Earlier this year Elvis Costello celebrated his 50th birthday; last month Nick Cave was 47; just before Christmas Tom Waits turns 55. All three affect the raffish accoutrements of bohemian gentlemen of an earlier age — a porkpie hat here, a cane there, a very specific number of buttons on a jacket. In due course one of them may well sport a hearing aid or spats. None of these albums has a picture of its author on its front for fear off startling potential buyers. Elvis, never slow to make off with the critic's opening line, describes his new record as "the kind of rock and roll that a man of my age can play without embarrassment."
As three middle-aged men they would make a plausible enough trio. Costello and Waits share some musical antecedents and have debated together in print. Their career paths, which zigzag from the dive bar to the concert halt, have occasionally intersected. Being younger, and Australian to boot, Cave is chippy by comparison. However it's still possible to imagine all three passing an afternoon in the corner of a dusty Greenwich Village bar like the White Horse Tavern, drinking red wine, smoking cheroots, discussing harmonicas or the works of J.P. Donleavy, breaking off from time to time to look at the TV above the bar and muse over what hath been wrought by MTV or Donald Rumsfeld.
In an earlier era of songcraft, Cave, Costello and Waits would have been backroom boys in some Brill Building, fashioning the silver bullets for others to fire, their names and faces familiar only to enthusiasts and the comber, of — sleeve notes. Indeed none of them has managed to reach an accommodation with the central currency of the popular musician's trade, which is popularity. There's something ornery about all three that means the adoration just runs off. In one of those defining quotes which have become his specialty Waits said "I don't cut the ribbon at the opening of supermarkets. I don't stand next to the mayor. Hit your baseball into my yard and you'll never see it again." He's proved himself ready to go to great lengths to protect his privacy and his art. He's spent time in court preventing the advertising industry from using his distinctive vocal sound to sell corn chips (Dorito's with "Step Right Up" in 1990) and cars (Audi in Spain with "Innocent When You Dream" in a case still going on) rather than just lying back and taking the cheque. In the words of the ad man who once offered Waits a Diet Coke commercial, "you never heard anyone say no so fast."
The opening line of the press release accompanying his Real Gone, which appears two years after the simultaneous release of Alice and Blood Money, describes it as "unpredictable", which is like hiring a man to walk ten paces in front of your vehicle waving a red flag. Certainly it's hard to imagine an album constructed in a more laborious fashion. Because ho wanted to achieve a fresh voice Waits didn't use the piano on which he's composed most of his tunes since the early '70s. Instead he fashioned rhythm tracks from a mouthful of his own air (eschewing loops, often huffing and puffing the entire track live), then built the compositions on top of these with his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan, sometimes also calling upon the turntablism of his son Casey and finally weaving in the work of his usual live band. It sounds like, well, it sounds like a Tom Waits album. But if you're not familiar with that you could imagine Howlin' Wolf rendering the speeches of Winston Churchill in rhyme — in a smithy.
Much of Real Gone is from the more tempestuous end of Wait’s emotional weather chart – "Hoist That Rag" draws previously unsuspected reservoirs of spit from his voice; there isn't a radio station in the world that would programme something like "Shake It" daytime for fear of simply breaking their transmitter — but there are islands of lyricism such as "Dead And Lovely" and the closing Iraq war song "Day After Tomorrow." (However it seems curious here that the young soldier is sitting down actually penning a letter when all the rest of his troop seem to have gone to war with their Hotmail accounts and digital camera.) Even after a dozen listens Real Gone doesn't yield its secrets easily, though there are lines that few in his trade could equal, such as the one in "How's It Gonna End" about the girl who "sank like a hammer into the lake." You have to hear the way he delivers it.
While our trio of songwriters can't produce a university degree between them, they are all educated, articulate and more than usually comfortable with words. Waits is the child of teachers, Cave's parents were a teacher and a librarian while Costello was brought up in a house full of music of every stripe. By the standards of their profession all three are cultured, curious, well read, proper. ('While we're at it, although all three are also fathers it's impossible to imagine any of them doing simple Dad things like standing at the bottom of the stairs and being comfortable with the words "are you planning to get up today?')
All three keep one foot in the warm shallow water of the mainstream and the other in the chillier reaches of art, with much of what that entails. Waits has been involved in adaptations of Brecht, Cave has published a well-received volume of fiction while Costello is the first pop singer to have his records released under the imprimatur of Deutsche Grammophon. In their efforts to showcase their versatility they have often thrown the market a curve too many. Which is a shame. Some of those record buyers disposed to pass on products with names like Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' Abattoir Blues are missing out on a surprisingly easy-to-listen to balladeer, a man eminently capable of lines that would make André 3000 blush. My favourite here comes from "Babe You Turn Me On" and goes "I put one hand on your round ripe heart and the other down your panties."
