Philadelphia Inquirer, August 9, 1996

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For Elvis Costello, the aim is
to remain true to himself

The rocker has refused to be pigeonholed

Tom Moon

Elvis Costello is playing a game that might be called "Great Conference Room Moments in the Music Business."

He mentions a classic record, and then offers objections he imagines nervous modern-day executives would raise. It's a way for the wry British singer and songwriter — who's bringing the Attractions to the Mann Music Center Saturday night — to illustrate the timidity that he believes defines the current record business.

"Do you think when they brought in 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' somebody said, 'I don't know, it's kinda slow'? ... Nobody ever said to the Spinners, 'Don't have that "Rubberband Man" go on for 10 minutes.' ... Can you imagine telling Marvin Gaye, 'Oh, don't have all those voices on your record. It'll confuse people.' "

The bottom line: "People, the artists themselves, have forgotten how free things are, or can be," Costello said last week from his home in London. "There's a lot of caution right now."

Naturally Costello, 42, holds himself up as the Quixote-like exception, a crusading example of artistic boldness in a sea of dreary soundalikes. He has a point. Unlike others in his peer group, Costello has forced himself to go beyond writing the acerbic three-minute songs that defined such early blasts of attitude as My Aim Is True, This Year's Model and Armed Forces.

Over the last few years, he's cranked out songs for a variety of pop artists, including Chrissie Hynde: "The song's called 'Twisted Love,' and it's not finished yet. It's built around the line 'Stop me before I become irresistible.' I have to hear her sing that."

At the same time, he's written a song cycle for string quartet and voice, The Juliet Letters; collaborated with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell; composed a few short orchestral works; co-written a song with Burt Bacharach; recorded with gospel's the Fairfield Four; reunited with old mates the Attractions for two critically acclaimed albums; and sung three sections of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with a classical group led by saxophonist John Harle ("For once," he says of this last project, "there will be no debate about the words.")

To the curmudgeonly Costello, these non-rock projects are more than just dabbling. They're the outgrowth of being curious about music — lots of different kinds of music.

"I met Peter Guralnick [the respected author of music history books, including the Elvis Presley biography Last Train To Memphis] on the plane the other day. He was saying that whenever he talks to blues artists, they always have an incredible range of things they like. He remembered Otis Rush saying he likes country singer Roy Acuff. These artists are broad-minded. Robert Johnson knew vaudeville songs. Jerry Lee Lewis wanted to be Al Jolson."

That kind of intellectual curiosity has vanished from the music industry, Costello laments, particularly in the realm of "alternative rock," where even the youngest artists are thinking career before concentrating on having something original to say.

"The idea that a series of relatively liberating gestures that happened five years ago, grunge and its aftermath, could go so quickly into parody is sad. But the artists let it happen. They're trained into watching out for career opportunities. They're 20 but already rehearsing for middle age — looking over the shoulder at whatever the next band's doing. It's tedious."

Costello is looking over his shoulder, too — at the rather incredible catalog of songs he's built up over the last 20 years. His most recent collection, All This Useless Beauty (Warner Bros.), is built around his versions of songs he gave away to such folks as Johnny Cash and Aimee Mann and Roger McGuinn.

It's hardly an odds-and-sods scrapbook — there are new pieces and rearrangements of songs that got left off earlier albums — but it does show Costello as a composer of uncommonly poignant ballads, a dimension that his rock audience, at least those who avoided The Juliet Letters, has often overlooked. There are songs that address man's struggle to maintain ideals ("You Bowed Down") and songs such as the title track, which observes the ways people are immune to the beauty around them. In the process of making these weighty points, the album reaffirms his prowess as a writer able to work in everyday three-chord rock or knottier, classical-leaning forms.

For the first time in what he says is a long time, Costello has gone back and looked at his early songs, approaching them the way an archaeologist might: To see what they tell him about his present state. He shared many of his observations on a recent hourlong VH-1 Storytellers program — talking about the origins of "Alison" and his reasons for changing bits of other songs that became hits.

"That was incredibly emotional for me," Costello says of the program, which was culled from three hours of performance and monologue. "It forced me to get to the heart of why I wrote songs like 'Veronica.' Usually TV is based on the whole ritual of false revelation, so it was great to just get into something with a bit of depth."

An unexpected side effect: Going back to his old songs helped Costello connect them to the music he's been writing lately.

"Some people said I was fooling around, playing with the Brodsky group and so on, but those experiences have given me some different ideas and capabilities. I'm now able to find links between The Juliet Letters and a piece for the Attractions like 'Kinder Murder.' The same musical root is there. The idea was to make a connection between the threads of music I'd explored over the last couple of years and show that they weren't deluded separate adventures, but parts of the same thought."

Now, as he's been rehearsing for these shows with the Attractions, Costello says he's finding new ways to enjoy re-creating his old music. Rather than slavishly copy the recorded versions, he and the band are experimenting, using two drum kits (a full size one and a "cocktail" kit), and injecting some vintage rock swing into the proceedings. "We've basically dug in and reclaimed the songs from the big pop arrangements. Even if you know the song, it becomes a fresh thing that hits you in the gut. We found some unusual songs — 'Long Honeymoon' from Imperial Bedroom, for one — that really fit with the way we're playing now, which is much quieter than we used to. We've really been going for clarity. It's amazing how much clarity you can achieve when you're listening.

"We know that the new songs have to earn their place [in the show]," Costello continues. "The feeling we all have is however long we do this, whether we go on one more tour or make nine more records or stop tomorrow, we go out every night and try to be righteous. The music deserves that, at the very least."


IF YOU GO


  • Who: Elvis Costello and the Attractions; Ron Sexsmith.
  • Where: Mann Music Center, 52d Street and Parkside Avenue.
  • When: Saturday at 8 p.m.
  • Cost: $24.50 and $27.
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Philadelphia Inquirer, August 9, 1996


Tom Moon interviews EC ahead of his concert with The Attractions, Saturday, August 10, 1996, Mann Music Center, Philadelphia.



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