Another one?! So soon?! How much quality product can a body digest in a single year?
Elvis Costello is undone by his own prolific stamina and consistency. A month ago I made an unlikely comparison between Costello and Cabaret Voltaire: the shared problem of routine brilliance. The possibility of his surprising us recedes because of his prior accumulated excellence. Each time, it becomes steadily more difficult to argue that you NEED another Costello record. But his fans aren't buying "surprise" anyway. Costello services a stable demand for one sure voice of sanity and compassion. It's a matter of keeping the faith.
Equally, it becomes less and less plausible to present Costello as the thorn in pop's flesh, a radical intrusion of intelligence, simply because these days he barely interacts with pop at all. Costello, all of us in fact, inhabit a little world that's drifted apart from the mainstream, a world whose parameters are night-time radio and the music press. "Progessive pop" occupies a different space to pop altogether, perhaps equivalent to that occupied by literature 50 years ago. Nothing is in jeopardy.
Everything valuable about Costello — craft, dignity, content, depth — actually disqualifies him from the pop race. Pop was always meant to be surface flash, rupture, contrivance, a spree of strangeness — not good work and firm conscience. Everything about POP! should be capable of absorption within a matter of moments. With Costello, you have to work.
So here comes a fresh glut of WORDS — a round of media hagiography, no doubt, plus a mass of artfully tangled statements for us to decipher. These days, when Elvis speaks out, the result is a prolix, purple sprawl of placenames and mixed metaphors, leaving only the vague impression that he's pointing the finger at something. Much more useful are the more private songs, like "I Want You", a stark, extended gasp of choke longing.
Elsewhere, Costello's writing seems to increase in opacity as he turns over and over his familiar concerns — domestic deceit, doomed relationships, bread and circuses, the hegemony of the trivial and the tawdry. You come to wish he'd be less zealous in his anxiety to avoid insulting our on American traditional musics, the stance is so fiercely anti-American that these roots musics and regional just as much under threat of extinct mainstream American culture (MTV, yuppie sensibility) as our own culture anti-modern cultures are a form of a Americanism within America, which we caaw on.
But such dissent seems destined to remain isolated and contained. No matter how he struggles to shake up the settled state of his career — this year's peculiar gambit of "murdering" the Costello persona — Elvis Costello is doomed to make only big splashes in a small pond, our pond. "Hang The Deejay" could well have been Elvis Costello's very own anthem.