He's still just 29, but at many moments, Declan MacManus, a.k.a. Elvis Costello, seems eternal. He could walk down any street with his wife and kids, an unremarkable Everyman, and not attract a second glance. Millions who resemble him — plainly dressed, of average build, wearing clothes on the far side of boring toil daily in factories, computer rooms, libraries, small shops. And it is about all of them, ordinary people who lead compartmentalized lives, that Elvis Costello writes his heartfelt laments, his declarations of frustrated dependence upon the arbitrary cruelty of the world.
Costello writes the following verse in "The Greatest Thing," a key-song on his eighth American album, Punch The Clock: "Punch the clock and in time you'll get pulled apart / If you're married on paper and not in your heart." It may be a reflection upon his own scarred and rebuilt marital relationship, but it rings as true for those whose lives Costello has never shared.
Following the pattern determined in last year's Imperial Bedroom, on this album Costello focuses on down-to-earth matters. As he matures, he is putting the "angry young man" image into the background, in favor of reflections upon the lost moments of people's private lives. Costello wishes he was the conquering suitor in "Everyday I Write the Book." He peeks behind the thin veneer of a torn-apart family on "The World and His Wife." While Costello's aim has been true to the soul ever since he released "Alison" many years ago, he is moving toward a more sympathetic connection to his audience.
Shortly after Imperial Bedroom was released, Costello, never at ease with the press, granted MTV an interview in which he considered the changing attitude and presentation of his recordings. "Preconceptions have been a bit of a trial for us. Maybe if we'd just done the same thing for four albums, like so many American groups seem to do quite successfully, this wouldn't have been a problem — if I'd settled on a style originally that I wanted to pursue. But I change from album to album. Each of the records we've made has been a little different, and I've always been a bit frustrated and sometimes dismayed at how the preconceptions have tended to smear everything all into one.
"The 'angry young man' thing makes good copy," he bluntly pointed out. "It's better than saying, 'Oh yes, well, he gets up and does the gardening and goes down to the supermarket.' It looks attractive, but it fulfills a rock 'n' roll myth that doesn't exist, and it's based on something that's very insubstantial and is a very passing thing."
According to Costello, from the time of Get Happy, he was more concerned with bringing compassion into his music than the anger that had dominated records such as Armed Forces. Even though his country album, Almost Blue, and the mini-tour which followed its release, were not considered to be among Elvis' artistic pinnacles, the heart-tugging emotions of that musical style helped to bring him into perspective as a caring individual.
"My idea." he recalled regarding the record, "was to do a complete ballad album incorporating some standards. And some blues songs and country songs. But I thought, in the long run, that might become a bit confusing. That it might become a bit like a Bobby Darin album — some of those albums which had a good intention but with so many different types of songs on them they just became a vague lounge style.
"And when we went to make the record, I was not entirely certain whether I was going to write the songs myself or do covers, and when we arrived in Nashville it seemed much more profitable to do covers. I don't think it would have been possible to record my own songs there, because there was next to no understanding with regard to original material. I thought it was pretty unusual that we wanted to go to Nashville to record anyway. But at least we proved to people that it wasn't some sort of parody, which country music has often been in rock 'n' roll. There's always been that slight joke, like a hippie joke, and I didn't want that element in there."
If it served no other purpose, Almost Blue's radical departure from Costello's earlier style may have also given him the confidence to co-produce his own albums. Admitting that Nick Lowe's production of the early recordings helped build up self-confidence, Costello generously praised Lowe's "tolerance" of his ideas. Certainly, after doing splendid work with the Specials and Squeeze, Costello was more than capable of co-piloting his own helm.
"Being a producer — I don't know," he pondered. "I really feel into that. I think I was conned by Nick Lowe to think that I could do it quite easily. Nick has this very carefree attitude toward producing. And working with Roger Bechirian, who engineered our first four albums, helped me to become interested in doing something. I did the Specials' first album, which was recorded in a very primitive kind of studio, and I had a lot of fun. I wouldn't really claim to have any producer's knowledge. I know a few bluffer's terms — you sort of listen to the engineers, and say a few things to make it look like you know what you're doing.
"When I worked with Squeeze (on East Side Story), they knew right away that I knew nothing about it technically. It was more to do with coaxing the group performance and being the arbiter of the individual performances. The arrangements were pretty much formed. The only song that I arranged in any major way was "Tempted." When Paul Carrack was in the group, it seemed to lend itself better to his style of singing, and we did the vocal arrangements, which was a good thing for them.
"It was a pleasure to be working with somebody who can sing as well as Glenn Tilbrook," Costello enthused. "It was just a question of pushing him that little bit harder to get an edge in his voice and give it a bit more character, because it's so pure. With Chris, he's always done this low, barking, kind of 'yelpy' singing, and for the song he sang, "Someone Else's Heart," I really wanted to hear a softer voice. He came out with a really touching kind of approach, which was much more gentle than anything he'd ever done before. It's always a good thing to stretch your limitations, which is really all I could do as a producer."
In his own work with producers Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer, Costello similarly has gone towards a goal of expanding musically without sacrificing his own lyrical attitudes and integrity. Punch The Clock features the addition of female backup singers and a brass section, the TKO Horns, with whom Elvis traveled on his later summer 1983 tour across the U.S. Though he has at times inserted a tentative toe into the rhythm and blues pool, the latest album shows Costello exploring that rich field more extensively.
While there's always a possibility that Elvis Costello's eighth release and its debut single, "Everyday I Write The Book," might rocket into the Top 20 and be heard in regular rotation on radio stations throughout the land, that situation is largely uncommon with his releases. Costello has never fallen into the easy trap of formulaic records, and he has paid a certain cost in mass appeal because of it. However, that is not a price he would opt to bear by artificial means. "Not at the expense of sacrificing the sound of the record that we want to make," he said firmly. "There is a temptation for us to just get Roy Thomas Baker or Mutt Lange to produce our next album, and make it sound exactly like AM and FM radio want us to sound. We'd fit in exactly with their programming, atom; with Foreigner and Asia and those groups. It might be an interesting exercise to make one record like that to see what would happen it I pitted the content of our melodies and words against that sound.
"When we made the Armed Forces record. there was an attempt to do just that with a pseudo-ABBA production. But I think the intent behind it tended to overpower the production on the better songs, and on the lesser songs, the production overpowered it. It would be nice if you could strike a balance, but once you've declared your intention, you can't be subversive about it. I remember reading an interview with Sting which claimed, 'Oh, we're a very subversive band.' But the moment you've declared yourself a subversive, you're not that way anymore. So it's almost impossible for me to start making FM-sounding records. They would either be selling myself short. or just for a joke."
Unlike certain other bands, who ascend to greatness and then freeze into the formula which put them there, Elvis Costello has made no such compromises. Admittedly, following years of disastrous confrontations with large segments of the press. he has unbent enough to discern those few critics who "listen with their heart and their ears rather than with their eye on this particular year's fashions," and has had some relatively honest discussions with them.
I only met Elvis Costello one brief time, following a concert he gave in New York early in his career. What I recall from that 10-minute meeting, and now see reflected in every album he's done to date, is the image of a private man willing to stand by his public pronouncements.
For Elvis Costello, neither his life as a musician nor as a private citizen of the world is easy, unguarded or humorous — and the best of his work follows from his balance upon that wavering tightrope.