What the hell is wrong with Elvis Costello?
That question’s been raised a few times by the British singer/songwriter’s personal antics — most acutely when he uttered a racial slur against soul-music fundamentalist Ray Charles (a drunken act of provocation) and when he got fat, grew a beard, and started to pal around with Jerry Garcia (still inexplicable). But mostly it’s been prompted by the seemingly unpredictable turns he’s taken with his music, including his latest album, a collaboration with classical mezzo-soprano Annie Sofie von Otter.
To members of Generation W, or whatever people in their 30s and early 40s have been labeled, Costello is as beloved a tunesmith as Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Lennon-McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen. His first three albums, My Aim Is True (part of the initial stage of a Rhino Records campaign to reissue Costello’s entire catalogue that began this week), This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces, remain an indelible part of the lives of many who came of age in the late ’70s and early ’80s. "Alison," "Less Than Zero," "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "Pump It Up," "Accidents Will Happen," and "Party Girl" capture the sweetness and defeat of that era. Within them echoes the period’s push-and-pull moral conflict. It was a time when hope, until then one of the fundamental parts of America’s character, was slowly corrupted and destroyed by Reaganite cynicism. It was the last dance and quiet finish of cultural and social progressivism in the Western world. Those songs, though not overtly political, are the sound of hearts resisting a Teflon cage, pushing back against the rise of the ugly, plastic times in which we now live.
If you think that’s imposing too much significance on a handful of lovely pop numbers, at least acknowledge that Costello’s first two and a half years of recording yielded the most consistent body of work from the so-called new-wave genre. Tunes like "Alison" and "Party Girl," aren’t just great rock songs. Go back and listen to Costello’s sweet guitar tone, airy arpeggios, and jazz melody fills in the familiar "Alison." Hear the subtle way the chord changes put a lace overlay on the straight rock-ballad drumming. Note the countering bass lines. Revisit the way Costello’s vocal phrases dip into the naked emotionalism of great blues and jazz singers, pulling syllables into lemon taffy threads, softening and burring as he turns sad and angry, trying to sort out the warmth, desire, and regret of the lyrics. These songs announced the arrival of a giant — likely the last great pop songwriter of the 20th century. Their assimilation and transformation of a variety of styles, done with deliciously subtle craftsmanship, has rarely been equaled. It’s not unreasonable to compare Costello’s best efforts to the classic American tunes of the Gershwins or Cole Porter, penmen who provided material for the greatest popular singers from Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald to Billie Holiday.
On 1989’s Spike, Costello’s most popular album, we find similar craftsmanship in his wordplay and wry social commentary in the character portraits of "This Town" ("Mr. Get-Good moves up the self-made-man row though he swears that he’s the salt of the earth") and the mordant yarn "Let Him Dangle." Those are easy reference points, but others abound. Spike and the surprisingly sensitive 1996 CD All This Useless Beauty, in which Costello explored some of his most romantic themes even as he was breaking up with his on-again off-again band the Attractions, have also just been reissued by Rhino. Companion discs will be released with these albums and My Aim Is True featuring live tracks, studio leftovers, and other prizes from the period in which they were recorded. The real meat, however, remains the original albums. They are all first-rate; the additional material is simply bait for completists’ dollars.
Nonetheless, hearing Costello sing on demos and raw covers of pop gems like "You’re No Good" illuminates his virtues as a vocalist, which have been overshadowed by his dazzling songwriting and arranging. He was already a superb singer when he made My Aim Is True. But the test of a great throat has always been the ability to transform another’s song into something dear and intimate. In this he also excels. His recordings of Robert Wyatt’s touching lefty polemic "Shipbuilding" and Rodgers & Hart’s "My Funny Valentine" are comparable to the ballad recordings of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Costello relishes each syllable, caressing it with breathy intonations, sculpting notes into sustained hornlike tones, pausing and accelerating phrases to add emotional weight. And there’s a pure beauty to his voice that isn’t always obvious in the role playing he brings to his own tunes. These are the performances of a singer with the ability to elevate small works of lyrics and melody to high art full of vocal grace and even welcome grandstanding.
