Elvis Costello: A Retrospective

by Jeff Siegel

In the past 31 years, Elvis Costello has recorded 31 albums. This is an almost unbelievable number, and not just because Costello started his career as an angry young man doing New Wave who today is not especially angry, is no longer young, and has called the New Wave "a rapidly dating style."

It is unbelievable because rock stars do not last that long. Those that do, like Bob Dylan, are icons, the touchstones of pop music. The rest get their time on the radio, maybe make a couple of decent records, and become producers or house husbands or stock brokers. Ringo Starr, whose pedigree is longer than Costello's and whose career is 15 years older, has done just two dozen albums.

Yet there is Costello, the man who once told late night TV host Tom Snyder that cheeses mature, not angry young men, with a career that has lasted longer than the Eagles.* And the Eagles were a lot more popular. A lot, lot more popular.

Which is perhaps the most unbelievable bit of all. Costello, for all his missteps — the unforgivable Ray Charles comment, the Saturday Night Live pouting, the churlish interviews, the drinking, and the Lexus commercial — still has it. He is 53 and he can still record an album like this month's Momofuku — hard-edged, relevant, reflective and even a little angry, with songs like "American Gangster Time." It doesn't have the bite of his classic New Wave records (listen to Rykodisc's Live at the El Mocambo to get a taste of that) or the musical perversity of the second part of his career (Imperial Bedroom and King of America, for instance). But it's still the kind of album that would be a career highlight for most bands. In fact, combine it with the Faulkneresque The Delivery Man in 2004, and it is a career for most bands.

Which raises the question: Is it time to look at Costello in the same way we look at icons like Dylan?

I think Costello thinks so. He has always seen himself as being something more — if not better than the rest of the pop world, at least a lot more interesting. His liner notes are literary criticism, he has made classical albums and written orchestral pieces, and he has performed with everyone from Willie Nelson to Fiona Apple to Burt Bacharach. Plus, his tongue has never left his cheek, whether in his lyrics or his public life. Anyone who saw him at the 2004 Academy Awards, walking down the red carpet with Diana Krall, had to wonder: It's a joke, right?

But Dylan is Dylan, someone who changed pop music and pop culture. And Costello? He has not, for all his talent, changed much. If anything, he has been changed. New Wave is dead, and the political and cultural sensibilities that punk and New Wave assaulted are the order of the day. It's one thing to rip Margaret Thatcher, and deservedly, in "Tramp the Dirt Down" off of 1989's Spike. But it's another to make an inside joke about a posh noodle restaurant called Momofuku on that album's CD jacket. The outsider who wrote "Radio, Radio" never would have done that.

None of this takes away from what Costello has done in 31 years. It just makes it a little sadder to watch him do it.

*For those who are counting, the Eagles formed in 1971 and broke up in 1980 saying they would reunite "when hell freezes over." But the band did reunite and released Hell Freezes Over in 1994. The band has toured and released new material since, accounting for about 23 active years of touring and recording together.

(The photo of Elvis Costello in concert in Italy in 2005 is by Marco Annunziata of Italy via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.
More of Annunziata's work can be found at his website or by contacting him at: marcoannunziata@marcoannunziata.com. Elvis Costello resumes his world tour June 21 in Glasgow, Scotland. To see Elvis Costello & the Attractions in a video for the classic "Pump It Up," please check below.)

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