By Eleni P. Austin
Has there ever been a more adventurous musician than Elvis Costello? He began his career in the mid ‘70s redefining the Punk/New Wave paradigm and subsequently delved into a plethora of musical idioms like Soul, Country, Classical, Jazz, Baroque Pop and Bluegrass. He’s collaborated with everyone from Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, the Beastie Boys, George Jones, Tony Bennett, Allen Toussaint, Los Lobos, the Specials, the Pogues, the Roots, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Squeeze, Anne Sofie von Otter and Chet Baker. Plus, he’s played with a Country-Rock Combo, a string quartet, symphony orchestras and his two stellar backing bands, the Attractions and the Imposters.
Elvis was born Declan Patrick McManus to Ross and Lillian MacManus in 1954. His dad was a Jazz trumpeter who became the featured vocalist for the Joe Loss Orchestra (kind of England’s answer to Glen Miller). His mother managed a record shop. An obsessive Beatles fan, he began collecting records as a kid.
Once he hit puberty, Elvis began writing his own songs. Because he had been exposed to a wide variety of music, early influences included everyone from Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to the Grateful Dead, Randy Newman and the Band. At age 16 he was half of the Folk duo, Rusty, then three years later he fronted the Pub Rock band Flip City. But by 1976 he struck out on own initially using the moniker D.P. Costello. (Costello was a family name on his mother’s side).
The year Punk broke, in 1977, Elvis was making music that straddled Pub Rock and Punk Rock. A new husband and father, he was working as a computer programmer at a cosmetics firm to make ends meet. He acquired a manager, the pugnacious Jake Riviera, who re-christened him Elvis Costello, several months before the King of Rock N’ Roll met his inglorious end perched on his throne. Riviera had also co-founded STIFF Records, which released Great Britain’s first official Punk record from the Damned.
Elvis used up his sick days from work to record his debut in under 24 hours. His backing musicians on the sessions was Clover, an American band from the Bay Area that later found fame as Huey Lewis’ News. Entitled My Aim Is True, the record was produced by ex-Brinsley Schwartz bassist, Nick Lowe. (He went on to produce Elvis’ next five albums).
Jake Riviera decided to employ some guerilla tactics to increase his visibility. When CBS (ne’ Sony) Records was holding a convention in London, Elvis showed up with an acoustic guitar and began busking in front of the company’s headquarters. The gamble paid off and he signed with the label. He quickly assembled a backing and band, the Attractions, with Steve Nieve on keys, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas (no relation) on drums. Then the four-piece set off to conquer America.
In quick succession, they released a series of crackling and loquacious albums that highlighted labyrinthine wordplay and stylish song craft. The band rode the crest of New Wave (a less strident side Of Punk), and their first three records completed Elvis’ “angry young man” phase. By his fourth effort, the Soul-tastic Get Happy, it became apparent he wouldn’t be confined by one musical style or genre.
In 1981, Elvis raised the stakes considerably by heading to Nashville with the Attractions to make an honest to goodness Country record. Enlisting producer Billy Sherrill and a wolfpack of traditional Country pickers and players, he cut tracks that were originally hits for George Jones, Patsy Cline, Gram Parsons, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, Sr. He had thrown down a gauntlet to his fans, inviting them to explore other musical styles with him. It was only the beginning.
A year later he released the brilliantly Baroque Imperial Bedroom, which seemed inspired by Cole Porter and the Beatles in equal measure. The following year, Punch The Clock took it’s cues from creamy Philadelphia Soul, adding backing vocalists and a horn section to the mix.
It seemed like his musical reach was limitless, King Of America, produced by musician T-Bone Burnett and recorded in 1986, authentically tackled the Country and Folk idioms. Blood And Chocolate, released that same year offered a blistering set of concise Rockers. In 1989 he delivered Spike which featured collaborations with Paul McCartney, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Allen Toussaint, the Chieftans and Chrissie Hynde. Two years later, Mighty Like A Rose embraced the elegant Pop craft of ‘60s bands like the Left Banke.
In 1993 he collaborated with the Brodsky String Quartet, creating The Juliet Letters, an extravagant song cycle based on imaginary epistles written to Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, “Juliet.” Then he doubled back to the make two records with the Attractions, Brutal Youth and All This Useless Beauty in 1994 and 1996, respectively. As the ‘90s closed he made a brilliant record with buttery ‘60s tunesmith, Burt Bacaharach. The pair had come together to collaborate on a song for director Allison Anders’ Pop music valentine, “Grace Of My Heart.” The result, “God Give Me Strength,” became the catalyst for writing and recording 1998’s Painted From Memory.
