Declan “Elvis Costello” MacManus was by far the most literate and diverse of the “angry young man” songwriters emerging from England in the late 1970s, no small achievement in light of competition that included first-rate talents like Graham Parker, Joe Jackson, John Lydon, Shane MacGowan, and the Strummer/Jones pairing of the Clash. Elvis’s terrific 1977 debut came at the height of punk rock, and the ensuing series of masterworks that mark the astonishing early portion of his recording career overlapped with the punk outgrowth commonly referred to as New Wave. But while Costello was clearly influenced by (and had influence over) those movements, neither were ultimately enough to define or contain his potent and polygamous talents. Although he was indisputably young (23 when his debut was released) and angry (almost psychotically) at the beginning of his career, he also evinced from the beginning a more classicist sensibility and clear influences like the Band and Randy Newman, which set him worlds apart from the Kill Your Idols ethos of the Sex Pistols and their ilk. Costello’s most crucial early connection to the contemporary British music of the day was the proto-punk “pub rock” movement, championed by bands like Dr. Feelgood and Brinsley Schwarz, which shunned the excesses of prog-rock in the mid ’70s and sought a retreat to stripped-down basics. This connection brought Elvis into the company of his first producer and crucial collaborator Nick Lowe, a genius songwriter in his own regard, and just the right man to bring Costello’s bilious, brilliant, neo-Dylan tantrums to full boil.
And boy did they ever. The Lowe-produced five album run that began Costello’s career – from 1977’s My Aim Is True through 1981’s Trust – is a spirited, comedic, raging demonstration of talent and songcraft nearly the equal of any in rock history – perhaps only Dylan from ’64 -’68 or the Stones from ’68 -’72 ever put together more manic and brilliant music over such a sustained period of excellence. After successfully scuffling through his debut with what was essentially a pick up band Costello set about forming the Attractions, a startlingly forceful gathering of precision musical assassins comprised of Steve Nieve on keys and piano, and Bruce and Pete Thomas on bass and drums, respectively. (As a rhythm section they shared a surname but were not actually brothers. Nevertheless they seemed to share a fraternal telepathy that elevated the songs to stratospheric heights.) This lineup remained largely stable throughout the ’80s, although deep personal divisions between Costello and Bruce Thomas eventually led to the bass player’s estrangement and a fitful, final parting in 1996.
From nearly the entire beginning of his career, Costello’s output has been marked by a tense duality between his inarguable genius for a certain kind of literate, melodic Beatles-esque pop and his profound curiosity and near Catholic embrace of popular music’s different forms. As a great lover of and curatorial expert on everything from modern jazz to early American country to baroque classical music, he has long strived to find ways to integrate these strands into his catalog, with laudable degrees of ambition, and varying degrees of success. Dating at least as far back as his half-successful 1981 Nashville-covers album Almost Blue, the creative restlessness has proven both a blessing and a curse for a songwriter capable of turning out unforgettable pop songs like ticker tape, but not always content to do so.
Consequentially, a close look at Costello’s voluminous and ever-growing catalog becomes increasingly an examination of how successfully or not he is able to integrate his outsize genius for songcraft into whatever whim of a genre exercise he is inclined to engage. This is not a bad thing, and in truth is an admirable one. Bob Dylan too has had dalliances with gospel, country, and showtune schmaltz. Miles Davis would invent entire genres, get bored of them, and start another new one from scratch. This is what geniuses do, when they are driven enough to challenge themselves constantly. It’s also what geniuses do that annoys us: publicly engaging with forms that don’t suit them, and seeming to ignore or disdain a natural talent any of the rest of us might kill to possess.
Though they would remain close confidantes and work together successfully on later records like Blood And Chocolate, it feels like the initial split from Nick Lowe as producer represents a signature moment in which Costello traded in his birthright as the greatest pop songwriter of his era for the kind of passport to genre tourism which has yielded comparatively uneven but occasionally thrilling results. In the direct aftermath, we had the lovely but staid Geoff Emerick-helmed Imperial Bedroom, the prototypically hectic Clive Langer-Alan Winstanley ’80s-style chaos of Punch The Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, and the quasi-rootsy brilliance of King Of America, with T-Bone Burnett at the controls. Some of this work ranks with and even exceeds the best of his early output, but the feeling that Costello lacked a strong sense of identity pervades this era. The cover of his fine 1989 release Spike, which features a grotesque caricature of the singer’s painted, disembodied head hung on a wall as so much mounted game, perhaps best exemplifies this reality. Beneath it reads the inscription: “The Beloved Entertainer.” The album cover is a poignant recognition that for all of his efforts to dazzle, seduce, and conscript the industry and his audience, the shoe was always on the other foot. It was he who was the quarry.
In recent years, Costello has taken on a sort of “World’s Coolest Grandfather” visage, as husband to the popular jazz singer Diana Krall, mellow host of the musical variety show Spectacle, and all-around emeritus expert and cheerleader for the best and most vital traditions of the last hundred years. As rock and rock roll third acts go, it’s a good and appropriate one, and he remains a touchstone and terrific asset to the culture. But something about the artist’s easygoing adulthood can occasionally occlude recollections of what once was.
The Elvis Costello of 1978 was a towering talent and vaguely monstrous figure, his sophomore album This Year’s Model, was a raging tour de force not so thematically distant from Yeezus. That version of Costello seethed utterly with sexual and social frustration, implicitly connecting his impotent rage to ineffectual civic leaders and an advertising culture that promoted a release from yearning through consumption. His targets were legion: friends, lovers, the media, politicians, models, himself. On the glam-quoting classic “Pump It Up,” he rattled off a seemingly endless series of slights and desires, allowing that he will satiate himself at any cost, whether he needs it or not. Carnal and emotional excess is the closest the album’s narrator gets to real humanity, offering on the monstrous “Lipstick Vogue” that “Sometimes I feel just like a human being.” On the disquieting finale “Night Rally,” Costello’s deepest fears come to pass – positing late-’70s London as a kind of updated version of corrupt 1930s Berlin, a place where senseless indulgence will soon bring to bear fearful political consequences. Chillingly, he predicts that soon they will have us “singing in the showers.” For all of his subsequent accomplishments, this is the version of Elvis Costello that remains most indelible: the morally complicated, righteously angry, hugely indulgent, and utterly brilliant young artist of the late ’70s who appeared seemingly from nowhere and promptly became one of the most fascinating characters ever to emerge out of the rock tradition.
Next month, Costello will release a collaborative LP with the Roots, Wise Up Ghost, so to celebrate, we’ve counted down his massive catalog to date (leaving out, though, less-essential collaborations such as 2001’s For The Stars and 2004’s Il Sogno). Based on the forthcoming album’s first single, “Walk Uptown,” Costello’s aim remains true. We hope the same can be said of ours.
Start the Countdown here.
 Said pick up band was by and large the personnel of the erstwhile outfit Clover, a majority of whose members went on to become Huey Lewis and the News (Huey Lewis did not play on My Aim Is True, alas).