The finest English songwriter to emerge from the nuclear culture blast of punk, Elvis Costello arrived with a spray of ferocious pop songs and an attitude he expressed as the capacity for only two emotions: guilt and revenge.
He did, in fact, explore a much wider range, dedicated to a vision of subversive pop which was as radical in purpose as it was classical inform. With his spider's legs and Buddy Holly glasses, Costello compressed emotional fire and lyrical agility, and came to symbolise an anger and intelligence which had a longer reach than the short-fuse nihilism of punk.
His arrival in Sydney in 1978 saw a minor riot ensue after a blistering but more than brief 58-minute set. In later years Costello made up for it with generous shows here, but, in keeping with the spirit of the times, he was an unrepentant egotist bent on shaking up expectations which had laid lazily in place for way too long. Entertainment was an issue in itself.
An undeniably superb lyricist, and richly versed in music which embraced everything from jazz to a love for Motown soul and country 'n' western, Costello has certainly fallen short of his ambitions at times. Some of his wordplay has been too self-consciously smart for its own good, while albums such as Almost Blue stand as hit-and-miss excursions into musical areas (ie, Nashville and country) better left as flavours than full-blown genre explorations.
Nonetheless, his 12-album career stands as a powerful summation of the history of pop and its classical roots. And the experiment of Almost Blue helped pave the way for its successor, the lushly-orchestrated, near-Beatlesque masterpiece, Imperial Bedroom.
Much later, in 1985, Costello returned to Nashville to refresh his vision after a creative slump, this time with the help of a group of legendary session musicians he dubbed The Confederates. Among them were some of Elvis Presley's TCB Band, two of whom James Burton (guitar) and Jerry Scheff (bass) will accompany him on this tour to Australia, along with Benmont Tench, the keyboardist from Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, and drummer Jim Keltner.
But Costello was no doubt further inspired by his production work with The Pogues, which led to love and, more recently, marriage to their former bassist, Cait O'Riordan.
The acrimony the relationship caused with The Pogues, and the way a typically voracious English media swooped on it and an earlier off-the-rails Costello, has possibly influenced his current no-interviews stance. A pity, when Costello is so articulate and his career such a metaphor for the ups and downs of the whole post-punk artistic agenda in Thatcher's Britain. Certainly, production work on The Specials' "Free Nelson Mandela" and songs like "Pills And Soap," "Peace In Our Time" and "Shipbuilding" indicate Costello to be a very acute commentator on a wide political front.
His most recent album, and arguably his best, Blood And Chocolate, continues Costello's return to form. Co-produced by his old cohort Nick Lowe, who will be his opening act in Australia, Blood And Chocolate evokes the early savagery of recordings like "Pump It Up" with a maturity of vision and recording polish that never obscures the heat-seeking rawness.
Costello's return to form, his adventurousness and razor conception of pop promise to present us with a tour of rare intelligence and range. That the sheer volume of his output has sometimes waylaid achievements into the miasma of pop's endlessly consuming banality should not delude old fans of his very real renaissance. One of pop's best artists is back with the thorny beauty of songs which remind you how radio can still be the most dynamic instrument a life can come into contact with.
Elvis Costello is at the Entertainment Centre on December 3 and the Newcastle Civic Theatre on December 6. For a chance to win his latest album, The Best of Elvis Costello, see Freebies, page 5.