Both Cave's albums (the other is called The Lyre Of Orpheus) come in the same wrapper and the nice differences between the two are unlikely to grow apparent this side of a general election. The keynote here is "There She Goes, My Beautiful World" which invokes Philip Larkin, Johnny Thunders and St John of the Cross in its general call to the whole creative community "if you've got a trumpet, brother, get on your feet and blow it." Its nearest musical kin is the kind of pop/gospel, which turns upon happy-clappy night on Songs Of Praise. Thanks to the members of the London Community Gospel Choir who provide vocal settings throughout the records, this is anything but insipid. In the opening "Get Ready For Love" their blaring impetus seems to come from above rather than via anything so narrow as a microphone. On "Nature Boy" (which Cave was candid enough to admit was an homage to Cockney Rebel) they lift the middle eight sufficiently clear of the floor that it's possible to dust under the drummer. At its best it’s a torrent of joyful sound.
Elvis Costello's new album arrives between North, his difficult to love album of chamber pop, and on the same day as Il Sogno, a recording of his ballet music with the LSO and Michael Tilson Thomas. Like Cave's it owes a lot of its appeal to the presence of what we sniffily call "backing vocalists." Emmylou Harris adds her silver harmonies to three songs while Lucinda Williams performs a riotous duet with Costello on "There’s A Story in Your Voice," which provides the album's signature track. He includes a version of "The Judgment," which is better than Solomon Burke's and the corking single "Monkey To Man," a long overdue answer to Dave Bartholomew's ‘50s hit "Monkey." As ever the listener is tempted to beg Elvis to just lay back off it from time to time and sit the next verse out as we simply enjoy Pete Thomas's majestic percussion and the funky knowingness of Costello's hand. Nature doesn't abhor a vacuum half as much as Elvis does.
All three artists have tried to sneak up on the recording process and catch it out, in the hope that the results might break one of their moulds.
Costello's original plan was to maintain freshness by making camp in the town of Oxford, Mississippi, recording with The Imposters by day and playing in front of an audience at night. This didn’t work out, although the record was made in Oxford's Sweet Tea studios. The plan to make the album a narrative about the intersecting lives of three women living, in the words of one song, "Either Side Of The Same Town," was also abandoned. The songs remain and so the character Ivy of "Nothing Clings Like Ivy" also turns up in the title song and there are references to the one man who touches each of their lives. However there's nothing to throw the casual listener spinning the CD his way round the M25.
In pop it's better to let the audience make such connections themselves in a leisurely fashion over a period of time rather forcing them to set out on a prescribed path with a lyric sheet, a compass and a packed lunch. No matter how energetically the artists make their art we listen in a very lazy way. Things seep into our subconscious over the months but we only give them the opportunity if we like the record's sound. If you're an iTunes shopper then you might pick "There's A Story Your Voice" and "Country Darkness" from Costello's album; "There She Goes" and "Nature Boy" from Cave's and "Hoist That Rag" and "How's It Gonna End" from Wait’s and then go on from there.
But what do they all do next? There is simply no precedent in pop music for the careers that these three artists are, let's suppose, two-thirds way through. Waits has made 20 albums; Costello has made far more; Cave is younger but not far behind. They each have their faithful constituencies, their web stalkers, their personal me; but maybe their days of being big noises behind them. This may suit them; the influence their music could well grow, as their personalities loom less large. Putting so much energy into being loved cannot be good for the soul. Maybe they can move into the backroom. For instance maybe at some future date a young genius from a genre beyond hip-hop will work out what to do with the rheumy noise, which Tom has originated. Across all these records are songs which publishers would like to see forced upon the legions of bandleaders who are under the impression they can compose. That probably won’t happen. These records will each tickle some kind of chart for a few weeks, a few more people be drawn towards these artists by the serendipity of the internet and the printed word; one of them will get nominated for a Grammy; MTV Awards will pass them by in favour somebody far less deserving; records will not be broken; governments will not fall; the world will continue to turn.
The one unfashionably cheering thought you can draw from the honesty and substance of these records is the fact that, despite decades of dire warnings about accountants taking over the music business and our culture's growing obsession with flesh and novelty, their authors seem to be able to pursue their trades without any obvious interference from corporate paymasters. As a wise man once said, you should be successful enough to be allowed to continue. Down in White Horse Tavern they should be drinking to that.