Village Voice, November 11, 1986

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Declan divides and conquers

David Edelstein

Elvis Costello and friends

From October 21 to 25, at the Broadway Theater, a guy called Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus flung open his trunk and took inventory of his masks, poses, props, and musical styles. What a collection: a cool lounge lizard; a cocky singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar and a load of dippy travel slides; a gospel raver, itching to bare his tremblin' heart and bottomless soul; a teasingly sexual r&b monarch; half a legendary hillbilly duo; a smartass game show host; and lo, the star of the show, a snarling upstart with an oxymoronic moniker — "Elvis Costello."

The characters overlap, of course, but they don't coalesce into one, harmonious performer. That's not a criticism, by the way. If they had fit together, there'd have been no need for Costello Sings Again.

October 21
Trying to look Italian to the musical Valium.

Played on tape, the overture to each evening is "Big Nothing." a spaghetti-Western songspiel with a Celtic heart. MacManus wrote it for Alex Cox's degenerate shoot-'em-up, Straight to Hell (in which he plays a butler), and it's probably meant as a ceremonial "Fuck you."

Billed simply as "Elvis Costello and the Attractions," the first night is a streamlined version of the shows since Trust: Costello, in solid black, stares dead ahead, speaks little to the crowd, and barely pauses to acknowledge applause. The night is about making it all look easy, and musically the performance is flawless. The sounds that come out of Costello's mouth are as liquid as any he's produced — we know this is one of rock's most expressive voices, and we're almost convinced that it's beautiful, too, that even its bleats and plateaus give pleasure. Gone is the twisted punk with the splayed-out legs; this is Pee-wee Sinatra, who won't dance but now and then manages a sinister mince in the audience's direction, silencing it with a stiff little finger to his lips; who can croon, "You belong to me," so that you nervously check the exits.

From the start it's clear he'll be singing his songs, not living them. As Costello's voice has grown more confident — drifting up and down the scale without spitting or biting the ends off words, quivering out that last little note as if, in Greil Marcus's phrase, "to suspend it in the air" — his seductive melodies have lost the edge that once carved their meanings into our brains, even if his punning style made the lyrics tough to puzzle out. You knew what he was singing about, even if you couldn't diagram it.

MacManus has a grasp of how music and lyrics interact — not just to heighten each other, but to collide and make sparks, so that the tension in the song becomes its meaning, and the singer becomes a character in a larger drama. The classic Costello dehumanizes to keep from being dehumanized; he lives in a world of gorgons turning each other to stone. As a crooner, which he is tonight, Costello underplays the emotions that detonate his songs — the tension is gone, the Mouth Almighty zipped. It's as if Elvis Costello has nothing more to say.

October 22 and October 23
I'll wear it proudly.

Declan MacManus will not shut up. He chatters from the moment he enters, twirling an umbrella with a map of the world and showing us travel slides — cityscapes, a sphinx with a Snoopy head, nudes, African relics, all a backdrop for almost an hour of solo warbling and loose talk. He's a droll stand-up, not so much for what he says as for what he might say next, and he gets in some good ones at MTV (a KGB plot to neutralize the American teenager) and Rolling Stone reviewers (dedication: "Your Mind is on Vacation But Your Mouth is Working Overtime").

When the music starts, we meet MacManus the Pale, with no band or persona to hide behind. This is a man, his wits, and his occasionally lagging guitar; his fingers aren't as quick as the heart he's trying to sing from, and that adds to our sympathy. We get a delectable "Heathen Town," his jaunty update of "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat"; the Hollies' "King Midas in Reverse"; and "Poor Deportee," a rescued, decelerated number from the swamps of Goodbye Cruel World, which even MacManus has called "a load of wank." Less formal than the '83 solo tour, this is a chance to watch him fool with his songs and see how far they'll stretch; he's a guy in the shower having clean, bubbly fun.

After awhile, he's joined by his King of America producer, T Bone Burnett, and MacManus becomes half of the "Coward Brothers," a pair of c&w "legends" who dredge up all the hog-callin' hillbilly clichés. The set is mercifully brief, and on straggle the Confederates — guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff, drummer Jim Keltner, keyboardist Mitchell Froom — session aces who, on King of America, helped MacManus overcome his acquired weakness for layers of studio crap.

Each brings something special to the party, hammering away at the melody with a casual expertise that's in moving contrast to MacManus, who has to struggle to measure up. Arms flailing, he pours himself into Percy Sledge's "It Tears Me Up" and into James Carr's gospel rave-up, "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man," gnashing the lyrics like a man who's swallowed poison, digging deep into his chest for the little-boy-bawling-In-the-night sound that Costello stumbled toward in songs like "Big Tears" and "Riot Act."

