NEW YORK — Of all the British punk pub new-wave rockers, Elvis Costello has been about the most successful. Graham Parker and the Sex Pistols have won as much critical praise, but Costello (who was born 23 years ago as Declan Patrick McManus has sold better and has received his lavishly fair share of critical approval, too. As well he should.
His first record last year blended new-wave intensity with a strength and metaphorical richness of lyrics that surpassed any of the competition. As a live performer, Costello was slightly less convincing. His bug-eyed, water-boy image, with its out-of-date, several-sizes-too-big jacket, looked more mannered than compelling, his band sounded rough, and his set wasn't very well paced. But there was much of the intensity that's on the records, and his live shows have been favorably reviewed since. In addition, his new album is not only as fine as the first, but shows him evolving stylistically without any sacrifice in intensity.
"We've sold out a lot of the big cities," he said recently, "but you have things like the box office in Mobile, being open for a week without selling a ticket. Or Detroit: English people are filled with myths about America. We imagined something violent in Detroit, but we played a suburb, and we had a really apathetic audience. We don't want to be a success in just the hip towns. We want to hit the cities in between."
"When we find we can do a perfect set every night, it will be time to quit," said Costello. "People say these odd things to us, like 'You're very professional!' They think we're anarchists. We don't do solos, and I'm not the greatest guitarist, but the others are very good. And as we play more together we get better as a band."
Costello attracted an unfavorable press image because of some deliberately provocative remarks in early interviews — calling Fleetwood Mac "a washed-up old blues band," for instance.