Vancouver Province, April 9, 2012

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Vancouver Province

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Elvis Costello no easy read


Tom Harrison

There are two ways to interpret Elvis Costello's claim that My Aim Is True.

One is that it's a lie.

In the intervening years since the 1977 release of My Aim Is True, Costello hasn't been true to his punk songwriter roots, having delved into rhythm and blues, country, classical, folk, jazz and bluegrass.

He's collaborated with T-Bone Burnett, Paul McCartney, the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint, Madness, Sofie Van Otter, the Metropole Orkest and a full symphony orchestra.

He's been an actor (briefly appearing as a magician with an inferiority complex in the film No Surrender), composed soundtracks, produced (Squeeze), been a writer for hire (Wendy James) and a TV talk show host (Spectacle, which had an extraordinary reach for the informed music fan).

Costello also has been challenging in concert, accompanied by various bands, notably The Imposters, solo with loyal keyboard player, Steve Nieve, and currently with a stage show with a game show aspect. In a carnival-like atmosphere, fans are invited onstage to spin a wheel bearing song titles. Wherever the wheel stops the band plays the song indicated. Thus, the set is in a different order every night, encompassing, say, "Tokyo Storm Warning]]" or "Allison," the latter track being the one that features the line My aim is true. And that is, if those specific songs are on the wheel.

The other way to interpret Costello's claim is to accept that this is what Costello intended to do all along, if allowed.

He's been true to his own desire and interest, bringing everything back to music. Despite all his wanderings into different genres, giving in to his enormous curiosity, Costello has returned to his original songwriter identity, though a little more experienced and craftsmanlike, with albums such as Brutal Youth, The Delivery Man or National Ransom.

These only confirm the depth of his talent but can't hope to recapture the original exhilaration of My Aim Is True or its exemplary sequel, This Year's Model. Unlike anyone who has been as prolific as Costello and been around for several decades, he can't be taken for granted. The breadth of his various projects might reflect boredom — a desire not to repeat himself — but they also reflect the confidence in himself.

When he appeared at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in 2010 as part of a Neil Young tribute produced by Hal Wilner, Costello added a little rock and roll attitude to an otherwise great night of music that spoke well of Young but perhaps was too respectful. Costello did what few had done, he made Young's songs fit his style, which for that night was swaggering and a little arrogant.

So, his aim was true that night, taking us back to 1977 when he was called an angry young man and “Prince Charmless.”

However, that image was a deception.

Costello was born Declan MacManus, who got his feet wet listening to pub-rock bands such as Ducks Deluxe, Bees Make Honey, Chilli Willie and The Red Hot Peppers and, notably, Brinsley Schwarz.

Pub-rock was an antidote to 1970s arena-rock and a precursor to punk, a kind of transition from hippie values to an antistyle.

It embraced the old rock and roll from the '50s, rhythm and blues, country and roots forms — all things that Costello subsequently explored. By the time of My Aim Is True, McManus was Elvis Costello, so named by manager Jake Riviera, who himself was formerly known as Andrew Jakeman. Riviera was behind the formation of the Stiff label that released Costello's album and was in on the punk movement.

The album was produced by Nick Lowe, formerly of Brinsley Schwarz, managed in the band's later years by Riviera. Before forming The Imposters, Costello was backed for My Aim Is True by Clover. Clover was an American band (latterly including Huey Lewis) that was becoming known on the English pub-rock circuit.

As Elvis Costello, he was cast as a punk, like it or not, with a pseudonym guaranteed to stir up some controversy. It also created an image that he likely had trouble living up to. He has been able to survive it by constantly doing the unexpected, and that ultimately has enabled him to live it down.

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The Province, April 9, 2012


Tom Harrison profiles Elvis Costello ahead of his concert with The Imposters, Tuesday, April 10, 2012, Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver.


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