You can see why MacManus loves country-western. He's a genuine melancholic, something of a fatalist (a sure sense of loss, in his case), and country embraces those sentiments but makes them tongue-in-cheek, too, part of an honorable pose. MacManus needs the trappings. He's like a breed of English actor who works best when he starts out with a costume and a specific set of mannerisms. It's our American, Method-acting prejudice (and a certain snobbery about the roots of rock 'n' roll) to think a song most swell fully formed from the heart. Almost all the songs in MacManus's repertory are inspired by other numbers, but damned if I'd heard Lennon's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" in the wistful "New Amsterdam" until he sings them together, making clear the connection between these waltzing melodies with lyrics that warn you to put on the brakes.

Musically, the second night is the high spot of the series, and watching MacManus squirt out those chords and kick ass with the big boys, it's hard to imagine him ever coming down — that is, until the following night, when he looks and sounds sickly but sings through his block, risking flat notes and quavers. He then wins the crowd with a solo stint at the piano (people think he can't play the guitar), lovably bungling a requested "Almost Blue" and making like Burt Bacharach with some new and old torchy originals.

When the Confederates return, the show is back where it was the night before. But some people are never satisfied — behind me, a guy keeps yelling for "Pump It Up." Broadly speaking, Elvis Costello's crowds are divided between the worshipful and the boorish; the loud minority, no matter the context, bellow things like, "More rock 'n' roll!" ("This is rock 'n' roll," says MacManus, with surprising patience. "You just gotta know when to rock and when to roll.") MacManus is not exactly intimate with his Yank fans to begin with, and these braying asses encourage him to regard his American audience as uniformly crass and inflexible, and to address it in a Romper Room tone.

Tonight's character would never play "Pump It Up," because King of America is in a different spirit, Instead of a poison-pen letter, it's an exquisite threnody for a lost America — or an America that never was, except in the hearts of romantic young fools. "America Without Tears," "I'll Wear It Proudly," and "Sleep of the Just" go down like lullabies; and, at the end of the last Confederates show, MacManus wipes the sweat away and leaves us with the words, "God bless you." This, I swear on the grave of Elvis Costello, was spoken sincerely.

October 24
Glitter Gulch.

Elvis Costello rises from the grave for the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook," the show they raved about in L.A., where John Doe and Tom Waits cohosted. The master of ceremonies is MacManus himself, as a snotty character called Napoleon Dynamite, who shanghais audience members to spin the wheel of 40 "hits." The lucky winner has the choice of dancing for us in the go-go cage (where "Kitten McCracken," Costello's wife Cait O'Riordan, twists in a red wig and short tasseled dress) or drinking vintage Gatorade at a makeshift bar. He tends to urge them into the cage. "Phil," he tells a plump businessman, "I can see you're a dancing kinda guy, and, heaven knows, we'd like to see you in that cage." Heaven knows, Napoleon's an asshole.

Unfortunately, the wacky, freewheeling spirit does not extend to Elvis Costello and the Attractions, who play like wind-up dolls — strictly strict time. The gimmicks in-between are what this show is about, and the amiable pace wanes with the first guest host, Buster Poindexter (a last-minute replacement for Daryl Hall), whose Catskills shtick plays like Jack Benny without punchlines. Costello, confined to singing, looks increasingly glum.

The second host, Penn Jillette from Penn & Teller, is just what the mad doctor ordered. He quickly begins to abuse Costello for the less-than-spontaneous music: "Rip-off comes to mind when I hear this shit," be fulminates, dragging Costello around by the collar. Penn orders him to do Prince's "Pop Life," which turns out to be one of the evening's high spots. Then Penn presses his luck. He ties a red kerchief around Costello's head and commands him to play like "the greatest rock 'n' roller in the world" — whereupon Costello drops to his knees in agony. When he regains his composure, he gets up and banishes the Ugly American from the stage.

Real or faked, the moment offers the pleasure of seeing the rabidly anti-American Costello pushed around by a boorish patriot. This is King Kong versus Godzilla, and it's a shame Costello is too tired to duke it out a while longer. He should play "Born in the U.S.A.," if only to point up the essential difference between him and Springsteen, who embodies the idea of molding a crowd into a community, where all our differences disappear and we clap and cheer with one voice. Costello's songs equate chanting crowds with fascism and night rallies; on the last night, he enters for his first encore in clerical robes, as if to ram home the absurdity of a rock preacher and his flock. Elvis Costello is a character, not a messiah — his impulse is to dissect and divide.

