Saga, June 2009

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Saga Magazine


Calling the tunes

Mark Ellen pays tribute to the multi-talented Elvis Costello, a singer/songwriter who constantly reinvents himself

Mark Ellen

Someone once described Elvis Costello as "rock 'n' roll's Scrabble champion" but, in his typically modest way, he brushed this compliment aside. There is not a lot of competition in pop music, he said. You have to walk a long way to find a four-syllable word.

But it's not just his vocabulary, more the supercharged little dramas he creates. His songs are like movies in miniature: you are hurled into a narrative full of slightly shop-soiled characters — suspect and manipulative women ("Cellophane shrink-wrapped, so correct") and desperate men with "a nice line in character assassination". Now and again he'll throw in a line to send you hurtling in a new direction — "What's going on behind the green elevator door?"

My favourite is a song he wrote when he was 23 called "Watching The Detectives." A forensic squad has descended upon a stately home and you have about three minutes to piece together the fragments of information. The camera pans around — the distraught parents, the missing daughter, the villainous visitor, the innocent and the maybe not-so-innocent. All this tension and mystery he compresses into one short line — "she's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake".

As if this wasn't enough, he's been equally adventurous with his music. Costello is the son of Ross MacManus, singer and trumpet player for many years with the Joe Loss Orchestra and the man who famously wrote and sang the long-running Seventies R White's TV ad about "the secret lemonade drinker", a recording on which his teenage son (then plain Declan MacManus) sang backing vocals and played drums.

In 32 years the 54-year-old Costello has made more than 30 albums, ranging from eye-bulging punk-pop like his big hit "Oliver's Army" to country and western to white soul to sentimental balladry and, eventually, to classical scores with the Brodsky quartet. He is so highly regarded that a platoon of his peers have queued up to compose and record with him, among them Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, Lucinda Williams, Brian Eno and Tony Bennett.

And he has done it again. Costello's latest is a journey back into acoustic American folk, blues and country called Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, and features songs he co-wrote with the great roots music evangelist T-Bone Burnett and the queen of country Loretta Lynn. And his Scrabble-board wordplay is as complex and satisfying as ever. Award yourself eight points when he uses an X, and 10 for the letter Q!


Saga Magazine, June 2009

Mark Ellen profiles Elvis Costello.


2009-06-00 Saga cover.jpg 2009-06-00 Saga page 20.jpg
Cover and page scan.

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Photo by John Cheves.


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