Of all the British punk pub new wave rockers, Elvis Costello — who will headline two shows tomorrow night at the Palladium — has been about the most successful. Graham Parker and the Sex Pistols have won as much critical praise, but Mr. Costello (who was born 23 years ago as Declan Patrick McManus) has sold better than they have and has received his lavishly fair share of critical approval too. As well he should.
His first record last year blended new‐wave intensity with a strength and metaphorical richness of lyrics that surpassed any of the competition. As a live performer, Mr. Costello was slightly less convincing, at least in his New York debut a few months ago at the Bottom Line. His bug‐eyed, water‐boy image with its out‐of‐date, several‐sizes too‐big jacket, looked more mannered than compelling; his band sounded rough, and his set wasn't very well paced. But there was much of the intensity that's on the records, as well, and his live shows have been favorably reviewed since. In addition, his new album is not only as fine as the first, but shows him evolving stylistically without any sacrifice in intensity.
Mr. Costello's current tour — he's been performing in this country off and on (mostly on) since early November — found him in Montreal the other day. and he reported that, by and large, things were going quite well.
"We've sold out a lot of the big cities," he said, "but you have things like the box office in Mobile, Ala., being open for a week without selling a ticket. Or Detroit: English people are filled with myths about America. We imaged something violent in Detroit, but we played a suburb, and we had a really apathetic audience. We don't want to be a success in just the hip towns. We want to hit the cities in between." Mr. Costello's band, the Attractions, appeared on a bit of the first album and all of the second, and while it seemed less than fully assured at the Bottom Line, it sounds very good indeed on disk.
"When we find we can do a perfect set every night, it will be time to quit," said Mr. Costello. "People say these odd things to us, like ‘You're very professional.’ They think we're anarchists. We don't do solos, and I'm not the greatest guitarist, but the others are very good. And as we play more together, we get better as a band. We have the freedom now to switch the set order around. We like that, because it helps keep things tense."
While Mr. Costello's music has been widely praised, his image as a person has emerged through his rare interviews rather more problematically. Several of his interviewers paint a picture of a strange and bitter man given to lurid denunciations and provocative condemnations, with a manager who relishes physical attacks on writers and photographers.
"It's a difficult problem," said the singer, "because it crosses that borderline between the personal and the professional. From a professional point of view, I understand it's important for journalists to grasp the most vivid aspect of a personality to make good copy. From a personal point of view, I find it annoying. People really think I'm some sort of psychotic weirdo hung up on revenge and guilt. It's really undermining that image now."
But surely he himself contributed to his image with some deliberately provocative remarks — things like Fleetwood Mac being "a washed up old blues group" or "America never contributed one good band to the world."
"I still agree with those remarks," he said, "but those things were picked out of all that I said in those interviews. That is something you risk whenever you make any kind of controversial remark. If in five years time what I've said seems foolish, I'll only assume that that's because there is five years difference. There were plenty of people in the peace and‐love period who said things that were a lot more foolish."
Unlike some new British rockers, Mr. Costello looks as if he has the durability to sustain a long‐lasting career and the musical imagination to grow over the years.
"I don't have a master plan for the next 15 years, but I don't expect to quit next week. There is a kind of vision about the title of the new album, This Year's Model. We're not last year's joke, We're prepared to last."