The Spinning Songbook is a nice try. What's saddest about it is not the unrealized comedy, but the desultory music — it suggests that the Attractions are a spent force, and that MacManus should ditch the Costello persona altogether and nurture his fledgling theatrical instincts.

October 25
I don't wanna kiss you, I don't wanna touch.

From the first blast of those springy, air-raid drums on "Tokyo Storm Warning," the Attractions are electrifying, and Elvis Costello is as potent as he was in '78, when his music didn't have this kind of sweep. It's as if, having channeled his other impulses into the four previous nights, he can now be the EC to end all ECs, and it's thrilling to see him in Full Snarl.

This is echt, pop-and-loathing Costello, casting a cold, evil eye on the assembled and spitting lyrics like curare-dipped projectiles. The sorrowful "New Lace Sleeves" is hissed with a rage born of innocence spat on; "Kid About It" carries the urgency of a lad who's finally learned the mystery dance and won't stop pestering his partner until he hears his (low) score. This is not a man "getting it all out," but pulling it in until it twists and deforms him, and at the height of his anger his foot kicks spasmodically out in back of him, like an irate mule. The new songs, from Blood & Chocolate, click right in.

Costello returns to old terrain on Blood & Chocolate, but with more theatrical intentions than usual: the album is a lush and lurid B-movie boiled down to essential riffs — a love triangle and a murder. All the songs serve this plot, even the stroboscopic "Tokyo Storm Warning," with its illicit lovers on a nightmare honeymoon, finding absurd emptiness around the globe and coming home to the same refrain: "What do we care if the world is a joke? / Give it a big kiss / Give it a poke / Death wears a big hat / Cause he's a big bloke / We're only living this instant."

The shifting points of view give us songs that could be characterized as high-angle, low-angle, subjective camera, and shot-counter-shot. "Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" presents a wounded lover from a fly-on-the-wall perspective — a sardonic overview of a terminal handwringer. Suddenly we're in the man's head for "I Want You," one of Costello's masterpieces. With spare, sinuous accompaniment, the song is a baby-come-back-to-me monologue that curdles, returning over and over to "I want you" like a stuck needle, until it's clear that the baby is irrelevant; what matters is that something once his belongs to someone else. ("It's knowing that he knows you now after only guessing / It's the thought of him undressing you or you undressing.") And then there's a song from the other man's perspective: the cock-of-the-walk pop tune, "Blue Chair," in which the rival is sympathetic to the other fella's plight but not enough to relinquish his squeeze.

Both ironic and sincere, Blood & Chocolate is gorgeous in an acid, creepy-crawly way. Only one song sticks out, a harshly chorded tale of woe called "Battered Old Bird," which Costello introduces in concert as the story of the boardinghouse he grew up in. It belongs on Blood & Chocolate, because its anguished, unresolved melody points to the genesis of Elvis Costello, the character: the little boy who lived in a house of quiet desperation, where everyone obliterated their despair with drug-induced pipe dreams; the boy who, unlike his neighbors, had "better have a dream that goes beyond four walls." That dream was to be a Frank Sinatra and Hank Williams, and also like his swing-band leader dad; and it drove a man as scared and private as Declan MacManus — who didn't have the cords of a Williams or Sinatra — to fashion his Frankenstein's monster.

Elvis Costello (green skin, neck-bolts, and all) remains MacManus's greatest creation, a new rock 'n' roll archetype. That's a little subversive, since serious rock fans tend to prize direct, indigenous music above all else; whereas to love Costello is to accept that a pose can be heartfelt — especially when the artist can embrace it and blow holes in it at the same time. "I Want You" epitomizes his stance, and it's the summit of his concerts. He did it the first night in a key of despondency, and it didn't quite work; tonight, the snarl triumphs. These are clearly the feelings of a fevered adolescent, but few have dramatized them with as much precision or helped us to recognize them as clearly for what they are. Costello's vision might seem clouded, but MacManus's aim is true.

At the end of "Poor Napoleon," the lone song of the third encore, Costello stands erect and expressionless beside his wife, his guitar held like a pitchfork — this is the British new wave's American Gothic. A slow strobe and a deafening mash of organ and guitar create a wall of sound and light, until Costello hurls his guitar pick to the floor and stalks off angrily. The feedback kills any further applause, like a big, ambient "Fuck You." Elvis Costello is himself again.

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Village Voice, November 11, 1986

David Edelstein reports on the Broadway Theatre stand of the Costello Sings Again tour, October 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25, New York City.


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Illustrations by Philip Burke.
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Illustrations by Philip Burke.


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