Elvis Costello is an angry young man at a time when there would appear to be little demand for angry young men. The matter is complicated by the angry young man's desire to be a pop-music star, which Elvis Costello wants to be, whether or not he is willing to admit it, which is unlikely.
Costello appeared to be the brightest hope of those who welcomed the "new wave" in this country a year and a half ago, and he still appears to be the brightest hope, even though he has a few serious handicaps that have restricted the amount of appeal that Columbia Records feels he is capable of generating.
Those involved in the promotion of Costello are banking heavily on the bespectacled British rocker's third album, Armed Forces, which is now in the stores.
The general feeling is that if Elvis Costello is going to make it big, now is the time. Costello has relented some in the stand he took with his first two LPs, which had minimal production. Costello maintained that the lyrics of his songs were what counted, not instrumental prowess. No one in his band was permitted a solo spot on any of the Costello recordings.
Accordingly, Costello's first two LPs were dashed off in less than a week's time.
For Armed Forces, Costello and his group — now named the Attractions spent a month in the studio with producer Nick Lowe, a rock producer-musician of considerable note. As a result the new album is far more accessible than the previous efforts, although the production is still relatively low-key.
Realistically, this is probably not a do-or-die moment in Costello's career. Considering his handicaps, the first two LPs did moderately well, and prospects for the new one look quite promising. It made its debut on the Billboard best-seller charts the first week in February in the No. 85 spot with a "bullet" (meaning that rapid upward movement is expected).
The chief distinction between Costello and most of the rest of the new wave is that Costello is deadly serious about his music.
He is not interested in producing inane music that sells mainly because it is high-energy.
From a technical standpoint, Costello is certainly the best of the new wave. It is music with a message, mid the message is invariably an angry one.
Angry music, of course, is not exactly in vogue these days. Pop music seems to be dedicated mostly to fluff.
Costello hardly fits the popular image of rock music heroes, since he isn't sexy or vulgar. Costello looks like someone who might work out your income tax.
Although such things should not really stand in the way of talent, there are any number of female artists who will tell you that looks do count.
Another problem is Costello's personality, which has not proven to be among the more lovable in interviews and on stage. He has demonstrated boundless arrogance in his evaluations and judgments. Even the choice of his professional name, Elvis, can be interpreted as an act of arrogance.
Ultimately, there is the question of Costello's singing voice, which is not especially pleasing.
Still, Costello could reach the stardom many have predicted for him. It could happen because of the heavy marketing, which now even includes a new photo that toughens the Costello appearance a bit with leather jacket and dark shades to go along with the customary Costello scowl.
If he does find stardom, it will probably be because the public tires of the silliness it is being fed by the record industry and takes to Costello as the closest thing to reality.