Q, December 1988

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Hello, Cruel World!

Paul Du Noyer

They used to call him The Avenging Dork. His mother called him Declan MacManus. He's called himself everything from Napolean Dynamite to The Imposter. But just who is the man behind the glasses, with a song in his heart and a twisted quip on his lips? Elvis Costello's album catalogue is now out on CD, and Paul Du Noyer sifts the silver in search of clues.

There they sit, those 14 compact discs, sedate and still and well-behaved, an adornment to your home. But... what horrors lurk inside!

For in their plastic cases, under those shiny silver surfaces, there is concealed a seething cauldron of molten emotions — a maelstrom, if you will, of jealousy and vengeance, of withering scorn and sleepless guilt, of doubt, depression and fevered paranoia. Here is a place where love lies down with treachery, and hope is a delusion in perpetual conspiracy with its old accomplice disappointment. Here is a world in which bewildered individuals contrive their confused strategies for psychic survival, in the teeth of malign social circumstances that daily threaten to devour them, chew them up and spit their remnants into the cuspidor of oblivion. Oh, crikey.

Elvis Costello: this is your life?

Since time immemorial life in workaday Britain has been sustained by habits of stoical cheerfulness; mustn't grumble, keep your pecker up, it's a grand life if you don't weaken. Pop has played its part in this routine, parading a vision of romantic love as the key to lifelong bliss, where even heartbreak is somehow sweet. Historically, sourness and suspicion have not had much of a look-in.

Not until 1977, when a cheaply dressed, bespectacled misanthrope who claimed to be called Elvis Costello emerged to open his account with debut LP My Aim Is True, did mainstream British music possess an authentic and consistent spokesperson to address the melancholy proposition that life's a bitch and then you die. As time has passed his writing has ripened. His vision has broadened to encompass compassion. Today there is humour of a gentler aspect, although still spiked with something that's probably toxic; and tenderness, though again it's ambivalent. But his single biggest gift to our listening pleasure has been an intelligent bitterness, literate and jittery.

At his most abandoned, raucous and upbeat, the elation is reminiscent of that moment at a party when — you can just sense it — you know that a fight's about to break out in the kitchen and someone's going to throw up on the sofa.

Declan MacManus, as Costello was christened 34 years ago by his Liverpool-Irish parents, is currently completing a new album, his first since 1986. That's an extraordinarily long interval for an artist whose middle name would be "prolific," if it weren't already Patrick (He's recently added Aloysius.) As we await the results, let's take the time to re-assess his output since that prickly beginning in the new wave days, when American critics were moved to call him "The Avenging Dork," and he himself would sing, "Sometimes I almost feel/Just like a human being."

Formerly a struggling troubador in the folk clubs of Merseyside (whence he'd returned as a teenager, after a childhood spent in southwest London) our man first brushed with fame, albeit lightly, in a mid-'70s combo named Flip City, who eked out an existence on the outer fringes of London's pub-rock scene. Sensing, even then, that his destiny lay beyond this world of flared dungarees and undemanding rockaboogie, MacManus strafed the record business with his demo tapes, and secured a solo contract with Stiff Records, a newly born label that had recently won the distinction of releasing Britain's first punk single, The Damned's "New Rose." Stiff's co-founder Jake Riviera became his manager (and remains so), while the job of producing him fell to one Nick "Basher" Lowe, himself a one-time member of pub rock heroes Brinsley Schwarz.

Freshly made over with Buddy Holly horn-rims, charity shop togs and an absurd new name, Elvis Costello gave up his day job (as a lowly computer operator in a Middlesex cosmetics factory) and was duly turned loose upon us with My Aim Is True. One of the great first albums of all time, its 12 self-composed tracks were a bristling display of barbed petulance and precocious wordplay (with one classic ballad, Alison, nestling in their midst) that defined his image overnight. Even if it was soon apparent that his songwriting was too subtle and multi-faceted to be contained in glib encapsulations of the "four-eyed loser with an extra portion of chips on each shoulder" variety, for the time being such perceptions did him no harm at all in the frantic scramble for attention that characterised 1977, the year of the Sex Pistols.

All he lacked, actually, was a band. For My Aim Is True he'd been teamed with another Stiff act, the country-ish American group Clover (whose lead singer, Huey Lewis, would one day become the very famous Huey Lewis, although he didn't take part in these Costello sessions). The musical setting they gave to this album was competent and bouncy, but in retrospect a little too amiable and trad-rock to serve young Elvis's fierce individuality to best effect.

Come 1978, and This Year's Model, Costello was equipped with his own band The Attractions (a relationship which, like the one with Nick Lowe, has survived on and off to the present day). Pete Thomas (drummer, ex-Chilli Willi), Steve Nieve (classically trained keyboards chap) and Bruce Thomas (hugely experienced bass player) were recruited separately, but once together the new line-up was so exactly right it seemed predestined.

Brittle and speedy, but thumpingly solid, the trademark combination of Nieve's keyboards and the rhythm firm of Thomas & Thomas arranged itself around another 12 Costello originals in a grip as tight as a strangler's hands. Nick Lowe once more applied his "turn it all up to 11" philosophy of studio technique, while the songs themselves were revolving manically in urgent spirals of spiteful ingenuity. Picking his targets with the due care and attention of a random axe-murderer, then dissecting them with surgical precision, Costello laid a trail of waste through the vanity of Swinging London in "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," depicted sexual attraction as shot through with deceit in almost every other song, and capped it all with "Night Rally," whose brooding menace caught the mood of creeping fear accompanying the rise of far-right violence in the stale political climate of the time.

