ELVIS COSTELLO, world-class song-writer
by Norman Warwick
Having been so impressed by the impassioned advocacy of Mr. Moorhouse on behalf of Elvis Costello, I retired to consider my verdict. There was nothing to consider really, as Mr. Moorhouse (shown left talking to me) had skillfully made up my mind for me.
Nevertheless, just as I was about to announce my verdict to a world surely holding its breath to hear my judgement, I was presented with one more compelling piece of evidence.
This second person to bear witness was Pat King (right) , a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears To Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, about which he will apparently not shut up.
´I first became aware of Elvis Costello’s music´, he has said in a´recent article, ´after hearing the reggae noir of the My Aim Is True single “Watching The Detectives” on my local Manchester, Vermont, alternative-rock station WEQX, and since then, his brash and over-enunciated, detailed narration has been a near-constant companion in my life. Recently, my wife made an offhand remark about Costello that kind of cracked his whole thing open and helped me to appreciate him even more. We were listening to Trust while cleaning our house when she described him as “edgy restaurant rock.” I knew she intended it as a well-timed, expertly executed burn on Declan McManus. But it could also be one of the more perfect descriptions I’ve heard of his persona as a brash, quick-witted songsmith who could cut it up with the punks and put on a suit to schmooze with elite rock dilettantes, only to spill their secrets to anyone who would listen.
Skilled with the pen, and with a breadth of musical knowledge that stretched outside of pub rock and power-pop compositions, Costello has made his fair share of brave choices that seem more puzzling now when you look at them in retrospect. Albums like the haunting baroque pop of Harle: Terror and Magnificence and the bluegrass of Secret, Profane and Sugarcane make all the sense in the world if you are a dedicated fan, but may seem curious if you are only familiar with the punchy hits that defined his Ray Ban-donned “New Wave” persona. But no one would be at fault to long for Costello and his long-running backing band The Imposters—who are the same Attractions lineup of Steve Nieve on keys and Pete Thomas on drums, with Davey Faragher filling in on bass for Bruce Thomas—to cut an album of nervy pop tunes in the mold of his classics like This Year’s Model and Armed Forces. Over the last few years, Costello has fed that hunger with a pair of fantastic return-to-form albums, 2018’s Look Now and 2020’s Hey Clockface. Now, with his brand new album The Boy Named If, he caps off this trio with a dense collection of both risks and hooks that doesn’t feel like a stamping of feet for attention or merely providing fan service.
On the album’s thundercrack lead-off track and recent single “Farewell OK,” the band sound as rejuvenated as ever, with Costello´s “sorry-but-not-sorry” snarl and Steve Nieve’ (right) peppering his signature Vox Continental organ peppered throughout the British invasion-inspired rock rave-up. Even though Costello and the band revisited This Year’s Model for a Spanish re-imagining last year, the other album that seems to be sneaking into his purview on The Boy Named If is 1986’s Blood and Chocolate. Its performances’ menacing aggression and the direct treatment of Costello’s vocals are inline with that album’s kiss-off nature. It’s especially thrilling to hear Elvis returning to the part of the sleazy snake oil salesmen on the highlight “Mistook Me For a Friend,” sneering lines like, “I had a pocket full of presidents, a suitcase full of elements,” and “Went to the carnival for candy and confusion.”
Best of all is the amped-up infidelity quandary “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” The song adopts the off-kilter shuffle of the Fab Four’s “Dig A Pony” or Hendrix’s “Manic Depression,” with Thomas proving once again why he may be the greatest drummer to emerge from punk’s first wave. In Costello’s memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, he explains that he first gained confidence as a singer after hearing wounded yelps by Rick Danko (left) on The Band’s albums like Music From Big Pink. Perhaps this approach to singing might explain his unwavering strength as a vocalist, as he sounds strong as ever on “Anything But Love.” When he hits the high note in its climax, it’s hard to believe he’s just three years shy of 70.
The recording of the album is a marvel all on its own. When checking in with newer releases from artists of the same era, the production quality tends to be one of the biggest areas of disappointment. So many legacy artists either try to doctor away the aging process with treated vocals, or create synthetic robo-performances with the aid of producers who miss the point of what made the artists great in the first place. That could be a loss of perspective from a coddled artist resting on their accolades. But you get a sense listening to The Boy Named If that Costello and The Imposters understand that the fire they had in those albums from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was worth chasing, warts and all. In a recent interview with Costello’s old producer and friend Nick Lowe on the Aquarium Drunkard: Transmissions Podcast, Lowe told host Jason P. Woodbury that Costello had asked him if he would be interested in recording with the band again at a session they had booked at Abbey Road. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed when the pandemic made it impossible, forcing each band member to send in their individual parts for Costello and Sebastian Krys to piece together. But hearing the record, you can tell Costello and Krys did some reverse engineering on the albums that Lowe helmed. You can hear it on the cracking snare sound of songs like “The Death Of Magical Thinking” and “Farewell OK.” Maybe one day we’ll get those two legends back into the studio to recapture those old spirits. But for now, you really can’t argue with these results.
