NEW YORK — Years ago, former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth speculated that rock critics must love Elvis Costello because most look like him — presumably meaning nerdy, bespectacled and unlikely to appear in videos featuring women in bikinis or cages.
Costello, now 47, still appears much the same as he did back in 1977, when his debut album established the singer-songwriter as a critics' favourite. But in truth, some have never forgiven Costello for maturing — that is, evolving beyond his punk-pop roots and applying his talents to a wide array of projects and styles.
Over the past decade, he has collaborated with artists ranging from progressive classical outfit the Brodsky Quartet to the Jazz Passengers and gospel group the Fairfield Four. His more recent recordings include the Grammy-winning Painted From Memory, for which he co-wrote songs with Burt Bacharach, and a CD Costello produced for the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Poll any group of pop pundits, though, and at least one or two will say they pine for the raw energy that defined his late-'70s oeuvre.
"What they don't understand," Costello muses of these skeptics, "is that even the 'rawest' kinds of music they point to were usually not done as mindlessly as they would like to believe. They're musical conservatives, really, because they're scared of any idea of music beyond their understanding."
Ironically, such conservatives may enjoy Costello's new CD, When I Was Cruel, as much as more open-minded fans. Full of bracing tunes and taut, rugged arrangements, Cruel, which came out last week, may be the closest thing to a rock 'n' roll album Costello has released in years.
In addition to kicking off a U.S. tour on May 18 (he plays Seattle's Paramount Theater May 19; there's no Vancouver date), he is planning to record his first orchestral score, Il Sogno, which was originally commissioned by an Italian dance company and will be performed at UCLA in July. Costello also co-wrote a song with his wife, Cait O'Riordan, for seminal soul man Solomon Burke's upcoming album.