SUNY Brockport Stylus, April 24, 1991
Elvis (Costello, not Presley) may
"I used to be disgusted. Now I try to be amused." — Elvis Costello, 1977
In the middle of the punk-era a bastard-race was born. The angry-young-man songwriter who had all the cynical distaste for popular culture as the punk, but a much more verbose and eloquent way of saying it. Graham Parker, Marshall Crenshaw, Joe Jackson and Nick Lowe embraced rock music's past and funneled their talent to fuse a new wave of songwriting wealth.
Elvis Costello is probably the highest regarded of this "bastard-race." A rather strange looking one at that. One critic summed-up his thick, black-rimmed glasses and overall "nerdy" appearance in 1977 as looking like "Buddy Holly after drinking a can of STP oil treatment."
While working at a "computer job" as he called it, he told Grell Marcus in a 1982 issue of Rolling Stone that he was "taking sick time off of my job just to make My Aim is True." That album came out on Columbia records in 1977.
The album included the seminal guilt-ridden love song, "Alison" and other politically-fueled songs like "Less Than Zero." His relationship-oriented songs focused on teen frustration and early romance. In "Mystery Dance" he sang, "Both of us were willing but we didn't know how to do it." His political satire was timely and devastatingly precise.
His next few albums (This Year's Model, 1978; Armed Forces, 1979 and Get Happy!!, 1980) furthered his songwriting reputation and made a strong touring unit out of his band, The Attractions. Songs like "Pump It Up" and "Oliver's Army" were instant classics.
Although his touring reputation was commendable, he was also known has an extremely moody performer and a heavy drinker. Either you caught him on a great night, or, well, you didn't. A friend of mine (a SUNY Brockport graduate) said she saw him on this campus in the early 1980s and half-way through what appeared to be a fairly drunken performance, he spit on the crowd and left the stage because he didn't like the reaction he was getting from the crowd. At least he earned the "Angry-young-man title."
His image, in several other ways, was waning. In an incident in Columbus, Ohio, he reportedly got into a heated conversation with Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and called Ray Charles "a blind, ignorant nigger." Although he tried to excuse himself in later interviews, he ultimately admitted in a 1982 New York Times article that "there aren't any excuses for saying things like that."
A re-evaluation was inevitable. In 1981, the formidable Trust was released to luke-warm reviews and later that year, Almost Blue was released. That album consisted of old country music covers and failed to stimulate most of his loyal fans.
1982's Imperial Bedroom was a completely different story however. With Geoff Emerick (of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's... and Pink Floyd's Dark Side... fame) engineering the sessions, a whole new technically clean new sound was sculpted to match an equally new batch of innovative songs. His clever wordplays were back with great energy in songs like "The Loved Ones" and "You Little Fool."
With his two following albums (Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World) he began to lose footing once again and misstep in his writing.
In 1986 though, he released the best album of his career, the lovely and poetic King Of America. It was the perfect crossing of his country roots ("Our Little Angel" and "The Big Light"), pop-rock inclinations ("Loveable" and his stunning cover of The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood") and folk leanings ("Brilliant Mistake" and "Little Palaces"). In the semi-autobiographical "Brilliant Mistake," he sang, "I was a fine idea at the time / Now I'm a brilliant mistake."
1986's Blood and Chocolate, he rocked harder than ever, proving that he was still as unpredictable as ever. His latest release, 1989's Spike, again provided his fans with a barrage of new sounds working with many guest artists such as Paul McCartney and The Dirty Dozen Jazz Band. With the release of a new album coming up soon, Elvis Costello is still an artist that may be saving his best work for a later date. He can not be counted out and his influence thus far, is immeasurable. In short, Elvis (Costello) is King!
The Stylus, April 24, 1991
Patrick Stella profiles Elvis Costello.