In what has been a wonderful year for young British musicians, Elvis Costello has set himself up, with a nod and a wink, as our quirkiest newcomer. But don't be deceived by the packaging. Costello's record company may have changed his name, exploited his gawkiness, and sold him as the kid anyone can kick sand at, but his music is not a joke.
Costello is a craftsman. His debut album, recorded before he had a band or a stage act, was designed by producer/mentor Nick Lowe to showcase his songs and they are, indeed, impressive. A master of ambiguity and cliche, pun and precision, Costello is an astonishingly adept writer. He has the confidence to defy conventions of rhyme and grammar and metre and imposes his own syntax on the world. If reviewing were the same thing as essay grading, I'd give him As for sheer cleverness.
But, while I admire Costello's skills, I'm uneasy about what he does with them: There's something oppressive about his music. When I first heard his album — released in Britain six months ago — I thought my tetchy response was too subjective to make critical sense: Maybe I was just jealous that such an ambitious rock intellectual had made it. But the first time I saw him perform, 15 miles from my home in England, in late October, my uneasiness grew.
My immediate problem Was with Costello's image. His name and pose suggest a joke: Here was this week on stage, acting the star, calling himself Elvis. How ridiculous! But this was not how Costello saw himself. He took himself entirely seriously, bristled with self-righteousness. Faced with the person and not the image, my sense of the ridiculous faltered. Costello was grim: his frustrations — physical or otherwise — were no laughing matter.
Costello himself has always been explicit about the role of revenge in his work, but what I find disturbing in his songs is not their anger but their fatalism. "Watching the Detectives," greeted in Britain as Costello's masterpiece and added to the U.S. LP, makes his position clear. Using the Jamaican dub mixing techniques in which instruments fade in and out to create an aural dissociation, Costello coldly describes the come-uppance of a girl who was more stuck on TV heroes than on him. In his frustrated, vengeful imagination her absorption becomes literal: She vanishes through the screen, with real detectives looking for her! For Costello her fate is neither funny nor ironic: it is deserved. Yet at the same time it's not really a fate at all, because nothing has really happened — for her, the distinction between TV and reality has dissolved. "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake" — trashy drama merges with trashy life, equally real, equally false.
"I was raised on romance," Costello begins on "Pay It Back," and it's obviously true, because he's obsessed with the disillusion that has resulted. Having based his hopes on the myths and fantasies of pop and been let down accordingly, he now trusts nothing and nobody. "Everything means less than zero," he concludes in a song sparked off by the appearance of the old fascist Oswald Mosley on a TV talk show. Rather than being annoyed by the specific lies of fascists, Costello is taken with the insidious notion that nothing matters.
Throughout the album you can hear the consequences of this idea: doomed relationships, empty lives, futile emotions. "I'm not angry," Costello sings, angry about wasting energy on anger. "Blame it on Cain, don't blame it on me!" he chants. "There's no such thing as an original sin." "I used to be disgusted; now I try to be amused," he asserts and it's the credo of a pop obsessive, locked in his room with his facts and his fanzines, so upset that the world isn't like his record collection that he never bothers to take his headphones off at all.
The problem is how to make music out of such loneliness, and it was this problem that Costello hadn't solved when I first saw him. He stood, stone-faced, center stage, as his band, the Attractions, played competent hard-rock backing tracks. Costello's own performance was monotonous and wearing; there was no pace to his show, no movement. The obvious comparison was with Graham Parker, musically and even emotionally similar, but pushed by the Rumour into exhilarating displays of life and faith.
But what I hadn't realized then, what only became clear at Costello's far more satisfying show at the Bottom Line last Tuesday, was that the pub-rock/ Parker analogy was wrong. The Attractions are a teenage rock band. By the time they reached New York the simple-minded organ (courtesy of ? and the Mysterians) was out front, Costello had switched from muttered rhythmic strummings to an aggressive punk lead, and the band whipped through their set with no fuss, Ramones-style.
Costello still didn't smile but, for the first time, I heard his anger as a positive as well as a negative emotion — "Alison," for example, was sung with real sensuality, and in a new song, "Radio Radio," he seemed to be attacking specific people rather than the human condition, acknowledging that things may be changeable after all. Costello's individualism is still intense, the audience still doesn't sing along, but he has, pop fan to the last, learned lessons from his punk peers. In any other year, Costello would have remained another clever, selfish, bitter singer/songwriter. But in 1977 musical power in Britain is drawn from collective energy, and Costello, whether he likes it or not, is part of a new rock 'n' roll utopianism. He's going to have to start having some fun soon.