Elvis Costello – General Introduction

by Emilio on July 17, 2009

Elvis Costello. His Real Name Is Declan MacManus.

Elvis Costello. His Real Name Is Declan MacManus.

When discussing songcraft with the bands I work with as a lyricist, one recurrent question I am asked is “Who are these lyricists you look up to?”. I usually answer: “It depends”. That is, the art of crafting songs can be analyzed from the structural point of view, and also from the perspective of the actual content of the composition. If we were to be objective, we would agree that what is said matters as much as the way it is actually being said. That is, form and content go hand in hand – one should not stand out at the expense of the other.

I know three composers that keep everything balanced and whose message is always conveyed in the most memorable fashion of all. I have already discussed two of them (Richard Thompson and Andy Partridge), and it is with great pleasure that I now introduce you to Mr. Elvis Costello.

The man is a genius. That might look like a bold introductory remark, but a fact is a fact. He was part of the punk explosion of 1977, and like many other artists that were not punk he was somehow caught in the middle and the “punk” label was applied to him. While his attitude made for easy comparison, he had pop sensibilities that set him apart from the movement, and that was evident from the very beginning.

He has always had a true way with words. I have seldom seen wordplayers like him, frankly. “I’m so affected in the face of your affection”, “You lack lust you’re so lackluster”, “Like a lady in the chamber and another in the clip”, “Abel was able so Vivian said”… these lyrics sprang to mind in a matter of seconds. And if I started enumerating the ones that I remembered within a minute I could fill three blogs. His MO also used to involve taking a conceit and placing in as many puns and references as he could muster. And believe me, he was never shortchanged. Listen to “Love For Tender” (“Get Happy!!”, 1980) or “The Only Flame In Town” (“Goodbye Cruel World”, 1984) to arrive at your own conclusions. Note that he eventually moved away from that – he recognized he was sort of parodying himself, and he changed the style in the mid 80s. All the more kudos to him for realizing he was becoming reliant on formulas that although effective gave him an image that could actually caricaturize him.

Also, look at the degree of characterization he can pull off. Any person who writes falls in love with this, his one big American hit:

It would be unjust not to mention his “classic” backing band. They were named “The Attractions”, and they accompanied him all through the early years. The band was conformed by Steve Nieve (a phenomenal keyboards player) and the exemplary drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas (they are unrelated). This outfit helped him define his sound, and they reunited sporadically as far as the 90s. Bruce no longer plays with Elvis, but the other two are part of his new backing band, “The Imposters”.

Successes came early on his career. These included “Pump It Up” (included in “This Year’s Model”, his second album from 1978) “Oliver’s Army” (from Armed Forces, released in 1979) and “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” (from 1980’s “Get Happy!!”). Nowadays, he is regarded as more or less of a “cult” figure, yet the creativity of the man is as solid as ever, and he still goes from musical genre to musical genre arriving unscathed and more bristling than before.

One thing you must understand, and that is very important before jumping with both feet into his catalog: the man has the most diverse and eclectic career you could imagine. He has released rock, pop, country and jazz albums. He even released a disc wholly devoted to chamber music with the Brodsky Quartet (1993), and an orchestral album called “Il Sogno” (2004). In the posts that will follow I hope to give you a good overview of his career. The idea is that you will be able to approach him in the best possible way, and avoid buying an album that is not compatible with your musical tastes.

That is something about Costello – you must know what you are getting your hands on first. As a rule, I will tell you that if you like rock and roll then any of his early records (the ones released in the late 70’s and early 80’s) are a safe bet. Still, his first foray into a different territory came as early as 1980 (“Almost Blue”, a country album). He then released some of his most realized pop/rock records (including “Imperial Bedroom” and “Punch The Clock”), and in the 90’s he really began experimenting in earnest. In additions to the albums listed on the previous paragraph, he released a jazz record named “North” in 2003, and a terrific country album named “The Delivery Man” in 2004. The latter includes duets with Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, and it is a record I really treasure. Look forwards to the reviews soon!

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