A funny thing happens when you learn to control your rage – you can hit your target that much harder. Armed with a cooler perspective – and more solid evidence – you can find in maturity a ferocious resolve.
Ask Elvis Costello. His career epitomizes the escalating power of focused vitriol. Kicking off his career as the brainiest angry-young-man of punk, Costello’s early records punctured pop hypocrisies with undiluted power. For purity of contempt, he will never outshout This Year’s Model.
By 1981’s Trust, however, Costello took a different tack, waging a campaign to sing as well as he screamed. When he piled on more adventurous song structures (on 1983’s Imperial Bedroom) , and speeded up his already dizzying pace of releases. Costello sacrificed a hefty chunk of his audience. But 1989’s Spike reversed that, giving him his first gold album in years. More importantly, it found Elvis detailing his unromanticized view of life with a more deeply nuanced voice than ever. It was an advance no amount of practice could have insured. Something emotional must have clicked.
The excitement of that emotional leap continues on Costello’s latest release. If it doesn’t represent an advance, it’s only because one can’t imagine him writing or singing any better than he did on Spike. Musically, he’s still genre-hopping – and getting away with it. This time he romps through everything from a foggy British traditional ballad (Broken) to a loopy oompah (Couldn’t Call It Unexpected). But there’s also stuff as instantly embraceable as the instructional How to Be Dumb, whose sheer rousing power recalls stuff from (gasp!) Armed Forces. In general, though, the record favors grand ballads, sweeping and lovely, in gorgeous contrast to Costello’s brutally honest lyrics.
In The Other Side Of Summer, Costello offers a poignant counter-point to the Beach Boys’ view of life (suggested retitle: California Screaming). But he also adds the balancing line, “there’s malice and magic in every season.” Likewise, in All Grown Up, he first skewers a woman for glamorizing her pain and resigning from life (“you haven’t earned the weariness that sounds so jaded on your tongue”), then soothes her with the line: “take a look at yourself/you’re still young.” Perhaps his most artful writing, though, in Georgie and Her Rival, where he details in a manipulative pull between two people that performs important functions for each, though they have almost no actual contact.
In the end, though, what’s most impressive about Costello’s writing is how confidently he nails life’s allusions to the wall. In Couldn’t Call It Unexpected, he may sing about “the sudden chill when lovers doubt their immortality.” But he makes that moment sound as helpful as it is fearful.
Elvis Costello’s new album favors grand ballads, sweeping and lovely, in gorgeous contrast to his brutally honest lyrics.