March 15th, 2001

Elvis Costello

Of course, it’d be most inappropriate to commence a diatribe against Elvis Costello by recounting that sorry incident when he described Ray Charles as a “dumb nigger”. He explained he was merely winding up some po-faced American musos who were annoying him, that should suffice. Some would say that it says something about the acrid, suppurating bile churning inside him that he should have spewed such a thought, even pissed. Some would also say he could have done with being a bit less defensive and equivocal in his apology but Ray Charles forgave him, who are we not to? Let’s drop the matter and concentrate on what’s really wrong with Elvis Costello.

Costello is the patron saint of all those struck by the post-punk ugly stick. For years, he festered resentfully in demo tape oblivion. The tide of punk, however, which brought ashore with it the jetsam of the pub-rock scene, was perfect for Costello. He combined the vitriol of Rotten with the jerky, meat’n’potatoes nerdiness of the Stiff set. His peculiar vocal style – tight, gagging urgently, as if trying to regurgitate a golf ball, became de rigeur among the class of ’78 – we have Costello to thank for Geldof, The Jags, Hazel O’ Connor, The Knack.

He was champion of the anti-beauty, anti-cool, skinny tie, red-trousered, wedge haircut brigade, the damnably quirky New Wave, the most infertile musical movement of the last 30 years. Critics, however, loved him – especially those who regard rock music as a minor modern branch of English Literature. Picking through his brambly lyrics, pre-inclined to overrate the virtue of venom in songwriting (forgetting that the rarest genius is in the simplicity and joy of, say, a Ray Charles), they celebrated a latterday Dylan we could call our own. Bolshy, specky, of redoubtable Scouse/Irish heritage, with a huge chip on his shoulder, he had all the right trappings.

Scan again the lyrics of his early albums, however, and you’ll find most can be boiled down to the banal theme of sexual frustration, one that spoke deeply to his fans. “Girls” (rarely women) en masse figure frequently in these early verses – a mute bunch, who come across as mysterious, fickle, gormless, unattainable, strangely reluctant to elevate themselves to the standards expected of our lovelorn narrator. See her sitting there in “Watching The Detectives”, for instance, insensitive, oblivious as EC curls his lip. Much of early Costello is summed up much more lucidly in Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”

Whether addressing women or other objects of his disdain, Costello casts himself in the flattering role of the disgusted omniscient. “Now there’s newsprint all over your face/Well, maybe that’s why I can read you like a book” (“Men Called Uncle”). Or “Too real, too real/You can’t stand it when I throw punchlines you can I feel.” (“B-Movie”) These one-sided diatribes always make the protagonist seem clever-clever, self-righteous, and bitter, however. (“Yeah? Well, I see right through you, so ha!”)

Elsewhere, Costello’s lyrical over-anxiety to twist and embellish frequently gets the better of him, resulting in some laughably McGonnagall-esque excesses. Take “You’ll Never Be A Man”. “You strike a profile on the low side of my imagination/My eyes climbed down to find the point of possible saturation”. Rubbish.

Worst was “Pills And Soap”, which Costello performed on TOTP after Thatcher won the 1983 General Election. There we waited for a damning, prime time anti-Tory expectoration, only to have Costello gurgle this mildly hysterical series of addled, barely decipherable non-sequiturs. “Four and twenty crowbars, jemmy your desire/Out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Yep. Great. That’s the Tories done for. Wake me up in 1997, would you?

When Costello covers a Cole Porter song like “Love For Sale”, the translucent simplicity of the old master shines like a rare shaft of sunlight amid Costello’s own opaque, overloaded verse. But soon enough it’s back to the likes of “It is always Christmas in the cupboard at the top of the stairs” (“Battered Old Bird”). When the world grew weary of him, Costello turned on elements of his audience (“pig-faced louts”) and finally himself (“a brilliant mistake”). His forays into country & western, pseudo-classical (a liaison with the Brodsky Quartet) and even the cultivation of an enormous beard that made him look like Giant Haystacks all bespoke a man more profoundly bored of Elvis Costello than his worst critics.

Today, however, he’s had to slink back to the last refuge of a musical scoundrel – his roots. Back with the Attractions, barrelling it out in a pub-rock style as if it’s 1978 again, a cabaret turn for gullible Americans. Silly old sod. Did I mention what he said about Ray Charles?

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