The year before he was inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, Elvis recorded When I Was Cruel with his new backing band, the Imposters, which featured Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and new bassist, Davey Faragher. A caustic back-to-basics album, it was met with enthusiasm from fans and critics. Naturally, 2003’s North charted an opposite course, offering up a Jazzy set of Sinatra-esque ballads that reflected the dissolution of his second marriage to Pogues bassist, Cait O’Roarke and his unexpected romance with Jazz chanteuse, Diana Krall. (The pair married in late 2003).
The next year saw the release of an Americana effort, The Delivery Man recorded in Clarksdale, Mississippi and an orchestral record, Il Sogno. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Elvis reconnected with Big Easy legend Allen Toussaint and recorded the Crescent City-flavored River In Reverse. 2006 was also the year that Elvis and Diana welcomed twin sons, Dexter and Frank. Two years later, as he was adding guitar and vocals to Jenny Lewis’ second solo effort, he felt so inspired that he booked studio time for the Imposters and cranked out his Momofuku album on the spot. 2009 saw the release of Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, a Bluegrass effort that reunited him with best pal and producer T-Bone Burnett. A year later they collaborated again on the elegantly eclectic National Ransom album.
Three years later, Elvis was at his most experimental, writing and recording Wise Up Ghost with celebrated Hip-Hop collective The Roots. The record featured new songs as well as some deconstructed and recalibrated Elvis hits from his voluminous back catalogue. An unlikely collaboration, it ended up a spectacular artistic success, garnering positive reviews and managing to debut at #16 on the charts.
In the last five years Elvis has continued to tour at a furious pace. In 2015 he wrote an autobiography of sorts; Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. In the midst of his most recent summer tour he experienced a health scare that forced him off the road for a couple of months. Luckily, he had already recorded a new album, Look Now, his first with the Imposters in 10 years, and his 29th studio album overall. (Untangling Elvis’ entire discography would necessitate a whole separate column, but an informal count of studio, live albums, compilations and soundtracks totals in the mid-40s.)
The record opens with an insistent drum beat, thrumming bass lines, pounding piano and peppery horns. “Under Lime” marks one of the few times Elvis has explicitly revisited a character from a previous song. In this case, the protagonist is Jimmie, a ne’er do well musician originally found in “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” on the National Ransom record. Here he’s found some success and is making a showbiz comeback. With a few deft strokes, Elvis’ economical language lets the listener know exactly what Jimmie’s current situation is; “It’s a long way down from the high horse you’re on when you stumble and then you’re thrown.”
Turns out, Jimmie’s become a bit of an entitled prick, fully taking advantage of a young girl assigned to mind him till show time. Although this track was written a couple of years ago, it fits right in with a MeToo narrative, even as a blustery trumpet fanfare, twinkly piano, timpani beats and hearty bah-bah-bah vocals give the melody a Fab Four insouciance.
A couple of tracks here, “Unwanted Number” and “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter” were written over 20 years ago, but never really fit the records he was making at the time. The former, written for Allison Anders’ “Grace Of My Heart,” a film that that limned the experiences Carole King had in the ‘60s as part of a songwriting team and then striking out on her own as a solo Artist/singer-songwriter. Originally written as a Girl Group pastiche and recorded by The R&B trio For Real, the song wed socially conscious lyrics to a lissome Motown-flavored melody.
Elvis’ version feels more defiant; the instrumentation, powered by strident piano, a Funk Brothers-style rolling backbeat, elastic bass lines and angular electric guitar. The lyrics navigate the pitfalls that accompany teenage pregnancy with a measure of poignance and grace; “There’s a local game where they whisper my shame, they say ‘He gave her his child, he wouldn’t give her his name’/They will torture me from January to September, and I will give my love to another unwanted number.”
Fittingly, the latter was actually co-written with Carole King. Blending icy keys, a galloping beat, gritty guitar, scratchy bass lines and a blowsy horn section, it splits the difference between ‘80s New Wave and ‘60s Soul. It almost feels like a sequel of sorts to “Unwanted Number,” as the lyrics paint a vivid portrait of a single mom who feels emotionally bankrupt. This neatly turned phrase speaks volumes; “She’s out on her own with the rest of her riches, while the kids paint him out of the refrigerator pictures/She picks up the bill, pays off the babysitter ‘cos everybody knows burnt sugar is so bitter.”
A few songs reunite him with Burt Bacharach, typically, the results are magnificent. “Don’t Look Now” is a plaintive piano ballad that is stripped down to just piano, guitar, unichord, bass and a tick-tock drum beat. Elvis is achingly vulnerable as he quietly instructs “Don’t look now, I saw you shoot that glance, I said ‘don’t peek at the sway of my dance, at the length of my cheek’”
“Photographs Can Lie” is equally tender. Burt himself sets the mood, with his wistful piano intro. The smooth and supple melody is accented by waspish guitar and a thwoking hi-hat rhythm. Elvis quietly slips into the skin of a disillusioned daughter who discovers her father’s serial infidelities. As she gazes at her parents’ photographs she wonders if she will inherit his wandering spirit. “See him now, know he cheats, Why can’t she see right through him? He used to be more valiant than vain.”
