New York Times, June 27, 1982

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Elvis Costello — Is he pop's top?

Robert Palmer

Is Elvis Costello, the original angry young man of rock's new wave, going to turn out to be the Cole Porter of the 1980's? His most devoted admirers are convinced that he is exactly that — and Mr. Costello himself says that's just what he is aiming for. "That kind of songwriting — Porter, Kern, Rodgers and Hart — is something I'm very fond of and aspire to," he admitted recently. "When people ask me to name a great song, I mention something like 'Love for Sale' or 'Someone to Watch Over Me.' In the last 20 years or so, very few people have been up to that standard of lyric writing."

In any event, it seems reasonably certain that the 27-year-old Mr. Costello is the most talented pop tunesmith of his generation. His new album, Imperial Bedroom (Columbia), is his seventh album of original songs since 1977, when he first burst upon an unsuspecting world with My Aim Is True. He has been prolific (one album, Get Happy!!, included 20 songs, 18 of them Costello originals), yet the quality of his work has been remarkably consistent. Moreover, unlike most of his new wave contemporaries, he hasn't stopped changing — and maturing.

Most of the songs on Mr. Costello's earlier albums were in a melodic pop-rock vein. "Alison" was a hit for Linda Ronstadt, and Dave Edmunds also scored a hit with a Costello song, "Girls Talk" ("Though you may not be an old-fashioned girl, you're still going to get dated"). But as early as his second album, This Year's Model, Mr. Costello and his superb backing trio, the Attractions, began to expand their range. The lyricism and rhythmic thrust of songs like "Pump It Up," "Radio, Radio" and "Accidents Will Happen" made them staples of American FM radio programming.

But other songs examined the ups and downs of romance in a wryly epigrammatic style that was unflinchingly adult. "You lack lust; you're so lackluster," he complained in "Possession." In "New Amsterdam" he announced that he was going to "step on the brake to get out of her clutches." In a lilting waltz, "Motel Matches," he transformed a one-night stand into pure poetry: "Boys everywhere fumbling with the catches, I struck lucky with motel matches/ Falling for you without a second look, falling out of your open pocketbook, giving you away like motel matches." (Lyrics copyright 1980, Plangent Visions Music Inc., ASCAP). And while he was learning to say more and more in fewer words, he was mastering more musical idioms, from country-and-western stomps to soul ballads to jazzy jump tunes to harmonically sophisticated torch songs.

Nevertheless, Imperial Bedroom is a decisive step forward. The album seems to be a conscious attempt to get away from rock entirely, to write pop songs worthy of a Sinatra or an Ella Fitzgerald — the sort of pop songs that become standards. The lyrics retain their aggressive edge, but his range of subjects and musical styles is much broader. The subjects include a marriage's unravelling ("It's been a long honeymoon/ She thought too late and spoke too soon"), a family's disapproval of a thuggish son ("Don't get smart or sarcastic, he snaps back just like elastic/ Spare us the theatrics and the verbal gymnastics, we break wise guys just like matchsticks") and corruption in the English aristocracy ("He's got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge/ He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege"). The music ranges from sultry supper-club balladry to brightly baroque counterpoint for strings and french horns to restaurant-table serenades featuring accordion and gut-string guitar. Mr. Costello's singing has never sounded better, but above all Imperial Bedroom is a songwriter's tour de force.

Mr. Costello is a very ambitious young man, and he is an enigma. He has given few interviews. Some of the songs on that first album, "Alison" for example, were tenderly lyrical, but others were charged with vitriolic anger, and Mr. Costello's early performances were aggressive, even arrogant. On a number of occasions he played very short sets, refused to do encores, and drove away fans who refused to leave with unendurable, high-frequency electronic feedback.

This sort of behavior was bound to cause trouble, and it did. One night in 1979, after a concert in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Costello got into a drunken argument with several American rock musicians who had made their reputations in the 1960's and represented everything Mr. Costello in particular and the new wave in general was a reaction against. The argument grew more heated, and more personal, and Mr. Costello responded to the taunt that no Englishman would ever match the artistry or emotional depth of black American singers like Ray Charles with a racial epithet he hoped would outrage and silence his opponents. His outburst had the desired effect, but the next day the musicians he had been arguing with reported his comments to members of the press, and the result was a major scandal. Mr. Costello flew into New York for a press conference that began on an apologetic note but ended as a shouting match. He did not tour the United States again until 1981.