Another mark of a great artist is the need to explore and grow. And this is where Costello has gotten into trouble with his fans — especially those married to his early albums with the Attractions. Although his first three LPs, 1980’s Get Happy!!, and his other work with the Attractions (except for All This Useless Beauty) are ostensibly rock recordings, Costello has never seen himself as merely a rock artist. Right from the start those jazz chords and lyric inflections in "Alison" went against the sonic and sentimental grain of the punk trend. Costello has always labored as a torchbearer for a distinctly American school of songwriting defined not only by Leiber & Stoller, Doc Pomus, and the like, but by the Gershwins, Porter, and, from time to time, even Leadbelly. If his modulations, bridges, and vocal delivery didn’t make that clear from the start, then it certainly crystallized around 1981 with Almost Blue, his album of Nashville classics. In England that disc’s single, "A Good Year for the Roses," became a Top 10 hit; here Costello was tarred as a heretic for deserting the rock he commanded in favor of music he had no birthright to record.
Almost Blue has some brilliant vocal performances, but it’s the point where Costello truly began to alienate many of his fans. He has continued to do so, or at least to confuse and confound expectations, with regularity ever since. Rock has remained part of his agenda, yet he has fired and rehired the Attractions several times, recorded with the other Elvis’s backing musicians on King of America, collaborated with Paul McCartney and a New Orleans brass band and avant-gardists Mitchell Froom and Marc Ribot (all, remarkably, on Spike, his best-seller thanks to the McCartney co-written "Veronica"), made CDs with the Brodsky String Quartet and with Burt Bacharach, and written an album of songs for British pop singer Wendy James. This spring he put out For the Stars (Deutsche Grammophon), his collaboration with classical-music star Anne Sofie von Otter.
All this has not gone down easy for various factions of his supporters, including the record labels that have wanted him to make pop hits. Yet it’s only natural for an artist with Costello’s reservoir of talent to want to explore. Growth is the mark — and the compulsion — of a great musician, and his mastery of pop song form was already complete when he arrived. His interest in American roots genres, essentially the guts of all popular music as we know it, led him to make recordings like Almost Blue and King of America. Since then he has sought new ways to fill the gaps of his musical experience. In McCartney and Bacharach (he made Painted from Memory with the latter in 1998), he sought out the strongest living connections to the art of the Gershwins and Porter. In Wendy James’s Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears (DGC), he met the challenge of writing an entire album for another artist. With 1993’s Brodsky Quartet collaboration The Juliet Letters, he approached classical music and writing a concept album. And now with Otter and For the Stars, he seems to have married many of his interests into a performance that’s mostly seamless and beautiful.
Fans of his work with the Attractions may not be much enamored of For the Stars, but it is a graceful album with lyrics by Costello, Tom Waits, McCartney, and even Abba. Born in the rock world, these words sound nonetheless comfortable in beds of piano, horns, and strings assembled into something resembling a very soulful lounge band with the chops to incorporate elements of jazz and classical music. Otter’s performance sounds a bit formal to rock-and-roll-raised ears, and yet her tones are so soft, her phrasing is so unhurried, her enunciation so flawlessly chiseled, and her command so relaxed and complete, that the overall effect is like a lullaby. Costello’s voice adds a bit of velvet fur to Otter’s pure crystal on six of the 18 songs. Save for Ron Sexsmith’s "April After All," which suffers for its obvious use of rain imagery and rhyme schemes clumsier than those of Costello and the disc’s other writers, For the Stars is a soothing balm.
"Soothing" is a word that will make many of his fans bristle, but nearly 25 years into his career Elvis may no longer feel any desire to please them. That is his right, and it’s fair to say he has already given more good music to the world than have most pop stars. It’s also fair to say he has not received the rewards he deserves and has every right to be frustrated with the music industry. He is a smart man who surely knows how good he is. Despite a wonderful body of work, Costello has had only two Top 40 hits in America: "Everyday I Write the Book," from 1983’s Punch the Clock, which peaked at #36, and "Veronica," his biggest hit at #19. Unlike Townshend, Dylan, Berry, Lennon-McCartney, Wonder, and Springsteen, he has never had a million-selling record. What he possesses, instead, is something rarer: the undiminished creative energy that feeds the curious soul of a true artist.