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Why Elvis Costello is an underrated star

A new album is out from pub-rocker and genre-hopper Elvis Costello. And it’s a cue to look back at his varied career and multifaceted style

Elvis Costello at the Hard Rock Calling festival in London in 2010.
Elvis Costello at the Hard Rock Calling festival in London in 2010. (Getty Images)

Elvis Costello is an underrated musician. At 66, the English singer-songwriter has done 31 studio albums, six live albums, 16 compilation albums and a host of other releases, including box sets and tribute albums. Yet, he remains underrated.

When he put up an “installation” this September, uploading a song each day on a playlist titled 50 Songs For 50 Days, he got barely 1,000 followers. Nearly all the songs he uploaded were from his back catalogue. The project ended on 3 November, presidential election day in the US.

When a musician of his standing does something like this, you would expect a horde of fans to follow the playlist. But then the taste for Costello’s music has been like the preference for liquorice—the metaphor first used by the late Jerry Garcia to describe the Grateful Dead’s music: You either love it or you hate it. The reasons for liking Costello’s songs could be the same as for disliking them. Costello’s vocal range, as anyone who has heard him will know, has an octave-switching ability—and sometimes he uses it within the same song. So, like a quick-change artist, he can shift from exuberance to melancholy, or from romantic sweetness to snarling anger, on a whim. And, as I said, within the same song. It can be delightful or disconcerting.

Strangely, my first serious introduction to Costello’s music came not from one of his numerous original songs but via the 1991 album Deadicated, a compilation of 15 songs by the Grateful Dead sung by other artists. Costello did Ship Of Fools. It wasn’t the best rendition of the iconic song from the Dead’s From The Mars Hotel album but as a long-time Deadhead, it was a cue for me to explore more of Costello. The music of Costello and the Dead has little in common, except, of course, the fact that the former is a self-confessed fan of the latter (several years later, I discovered on a hard-to-find-digitally album, Stolen Roses, a brilliant medley of Ship Of Fools and It Must Have Been The Roses by Costello, performed live).

Costello, a Londoner born Declan Patrick MacManus, began his musical career in the 1970s in a genre known as pub rock, a back-to-the-roots, bar-friendly kind of rock music that eschewed the excesses and heavy over-production that the then prevailing glam rock employed. A good example of the sort of pub rock songs that Costello sang is one titled (What’s So Funny ’Bout)Peace, Love, And Understanding. It’s not an original; it’s written by Nick Lowe, an English songwriter, but Costello’s version is probably the best. Gifted with a voice that can handle different genres, Costello has sung tunes that are influenced by country music (example: Alison, from 1977’s My Aim Is True) and soul (on the album Get Happy!! with his then band, The Attractions). Costello’s music is stylistic and his lyrics are literate, drawn from an expansive vocabulary. At the end of October, he released his 31st studio album, Hey Clockface. Recorded variously in Helsinki, Paris, and New York, Hey Clockface is not an easy album for the uninitiated. It’s as if Costello is traversing his career, moving back and forth across genres and styles. The opener is a spoken-word song, Revolution #49, with the lyrics: Life beats a poor man to his grave/ Love makes a rich man from a beggar. The closer is a piano ballad titled Byline. And in between, a dozen songs that keep defying classification. No Flag is delightfully angry and noisy; there are self-reflective acoustic numbers such as They’re Not Laughing At Me Now; in Radio Is Everything, another spoken-word song, the lyrics are poetic but sad: I’m sitting here wondering if this matchbox will hold my dreams/ The redhead in my arms go up in flames?/ Or dissolve mighty regimes with her screams, ha, or so it seems.

Hey Clockface is a multifaceted album that is like a showcase of Costello’s career. Its songs span genres and offer variety. But it certainly isn’t a release that could be recommended as a starter album for listeners new to Costello’s music. For that one should head back to his earlier albums. A good place to start would be 1977’s My Aim Is True (his debut album, on which you can hear traces of punk in his brand of pub rock), before moving to 1979’s Armed Forces (an easily accessible, well-arranged pop album) and 1981’s Almost Blue, to check out his fascination with country music. Then there are later albums, such as 2010’s excellent National Ransom, which was produced by the legendary American producer and songwriter T. Bone Burnett.

After conditioning one’s ears with those, a short detour could be in order too. Such as his cover of the song She for the film Notting Hill; and the song he did with Burt Bacharach, I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, from the movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. After those primers, Hey Clockface could work as a proper retrospective for one of contemporary music’s most underrated stars.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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