"It is not inconceivable that Costello could be president in the same way that Dylan used to be president, or that Bruce Springsteen could be president if he wasn't smart enough not to run." — Charles Shaar Murray, NME, Jan. 6, 1979
Kings are crowned, but presidents must be elected — at least, they're supposed to be. Journalistic coronations have granted the screaming pop throngs monarchs like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Entertaining figureheads, sure, but these Machiavellis have spent most of their time figuring out what their subjects want and selling it back to them. Sometimes, though, entertainment isn't enough. Music fans need an artist who's willing to tread unknown emotional ground, making it safe for listeners to follow. We need a leader, a president.
Back in 1979, though, Costello was just 24, too young and unfit to serve as president of anything. Sure, at the time he might have embodied a lot of Britain's discontent, while making music influenced by almost every corner of the rock electorate. But he was a punk, his music fueled by anger, and as Howard Dean reminded all of us, anger does not a president make.
Twenty-five years later, as Costello tours the U.S. to support his most recent album, North, the bespectacled Brit has become the right musician for the job. Once a paranoid and unpredictable character, holding his guitar like a gun on the cover of My Aim Is True, the singer has grown into a man who seems capable of living within his emotions — instead, that is, of obliquely commenting on them with wry lyricism. North, despite its indulgent faults, offers melodic, measured songs that show off Costello's soothing baritone. Anger is still a part of Costello — but now it's not the only emotion driving his art. North isn't an epiphany, as the album lacks the focus and freshness that come with risk-taking, but rather offers the culmination of more than 20 years of musical exploration.
Always a connoisseur of all styles of pop, Costello took his first step in what would become a long and varied path of pop experimentation with Get Happy!! in 1980. While filled with his trademark cynicism, the album was essentially a soul album, pulling its influences from the sounds of Stax, Motown and Southern soul. The skinny white punk made the music work, and, from then on, anything was possible. While the albums weren't always a commercial or critical success, Costello dipped into various genres like country (Almost Blue) and folk (King of America) while pumping out more pop albums.
Suddenly, in 1992, Costello stepped out of the pop canon to collaborate with the Brodsky Quartet, writing the classical song-cycle The Juliet Letters. The man who has once penned the lyrics, "Sometimes I think that love is just a tumour/ You've got to cut it out" was writing classical music. This sudden shift proved Costello's uncanny talent, as well as how unconcerned he was with what popular audiences or his fanbase thought of his work. Instead he seemed to be in a desperate search for an absolution of the "revenge and guilt" he once famously credited as the muse of his early career. That motivation led the songwriter later to collaborate with chamber-pop icon Burt Bacharach. And eventually, after his wonderfully jarring return to rock (When I Was Cruel) and the courtship of his now-wife, jazz vocalist Diana Krall, his life and music led him to North.
When Costello plays the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Tuesday, he and Steve Nieve of the Attractions will be playing simplified arrangements of his newest songs, his set list padded with highlights from almost every part of his catalog. On this tour he's been playing his 1978 ode to masturbation, "Pump It Up," two songs after "I'm in the Mood Again," the final song on North.
In "Pump It Up" Costello sings words written by a younger, angrier man: "Though you try to stop it/ She's like a narcotic/ You wanna torture her/ You wanna talk to her." "I'm in the Mood Again" shows that same man 25 years later, weary but wise: "I don't know what's come over me/ But it's nothing that I'm doing wrong/ You took the breath right out of me."
Costello's anger was once his artistic center. Now his music reveals that the singer has found some tranquility, evolving into a man who can pair pain with peace. And any person who can understand the roots and necessity of these two emotions is equipped to lead the masses, be it in song in a large theater, or in thought in the wider world.