"Obviously, that was the most horrific incident of my whole career," Mr. Costello said last week, "and I've never been able to sit down in an unemotional atmosphere and say I'm very sorry. It was a drunken brawl, and I wanted to say whatever would outrage those people the most, but that's no excuse. A lot of people were very angry, and rightfully so. Those words I used certainly don't represent my view of the world, I had always just assumed that people would recognize my allegiance to r&b, to black music, but it wasn't obvious enough. I suppose if you allow uncontrolled anger to run away with you, and if you make a career out of contriving anger, up on stage, whether you're feeling angry or not, sooner or later you'll find yourself saying things, using words you don't mean. It'll all come back at you. But I don't want to sound like I'm making excuses. There aren't any excuses for saying things like that."

Mr. Costello said the Columbus incident "colored everything I've done since. The next album I made after that, Get Happy!!, I set out, subconsciously at least, to make a soul record. Not just in terms of style, but a record that was warmer, more emotional. And I think all the records I've made since then are more directly emotional, more personal, I've been trying to cut back on the clever wordplay and write songs with more heart."

Imperial Bedroom isn't short on clever wordplay. One song, "Shabby Doll," begins with the line, Giving you more of what for always worked for me before, and Mr. Costello's ear for internal rhymes and alliteration has always been one of the things that made his work special. But the songs on Imperial Bedroom do reflect an emotional maturity that wasn't always evident on his earlier albums. Musically, the new record is more self-consciously "adult." It's a far cry from the spare, functional new wave modernism of albums like This Year's Model, from 1978.

"I don't think of the new album as a rock and roll record," Mr. Costello noted. "I was making a conscious effort to remove the dominance of the beat. The important things to me are the melody, the words, the way you sing them, all the little innuendos you can get into them. And above all, the feeling behind them. I don't want to be just yelling and screaming; I'm not a wild man as such. I'm in pop music. Now Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, those are rock and roll singers. There aren't that many of them. There are a lot of pretenders — bozos dressed in silly clothes."

The British critic Allan Jones wrote in 1977 that Mr. Costello's songs were often "fiercely detailed accounts of romantic encounters and failures — but he introduces a ruthless honesty to these themes." A number of Mr. Costello's more recent songs have been about sex and power. Some have compared the way people allow themselves to be used by lovers to the way people allow themselves to be used by unscrupulous politicians. And the English class system figures in some of these songs — "Man Out of Time" on the new album, for example. "I do tend to think there's a lot of decadence and moral weakness among people in positions of power," Mr. Costello said. "Traditionally, the aristocracy in England has been decadent and immoral. There's always a lot of intrigue, government scandals, like the Profumo affair. None of my songs are literally about that or any other particular event, but some of them have that flavor. The more personal songs are either imaginary scenarios, observations of other people, or observations of myself. Most of the really vitriolic songs I've written have been observations of myself."

Although Mr. Costello's songs have been recorded by Linda Ronstadt and other artists, most of these versions have left him unimpressed. "I'd really like to hear one of my songs recorded by Frank Sinatra or Aretha Franklin," he said. "Those are two of my favorite singers, along with Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder and Jerry Lee Lewis." Coming from a musician who seemed only a few years ago to be an angry new wave avatar, full of contempt for earlier pop music, this was a revealing list. "I always thought it was a real mistake to toss around that expression 'new wave' in connection with my records," Mr. Costello maintained. "Why does everything have to be pigeonholed? Why can't you hear Hank Williams and then Billie Holiday on the radio?"

Cole Porter and the other songwriters Mr. Costello is beginning to be compared to frequently wrote for the stage, but Mr. Costello said he had no such ambitions. "What am I going to do, write a rock opera?" he laughed. "Rock musicals, rock films, they're pathetic, a joke. So there's really just continuing the songwriting, honing that, doing it better. If you write pop songs, you do hope they'll be important in people's lives. I'd love for one of my songs to be as important to someone as 'I'm Gonna Make You Love Me' by the Temptations was to me. But I hate this precious idea that every song has to be the Sermon on the Mount. The songs I write for my next album will be about whatever happens to me between now and when we start recording again, and that's what it's about, really. It's about life."

Tags: Imperial BedroomCole PorterJerome KernRichard RodgersLorenz HartLove For SaleColumbiaMy Aim Is TrueGet Happy!!AlisonLinda RonstadtDave EdmundsGirls TalkThis Year's ModelThe AttractionsPump It UpRadio, RadioAccidents Will HappenPossessionNew AmsterdamMotel MatchesFrank SinatraElla FitzgeraldShabby DollAllan JonesMan Out Of TimeAretha FranklinChet BakerBillie HolidayStevie WonderJerry Lee LewisHank WilliamsBillie HolidayI'm Gonna Make You Love MeThe Temptations

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New York Times, June 27, 1982

Robert Palmer interviews Elvis Costello and reviews Imperial Bedroom.


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Photo by Kim Steele.
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Photo by David Gahr.
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