When an angry Elvis Costello burst upon the world stage in the mid-'70s amid the tumult of the punk invasion, he arrived with unbridled passion, a cynical take on life and a pen full of vitriol. Who'd have guessed that within the breast of this brash rocker beat the heart of a pop balladeer who would go on to collaborate with such middle-of-the-road tunesmiths as Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, or record with the likes of Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the Brodsky Quartet?
Perhaps we should have learned to expect the unexpected.
Still, many critics and fans alike have been thrown into a tailspin by his latest CD, North, a song cycle on love lost and found, all revealed in 11 quiet, piano-based jazz ballads, sometimes played by a small combo, other times cloaked in lush orchestration.
The album--Costello's 24th release and arguably his most consistent and most honest work--is a commercial flop by pop standards. Released on the Deutsche Grammaphon label, a classical-music subsidiary of Universal Music, North has failed to chart on the Billboard Top 200 and has struggled even to gain a foothold on the trade magazine's lesser jazz chart.
What do the critics say? "The trouble with Elvis's latest effort," writes Mark Wilson in the online journal Press, "is that it reeks of late-career indulgence."
Critic Hartley Goldstein of the Pitchfork Weekly is even less kind. "Costello seems less concerned with presenting a collection of melodically clever songs filled with his trademark sense of irony and double-entendre than with recording an album for the classical and jazz elites," he laments. "In other words, it looks like the result of self-conscious pandering to his inner music critic. . . . It's a cruel irony that, as he grows older and aims higher, he only falls further away from himself and fails more profoundly at grasping that elusive quality."
Admittedly, it's hard to accept that the man who wrote the songs on North--the title alludes to Costello, 49, turning his attention toward his new wife, Canadian-born jazz singer Diana Krall-- is the same guy who penned the ecstatic joy of "Tokyo Storm Warning," the infectiously hip "Moods for Moderns" or who once was told by a BBC censor that if it were learned that the cryptic satire "Pills and Soap" had a deeper, hidden meaning, then Costello would be banned from the British airwaves for life.
Of course, the song chronicled fascism during Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's stay at 10 Downing Street.
But these days Costello is showing himself to be a mature artist who is growing old gracefully-- a few well-timed public tantrums notwithstanding. Of course, this isn't the first time that Costello--who performs March 12 at the LBC with longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve--has been taken to task for straying from his rock roots.
In 1999, the same year Costello collaborated with Bacharach on the Painted from Memory album, dispirited Salon writer Bill Wyman bemoaned: "On his first few albums, Costello had laid out sweeping, ever-more-paranoid romantic equations--love as civil disturbance, as propaganda, as global warfare. . . . Someone with his capacity for fury could scarcely complain, but he must also have felt the waste, of both his talent and a generation's affection. To have murdered our love was a crime. We forgive nothing."
That acrid essay prompted one fan to respond, "Bill Wyman loses interest in Elvis Costello midway through Costello's career, and somehow that's a betrayal on Costello's part? Bill, he's not dating you; he's just writing and playing music in close enough proximity to you that you can hear it. Try not to take it so personally."
But it is personal--all great music is personal, and Costello has penned some of the most personal songs of his generation. His 1977 debut, My Aim Is True (which found the Bay Area band Clover, a prototype of Huey Lewis and the News, backing up the singer), served up a playful mix of raucous British pub rock and heartfelt ballads. The chorus of the tender "Alison" would provide the album's title and a hint of Costello's sentimental leanings.
The song "Less Than Zero," an indictment of a neo-Nazi TV host, provided a template for Costello's genius for fusing the personal and the political. Costello would return to that theme over and again. On the disturbing "Night Rally" from 1978's follow-up This Year's Model, Costello took on the emerging fascist youth of the National Front. A year later, on 1979's brilliant Armed Forces (originally titled Emotional Fascism), Costello effectively used politics as a metaphor for personal conflict on several now-classic songs.
This was an artist capable of elevating the rock song to previously unrealized heights. He also was a performer mired in contradiction, and one that criticized his punk peers for being calculating and contrived. At first, these idiosyncrasies held a lot of charm. Then one night in 1979, in a bar in Columbus, Ohio, Costello's charm wore off: during a booze-fueled bout with members of the Stephen Stills Band, and in the midst of a Rock against Racism tour, Costello loudly denounced Ray Charles with a racial slur. The statement devastated Costello's credibility.
"It's horrible to work hard for a long time and find that what you're best known for is something as idiotic as . . . this," Costello later told Rolling Stone writer Greil Marcus.
Costello's career would recover. And he would go to create some of his best work, including the 1982 Beatlesesque masterwork Imperial Bedroom (produced by Geoff Emerick, who had worked on the Fab Four's magnum opus Abbey Road) and the excellent King of America and Blood and Chocolate.
Between 1986 and 1998, however, Costello struggled to match his earlier success as a songwriter, though he had moments of glory. It was during that time that he began embracing new influences that ultimately would lead to North.
The most obvious influence is the 1998 Bacharach collaboration, but North also bears the imprint of several other Costello projects, including the gorgeous ballad "Shipbuilding" (a 1983 antiwar song that ridiculed Britain's role in the ill-conceived Falkland Islands War and featured a plaintive trumpet solo by the legendary Chet Baker), 1993's foray into chamber pop The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet and Terror + Magnificence, a 1997 collaboration with saxophonist John Harle that readily straddled jazz and classical.
The sentiments on North can be sweet. Costello delivers the line "Friends look at me these days with fond surprise / But when I start to speak, they roll their eyes" with no hint of irony. This is unabashed love, an Audrey-Hepburn-and-Gregory-Peck-in-Roman-Holiday kind of love, for which Costello makes no apologies.
"I think it's a very positive record," he told Press recently. "It begins in a very bleak mood and fairly rapidly it changes from that. The first half of the record is more doleful and full of bewilderment, and that is all about love coming to you and it not being necessarily easy for you to accept or even to recognize it. There are moments of humor, even in the first couple of songs."
Is it a midlife crisis record? the interviewer asked. "I don't think it's a midlife crisis record. Not at all. That ain't a crisis, it's a cause for celebration!"
But does his early work make it difficult for some fans to accept or expect songs that are so open-hearted? "I don't think so. There are other songs that are very specific and very clear and unadorned with the devices for which I'm sometimes said to be known. I don't deny that those songs are there. But most of the songs on King of America have a plainness of language. "I Want You" [from Blood and Chocolate] is not exactly a disguised song; it's expressing a very different kind of emotion.
"I have had a ballad in the center of my repertoire from the start--the best-known song from my early years is a ballad ['Alison']. I got fascinated with words and playing games and disguising things, and I've written some really good songs that are not about literal things, because they're not trying to be. The big lie is that everything has to make sense."
North ain't rock, but it is a success on its own terms. Expect more of the same, at least for a while.
Krall and Costello have penned a half dozen or more songs together for Krall's next album. (We can thank Costello that never again will we have to endure Krall covering anything as shallow as Michael Franks' saccharine "Popsicle Toes.")
Croons Costello in "I'm in the Mood Again," the closing track on North, "I don't know what's come over me, but it's nothing I'm doing wrong / You took the breath right out of me / Now you'll find it in the early hours, in a lover's song."
Kick back and enjoy it. Just think of North as a new mood for moderns.
Elvis Costello performs with Steve Nieve on Friday, March 12, at 8pm. LBC, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. $45-$65. 707.546.3600.