial or anything...

"The only thing you can do in the face of that is say 'well at least I try to keep my own interest alive'. That in itself turns on some other people who get the record that I make."

But the defences are never down. He checks himself constantly. After a long criticism of the independent scene ("Most of it is rat s__-") and mainstream music (Where is the music that flies?) he recoils. "I wouldn't normally be so complaining, it just came up from your question." Sorry.

I had hoped to write a profile of Elvis Costello. Some hope. I failed.


The Age, March 10, 1989

Shaun Carney profiles Elvis Costello.

Shaun Carney reviews Spike.


1989-12-10 Melbourne Age photo 01 ct.jpg
Photo by Cathryn Tremain.


Elvis Costello

Shaun Carney

1989-12-10 Melbourne Age Entertainment Guide clipping 01.jpg

Elvis Costello has never been shy about demonstrating his musical cleverness. Ever the supremely confident show-off, he has just about gone too far this time with a record that flits across styles almost to the point of frustration.

Costello tried to break the mould with this record, ditching the Attractions and using a large and diverse group of all-star players (Paul McCartney, Davy Spillane, Roger McGuinn, Marc Ribot, the Dirty Dozen, Christie Hynde to name a few). The result is an album of some excellent moments such as the techno-jump of "...This Town..." and the lilting celtic flow of "Any King's Shilling," and some equally execrable songs like the melodramatic "Miss Macbeth" and the funk misfire "Chewing Gum."

This occasionally veers very close to being something akin to a sampler record or a series of versatility spots by a Tonight show host. All up, however, the good moments outweigh the excruciating ones.

1989-12-10 Melbourne Age Entertainment Guide page 05.jpg
Page scan.

1989-12-10 Melbourne Age Entertainment Guide page 10.jpg
Page scan.


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