There’s no real overarching theme to this album, but the best tracks seem to focus on quiet, intimate moments in everyday lives. “Stripping Paper” is particularly eloquent. Lush brass and woodwinds color the edges of the agile melody, as Steve Nieve’s towering piano runs nearly eclipse Elvis’ poignant vocals. Once again, he assumes a feminine point of view, this time, a woman reconsidering her marriage, as she removes wallpaper from an old bedroom.
Like an aural pentimento the lyrics recall every nuance; from the first blush of romance; “there in the mess of it all, he took me right there in the thrill, not quite against my will, with my back to that rococo wall,” to the playful comradery of the early days; “he complimented my taste, I anointed his serious face with wallpaper paste, I wish we could laugh like that now.” to the children they raised; “here’s the pencil of a measuring mark, and a monster she spied in the dark.” It’s probably one of his most beautiful and Evocative lyrics, recalling the desolation of “Long Honeymoon” from his Imperial Bedroom album.
“I Let The Sun Go Down” takes a more temporal view. Here an ex-military man reflects on the era when England tried to colonize the world. Mournful French horn flutters and wows over a sweeping string section, acoustic and electric guitars and an array of keys. He seems to take it all far too personally as he implores the listener; “Stay awhile, delay the night, I’m too young for twilight, they’d tell the sun to hesitate, that’s when Britain was great/Now the lights are flickering, my pulse is quickening, all over the world lamps will dim and never be seen again.” It’s tempting to think this song was somehow inspired by the Brexit vote in 2016.
“Why Won’t Heaven Help Me” is a stylistic 180, that harkens back to a Swinging ‘60s, Bachelor Pad style. Swivel-hipped rhythms connect with wah-wah guitar, tensile bass lines and all manner of keys; Fender Rhodes, Vox Continental organ, plus electric and grand piano. Despite the finger-poppin’ cool arrangement, Elvis is anxiously looking for some divine intervention; “I set off alarms and fire off flares, ‘cos sometimes they answer prayers/I’m listening I wait for a distant bell to ring.”
Meanwhile, “Suspect My Tears” maneuvers through an emotional minefield with a Bacharach-fied finesse; a wash of strings pool and eddy around electric guitar, celeste, vibraphone, pianos electric and grand, mellotron, Wurlitzer, pliant bass and a rock steady beat. Wary of lachrymose displays, he figures two can play that game; “If you hear me weeping I may be cheating or just laughing inside/If you’re suspicious that I’m sly and vicious, here’s your chance to decide, two hypocrites collide.”
Other interesting tracks include the fractious “Mr. And Mrs. Hush” and the conversational see-saw of “Dishonor The Stars.” The record closes with a final Bacharach collaboration, “He’s Given Me Things.” Lush instrumentation envelopes this brittle torch song, but all focus is on Elvis’ tender croon as he unfurls an epic monologue meant to assuage an ex-lover’s feelings. Naturally, the language is verbose, but the sentiment veers from kind to cruel; “I’m living up here and you can see me, yes you can look, but you can’t touch/’Cos you don’t belong, the air is thin here, you may asphyxiate my dear.” Whew. This song quietly devastates much like the snarling “I Want You” from his Blood And Chocolate album.
The action ends there, unless you pony up the dough for the deluxe edition of Look Now. (Do It). That adds four bonus tracks, the mournful lament of “Isabelle In Tears” which features only Elvis and Steve Nieve. “Adieu Paris (L’Envie Des Etoiles)” is a buoyant and breathless souffle that would fit in nicely in a romantic montage for a sequel to Disney’s “Ratatouille,” (that’s a compliment). “The Final Mrs. Curtain” is a slab of slinky Film Noir, employing the kind of lithe instrumentation that rivals ‘70s era Steely Dan. To paraphrase Katharine Hepburn in “The Philadelphia Story,” it’s pretty fuckin’ yar.
Finally, the supplementary disc closes with the gorgeous “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way.” The song originally appeared in the breathtaking Annette Bening movie, “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool.” Here, Elvis manages to capture the romantic frisson of the forbidden May-December between actress Gloria Grahame and her twentysomething paramour. Sweeping and grandiloquent, it closes out this collection in style.
Look Now is dense and cinematic, easily his most satisfying album since When I Was Cruel. As always, the Imposters are worthy musical foils. The edition of backing vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Brianna Lee up the ante considerably, providing a sympathetic Greek chorus. Throughout his career, Elvis has consistently followed his muse and charted his own course. Luckily, he always invites us along for the ride.