Tuesday 20 February 2018

The man who could write the book on music

Elvis Costello has never been afraid to try something new, no matter how potentially alienating that new direction may be, writes Barry Egan

Elvis Costello says he never liked the word maturity. It implies decay. And decay is one thing of which you could never accuse the ferocious talent that is Elvis Costello.

Born Declan Patrick MacManus in August 1954 in London -- his father, Ross MacManus, who died recently, was a musician -- he has always brought a touch of the zealot to his work. Complacency is anathema to the man who first announced himself to America at Christmas 1977 on the popular television show, Saturday Night Live. The cheeky Brit in too-big glasses stopped his performance of Less Than Zero (penned as a response of sorts to British fascist Oswald Mosley) to sing a lacerating, guitar-scratching version of the anti-censorship Radio Radio:

"I wanna bite the hand that feeds me.

I wanna bite that hand so badly.

I want to make them wish they'd never seen me."

His debut album from 1977, My Aim Is True, on Stiff Records, remains an enduring classic. Up there with John Lennon and Ray Davies, Elvis himself remains one of the most compelling and masterful singer-songwriters England has ever produced.

Some people, as the New Yorker magazine noted some years ago, have Costello frozen in Lucite as the skinny, "sneering, knock-kneed rocker with the Buddy Holly glasses and the New Wave suits who, in the late Seventies, unleashed a series of furious, lyrically tricky but not uncatchy albums and singles. Or else they are dimly aware of a restless and protean figure who amid the ripening of a career sampled, and often mastered, other genres and styles. They may think he was authentic once and pretentious later."

The truth is, we love all the different Elvis Costellos. We love him for the whoosh of Accidents Will Happen and Pump It Up and the aching melancholia of Veronica and the magnificence of Everyday I Write the Book and the beauty of Alison, my favourite Elvis song.

I love the timelessness of Watching the Detectives. I love the purity of (I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea, the sadness of Shipbuilding, the verve of Tokyo Storm Warning and ... I could write until my fingers bleed about Elvis' songbook. I even loved his country covers album, Almost Blue, and enjoyed his Painted From Memory collaboration with Burt Bacharach.

Elvis, who lived in Dublin for many years when he was married to Pogue bassist Cait O'Riordan, has never been afraid to try something new, no matter how potentially alienating that new direction may be. You get the impression that he just likes music, often relentlessly so, regardless of its era or place in time. "After a while, everyone has to fess up to having older records in their collection," he told Spin magazine in 2008. "But I think we're past those juvenile arguments about music, like, 'Our generation, our music.' Because right now you're living in a time when everybody you speak to can listen to everything they want to."

He has incorporated new manner of styles into his work: country, reggae, Tin Pan Alley, pop, r'n'b, soul, Tex-Mex, Tango, new wave. "I'm just a songwriter," he said.

Returning to a bright notion of concerts he did over 25 years ago -- where songs are chosen by the crowd for Elvis and his band to perform -- he is bringing his Spectacular Spinning Wheel Songbook to Dublin on May 9 at the 02 Arena.

Elvis has promised "songs of love, songs about sex, songs about death and dancing, but not necessarily in that order".

See Obituaries, Facing Page

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