Armed Forces, which followed, was scarcely mellower, although it remains Elvis & The Attractions' most poppy album to date. Abba, apparently, were something of an influence, but the music's glossy sheen has a slightly crazed intensity — wide-eyed, but pupils dilated — and the melodic vivacity is slashed up and down with lyrical viciousness: "Your mind is made up but your mouth is undone" ("Accidents Will Happen"). Several tracks, like the hit single "Oliver's Army" and "Goon Squad," set their face against militarism and thuggery, while sounding every bit as sinister as that which they denounce.

Musically anway, 1980's Get Happy!! album turns down the pressure. Inspired by '60s soul styles, its structures are lean and economic, as The Attractions show off how much they can do with even basic arrangements. The record's loose-limbed self-assurance is almost insolently impressive. And Costello, the songsmith, must have inspired envious hatred in the breasts of any rivals trying to cope with writer's block as he threw off no less than 20 numbers (all but two self-written, including "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down"), each of them brief but deftly crafted; the best, perhaps, were the softer and more reflective "New Amsterdam," "Motel Matches" and "Riot Act."

Costello, by now beset by tour fatigue and a complicated private life (he'd left his wife a while before, for a spell with celebrated rock chick and model Bebe Buell) was in line for a rest-cure, but he'd at least proved his compositional talents were more than one-dimensional.

The title of Trust, from 1981, might well have been ironic. It's shorter on notable songs, but its dark themes of clumsy seduction, gutter press dishonesty and imminent physical damage are gruesomely compelling. "Clubland," the single, is steeped in bad breath and nastiness. "Shot With His Own Gun," meanwhile, was a poignant and sophisticated performance.

But Elvis had evidently considered it was time for a detour — and that detour took him to Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music. Here he put himself at the services of Billy Sherrill, producer of George Jones amongst others and an architect of the latterday "Nashville Sound." The Almost Blue album, which came out of the sessions, is probably best commended as brave and interesting rather than straightforwardly enjoyable. He tackled a dozen country cover versions, like Merle Haggard's "The Bottle Let Me Down" and Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams," and if the maudlin pathos of "Good Year For The Roses" worked quite nicely, the overall feel is slightly strained; nowhere does Costello's personality seem to be sitting right inside the songs.

Imperial Bedroom saw Costello back in London but this time paired with producer Geoff Emerick. It's a clean, detailed record, but not his most memorable, apart from its masterful centrepiece "Man Out Of Time" — which as a single failed unaccountably to disturb the Top 50. More immediately satisfying was its follow-up Punch The Clock, which brought in a horn section, backing singers and the brash production of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (known for their work with Madness and Dexys Midnight Runners). Apart from some powerful brassy blasts ("Let Them All Talk," "TKO"), its most famous items are probably "Shipbuilding" (a cover of the desolate anti-Falklands number that Elvis and Langer had already given to Robert Wyatt, here embellished with some mournful trumpet by the jazz man Chet Baker) and the macabre "Pills And Soap," another bleakly acute depiction of the current social climate.

By now, anger was less a feature of the songs than pessimism. In parallel, his commercial prospects were frustratingly erratic, although his critical and cult reputations were sound. By his own admission, Goodbye Cruel World (1984) reflects a confused, aimless time. "I Wanna Be Loved," sad and plaintive, was a moderate success, and "The Only Flame In Town" (sung with Daryl Hall) had a mainstream appeal, but the only other exceptional song was "Peace In Our Time." Where Costello had once been savage, he now seemed more given to despondency.

There was, at least, a Great Hits album to buck up the catalogue. The Man: The Best Of Elvis Costello collects 18 first-rate tracks, including Watching The Detectives. Just as interesting, although probably not as recommendable, are two compilations of leftovers, B-sides, alternative takes and general rarities: Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers (covering the years up to 1980) and Out Of Our Idiot (ditto, up to 1987). Each of these packages is variable in quality, and the second one is too long and bitty, at 21 diverse tracks, to digest on one CD. But they both testify to Costello's incredible output. Even now there are some important recordings that haven't made their way on to Elvis's own albums, like his chilly reading of Richard Thompson's "End Of The Rainbow" (donated to an anti-heroin LP last year), or the equally mordant version of "Psycho" (B-side to 1981 single "Sweet Dreams"). And that's discounting his work with other artists (you'll hear him on records by Madness, Eurythmics, John Hiatt and more).

In 1986 Costello came back from whatever brink he'd been peering over and put out not one, but two superb albums. King Of America was made with producer T-Bone Burnett and a fresh cast of players; the three Attractions appeared on only one cut, and the set went out under the name of The Costello Show (the man himself had apparently sent his Elvis identity on holiday, preferring to answer to his old title Declan MacManus, while the sleeve credits his guitar work to the Little Hands of Concrete). Its sound is softer, often acoustic, but rich and varied, and the songs are his most humane and thoughtful: "American Without Tears," "Suit Of Lights" and "Little Palaces" are bittersweet, but touching. The old Avenging Dork was nowhere to be heard.

But Blood & Chocolate, a few months later, could not have been more different. Here was Elvis, back with Nick Lowe and The Attractions, and it was stroppy as hell. The songs stomp and belch. The group plays like a garage band in an almighty sulk, the rhythms thudding with inebriated brutality. Costello's words (he'd now taken to billing himself Napoleon Dynamite) were like the scripts of nightmares: one, "I Want You," takes a theme of sexual obsession into some murderous area of the mind that well-adjusted individuals are not meant to possess, let alone fester in for six minutes 37 seconds.

It's maybe just as well that he followed Blood & Chocolate's remorseless emotional carnage with a long holiday. The most protracted silence of his career approached its close in the middle of this year, when he adjourned to Dublin — with T-Bone Burnett once more — to begin work on his new album, the first to appear under a new recording deal with Warners. And Costello has the satisfaction of knowing that nobody else knows what the hell to expect.

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Q, No. 27, December 1988

Paul Du Noyer profiles Elvis Costello.


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