Smashing all boundaries: The music of Elvis Costello

Jacksonville.com: Heather Lovejoy: April 25th, 2012

To some, Elvis Costello’s 35-year career may come off like a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. When the tail lands on the gut, he unleashes an angry anthem. Near the heart? Time for a ballad. On a hoof? Must be the cue for a ballet. Right on the rear? How boring.

Not knowing what to expect is about the only thing you can expect from Costello. That, and his unmistakable, nasally voice. And a myriad of hats, nerdy glasses and a sardonic wit.

Versatility and a seemingly insatiable artistic curiosity have led the Englishman from new wave to Nashville to pop standards. But Elvis Costello is always Elvis Costello, no matter what he records.

He’s been accused of having repeated identity crises, but perhaps that’s unfair.

Pick up a music geek’s iPod and put it on shuffle. Island calypso might be followed by anarchist British punk, which might then transition to an Appalachian flat-picking masterpiece. It’s not necessarily a sign of uncertainty or lack of opinion, but instead can point to a listener rapt in the wonder of music itself.

As Costello has said as host on his television show, “Spectacle,” he’s simply a guy who really, really loves music. Without limits. Maybe the only difference between him and the music geek with the erratic playlist is that he's not just a listener. He’s also a creator.

He'll share his songs tonight at the Florida Theatre with his band The Imposters.

THE NEW WAVER

Having abandoned his pub-rock roots and birth name, Declan MacManus, he exploded onto the angry youth movement in England in 1977. It was the same year the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” was released, and punk and new wave were rising side-by-side. As the two genres became more defined, Costello’s pop sensibilities aligned him stylistically with new wave. Just as with punk rock, the genre was marked by anti-government sentiments, disgust with societal institutions and what was considered a superficial and consumer-driven culture, expressions of sexual frustration, and an overall radical discontent. Costello, with his band the Attractions, was a major player.

LISTEN TO

“Watching the Detectives” from “My Aim Is True,” 1977
“Pump It Up” from “This Year’s Model” (with the Attractions), 1978
“(What’ So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” from “Armed Forces” (with the Attractions), 1979

THE BALLADEER

Even as a new waver, Costello was writing slow ballads. His croon crops up throughout his discography, but is most clearly and easily recognized on some of his 1990s efforts, including “All This Useless Beauty” and “Painted From Memory,” the latter being a collaboration with singer/composer Burt Bacharach. He’s never been 100 percent rocker, so while it may seem out of character, it’s really not. Just a few years before the Bacharach album, his cover album included tunes by a couple of king-crooners, Randy Newman and Mose Allison.

LISTEN TO

“Alison” from “My Aim Is True,” 1977
“I’ve Been Wrong Before” from “Kojak Variety,” 1995
“God Give Me Strength” from “Painted From Memory” (with Burt Bacharach), 1998

THE COUNTRY/?BLUEGRASS PICKER

Costello is hardly strictly a bluegrass man. On a couple of albums produced by T-Bone Burnett during the past few years, he displays a slight bluegrass bent, dabbling a bit with musicians who helped provide twangy and jangly picking. But on his album of country music covers, “Almost Blue,” there's a distinct jazziness. Plus, with his non-traditional songwriting, and distinct and decidedly non-bluegrass, non-country sounding voice, every song has an undeniably Costello feel. If you want to hear a true bluegrass album, pick up something by Flatt and Scruggs.

LISTEN TO

“Sweet Dreams” from “Almost Blue,” 1981
“Complicated Shadows" from “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” (with the Sugarcanes), 2009
“National Ransom” title track, 2010

THE CLASSICAL MUSICIAN

Classical music is a challenge few pop artists dare (or even care to) undertake. Not Costello. His artistic vines grew into chamber music for his project, “The Juliet Letters,” with The Brodsky Quartet providing instrumentation. It was not a one-off classical music experiment. He later composed a chamber music score to back a narration of the children's story “Tom Thumb,” and completed a full-length orchestral work, “Il Sogno,” a ballet inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” The ballet debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's classical music chart.

LISTEN TO

“I Almost Had a Weakness” from “The Juliet Letters” (with The Brodsky Quartet), 1993
“Hermia and Lysander” from “Il Sogno” (performed by the London Symphony Orchestra), 2004

THE JAZZ MAN

Jazz has been a part of Costello’s life since childhood. His father was a professional singer-trumpeter and his mom a record store employee who took him to jazz and classical concerts. Those early jazz influences can be detected throughout his career, in his work with New Orleans pianist/songwriter Allen Toussaint, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and others. He wrote lyrics to some of Charles Mingus’ compositions, and has performed those songs live with the Mingus Big Band. He’s also a frequent guest singer and writer for The Jazz Passengers.

LISTEN TO
“Stalin Malone” from “Spike” (with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band), 1989
“Aubergine” from The Jazz Passengers’ “Individually Twisted,” 1996
“Someone Took the Words Away” from “North,” 2003

Sources: “Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello,” by Graeme Thomson; elviscostello.com; allmusic.com; “Elvis Costello to Music Critics: “National Ransom' is not a bluegrass album,” by Jenny Charlesworth for spinner.com; “Costello’s Jazz Jones” by Christopher Porter for jazztimes.com.