An artist, as opposed to an entertainer, is someone whose work continues to improve as he gets older. That's true in every media, but especially in pop music. How often do you find yourself saying, "Their new record's OK, but their early stuff is better"? The ability to produce better and better music, I think, distinguishes an amazing band (Talking Heads, Radiohead) from dinosaurian has-beens (The Rolling Stones).
Those few performers who age well and whose oeuvres continue to blossom — and I'm not talking about popularity or album sales, but about the quality of the music — are the ones that make that ontological leap from Pop Star to Artist. And I mean artist in the Picasso and Kubrick and Chekhov sense of the word.
Now seeing this is meant to be a discussion of the mildly schizophrenic career of Elvis Costello, who
continues to shed identities like so many snakeskins, I'd like to apply this calculus to his two new releases. The Delivery Man (Lost Highway) is an alt-country jamboree while II Sogno (Deutsche Grammophon) is an orchestral score for a ballet production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
So how does one gauge the quality of a recording? That's for you to decide. You're going to like what you like and hate what you hate and no egghead critic can tell you different.
Personally, however, I enjoy art that doesn't mirror the culture in which it's created but instead attempts to attack and undermine that culture. That's quite a challenge when recording for an entertainment appendage of a multinational conglomerate. It's never possible for an artist to step fully outside of the corporate system, but the kind of artist I'm talking about here is one capable of understanding his own complicity with the machine and pointing the middle finger at himself first.
So when I ask myself, Is II Sogno better than This Year's Model, what I mean is, Does II Sogno play along with the mainstream culture or does it resist it as well as that great early record with The Attractions did? I contend, right now, that II Sogno is among the greatest recordings of Costello's already stellar career but unfortunately, The Delivery Man represents a rare lapse in judgment from a performer whose body of work demands that we consider it as art.
II Sogno isn't art because it's on the venerable Deutsche Grammophon label. It isn't art because it represents yet another change of direction from the most peripatetic rocker of our time. What makes II Sogno so powerful is that you won't hear anything else exactly like it. It's classical-sounding but it also seems to take potshots at the classical music industry. Like all great art, it acknowledges its own artifice. Forget rock opera. What we have here is the first punk symphony. Aging punk, sure, but punk all the same.
Costello has traditionally written his best music when working with strong, vivid stories. Give his Spike record another listen, especially "God's Comic," or Painted From Memory, the one he did with Burt Bacharach. So Shakespeare makes a logical bedfellow, and II Sogno isn't the radical departure you might think. It's a recording that will appeal equally to longtime fans of Elvis Costello or of Aaron Copland, and it demonstrates that those aren't necessarily different demographics.
Even without the snarl and bite of his vocals, Costello's voice is all over this. The tone colors and the chord progressions those tight, polished elevations and tumbles sound like Costello's three-minute dramas writ large, for orchestra. You will hear traces of "Pump it Up" and "Almost Blue," along with evidence of the innate musical sensibilities that makes his music as powerful and vital now as it was 25 years ago.
For The Delivery Man, the follow up to the Canadian-inspired ballads of North, Costello sought inspiration in the honky-tonk tradition of the American South. Country music isn't new territory for him, but these jam sessions down in Mississippi never seem to take off. The whole album sounds forced to me, in part because the focus is on trying to get "authentic" sounding tones; the storytelling isn't there not of Shakespeare or even of Johnny Cash or Stoney Edwards or Roger Miller. It sounds like a bunch of rich Englishmen got together to spend a weekend slumming and attempting to get in touch with someone else's roots.
Costello's ensemble on this project, The Imposters, sounds like an Attractions cover band that ran out of material during the fourth set at a sawdust roadhouse. Only longtime keyboard accompanist Steve Nieve does a superb job of finding the precise tones necessary to hold the otherwise scattershot songs together. Lucinda Williams lends her voice to a track called "There's a Story in Your Voice," but the only true gem is Costello's stripped-down duet with Emmylou Harris, of all people, called "The Scarlet Tide." It's the last track of the disc, and it leaves us to wonder what could have been.
The leapfrogging from hillbilly to classical to whatever else seems almost reasonable given Costello's seemingly endless musical curiosity. I'm not suggesting that I want him to attempt to reconcile those afferent facets of his artistic persona or to start making the same kind of songs year after year.
Few artists have a voice distinctive enough to create continuity and consistency across so many seemingly divergent projects. Ray Charles comes to mind. Miles Davis. So if Costello wants to keep rockin' out and convincing himself that a fire still burns in his belly, that's fine. But at some point I hope he recognizes that he doesn't need to play loud to produce immense heat. If II Sogno is any indication, his best music may be yet to come.