With more than 200 songs to his credit, 80 of which are reportedly ready to go at a moment's notice on his current tour, Elvis Costello has shown himself to be among the most proliﬁc and consistently great songwriters and performers of the rock era. He hit another high-water mark with last year's The Delivery Man, an album inspired by stories and musical styles from the American South.
It's also his ﬁrst full-on rock record in several years. The singer once credited his album King of America to "The Costello Show" (as opposed to Elvis Costello), trying momentarily to reclaim his given name, Declan McManus.
But, in truth, one way he's been able to keep the show on the road for nearly three decades is by moving through phases and stages and changing his musical identity, just as other greats such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young have done.
Here's a quick look at a few of Costello's many and varied moods:
Angry Young Elvis
Costello was never truly a punk rocker. He belonged more to the pub-rock tradition, and "Alison," a song on his debut album, My Aim Is True, was easygoing enough to be covered by Linda Ronstadt.
But Costello's brash attitude was thoroughly punk. His substitution of the caustic "Radio Radio" for the song he was scheduled to play on Saturday Night Live is legendary. Locally, a rift developed between Costello and St. Louis following his bitter dis of radio station KSHE at a 1979 Kiel Opera House concert.
Highlights: "Watching the Detectives," "Radio Radio," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
Besotted as he was with American music, Costello's country move should have been seen as inevitable. But Almost Blue was a surprise when it arrived in 1981, and found him crooning songs like Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams," George Jones' "A Good Year for the Roses" and Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down." His devotion to genuine country music continues symbolically as well as musically: It seems like every time he goes through Nashville, he always plays the Ryman Auditorium, the fabled former home of the Grand Ole Opry. Highlights: "I'm Your Toy," "Honey Hush," "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)?"
In 1996, Costello teamed with legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach to pen the classic "God Give Me Strength" for Alison Anders' ﬁlm Grace of My Heart. Their collaboration was so mutually satisfying that they completed an entire album, 1998's Painted From Memory. He went even further aﬁeld in 2001, when he and opera singer Annie Soﬁe Von Otter released For the Stars, an album of lushly rendered pop songs by the Beatles, Tom Waits, the Beach Boys and Costello himself. Highlights: "I Still Have That Other Girl," "This House Is Empty Now," "God Give Me Strength."
Perhaps Costello's most left-of-center project, his 1993 album The Juliet Letters found him working with the Brodsky Quartet on a series of chamber-pop songs inspired by letters written by unknown strangers to Shakespeare's Juliet Capulet. It was widely panned (or misunderstood — you decide). Costello returned to the classical ﬁeld this past year with Il Sogno, his score for an Italian dance company's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Highlights: "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe," "I Almost Had a Weakness," "The Birds Will Still Be Singing."
As he collaborated with Burt Bacharach, Costello sent the songs to guitarist Bill Frisell, who rearranged them and assembled an all-star band to play them. The result was the 1999 album The Sweetest Punch. Costello also leaned toward jazzy arrangements on his 2003 album, North, and last year upset a large segment of jazz-leaning bachelors when he not only collaborated on Diana Krall's The Girl in the Other Room but he married the pianist- singer as well. Highlights: "Toledo," "Painted From Memory," "When Did I Stop Dreaming?"