By now, Costello has earned the right to throw away any advice on editing down his records. But if there is one complaint to be made of The Boy Named If, it’s that it falls short of being the compact blast of a record that it could have been. At 13 songs and close to an hour long, the album would highly benefit from losing two or three songs in favor of adding precision to its impact. While it’s a beautiful ballad, “Paint The Red Rose Blue” would be better served on a different more relaxed album. Never adverse to hamming it up, Costello indulges his ragtime fandom via the tuneless quasi-carnival pop of the anti-fascist “Trick Out The Truth” that drags out the album’s final stretch. Both of those low-key numbers are bested by the Nicole Atkins duet “My Most Beautiful Mistake” and the album’s excellent closing ballad, “Mr. Crescent.” If those tracks were treated more as moments of reprieve amidst a fiery set of rockers, they would stand out for the sweet dynamic shifts that they are. With so much of our time feeling more precious than ever, you can’t be upset at Costello for over-delivering when he has the opportunity. With The Boy Named If, Costello and The Imposters show they are still capable of kicking each other under the table at the restaurant, showing their fangs to the manager when they’ve been told to leave.
Labrador: labradorbk.bandcamp.com Writer/Podcaster: @EarstoFeed Words:
You can also follow this writer at @MrPatKing
Meanwhile, it is about time for me to confess all to Andrew Moorhouse that our debate was pretty much a mock-up on my part, as I had always had a keep-it-quiet admiration for Costello´s on-the-money American interpretation of George Jones´ (right) recording of Good Year For The Roses. It was a delivery that illustrated Costello had an affection for, and an understanding of, genres other those he worked in, Subsequent radio appearances and a tv series series that saw him knowledgeably showing an empathy with all kinds of world class musicians from other fields were further proof of the musical education he took in by osmosis as a child, as he later described in his autobiography.
“Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…” was hosted by its namesake and produced in conjunction with Sir Elton John’s Rocket Pictures. Elton John was be one of the program’s Executive Producers.
The series was aired, on CTV in Canada, Channel 4 in the UK and Sundance Channel in the US. FremantleMedia Enterprises, will handle sales of the show to the rest of the world.
Conceived to provide a forum for in-depth discussion and performance with the most interesting and influential artists and personalities of our time, the show fuses the best of talk and music television.
“Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…” became an unpredictable and unprecedented television experience. The one-hour programs featurde everything from intimate one-on-ones with legendary performers and notable newcomers to thematic panel discussions, with a variety of performance elements including unique collaborations, acoustic and impromptu “illustrative” demonstrations of the creative process, and some original interpretations of others’ songs by Costello.
The program’s eclecticism and depth reflected its uniquely qualified host.. Elvis Costello is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee; a Grammy and Ivor Novello Award-winning (and Oscar-nominated) songwriter and performer comfortable in almost every genre imaginable; a musicologist of formidable breadth and knowledge; a contributor to Vanity Fair Magazine; and a noted wit whose stint as guest host on The Late Show with David Letterman won rave reviews.
Explaining his approach to the program, Elvis Costello said, “I’m not interested in extracting some dark secret. I’d rather hear about a bright secret, a deep love or a curiosity that might be otherwise obscured by fame. This is a wonderful opportunity to talk in complete thoughts about music, movies, art or even vaudeville, then frame it with unique and illustrative performances.”
Executive Producer Sir Elton John added, “Elvis Costello is the foremost expert on popular music. I thought it would be sensational to use his knowledge and intelligence to explore the artistry of musicians and other fascinating people involved in making great music, as well as true music aficionados.”
Consistent with Sir Elton John’s long-standing commitment to philanthropy and music, the series producers struck an exciting association with the (Product) RED (http://www.joinred.com) campaign created to raise awareness and money for the Global Fund (http://www.theglobalfund.org) to fight AIDS in Africa. Select program excerpts and performances will be distributed in a variety of new media and conventional platforms, with a portion of the profits directed to the Global Fund.
“The concept of Elvis Costello hosting a television show was completely irresistible to Sundance Channel,” commented Larry Aidem, President & CEO. “Our viewers are enthusiastic fans of music and love stimulating and provocative talk, so it’s a fabulous fit.”
“The extraordinarily versatile Elvis Costello and the legendary Elton John joined forces to bring viewers an unprecedented window into the world of music,” said Susanne Boyce, President, Creative, Content and Channels, CTV Inc. “Spectacle was spectacular — providing a platform for the most acclaimed artists of our time to discuss and demonstrate their craft in a unique setting.”
The first series included the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Bennett, and Roseanne Cash, and if that wasn´t sufficiently eclectic the second series included Neko Case, Jesse Winchester (right), Levon Helm and Richard Thompson.
Speaking of the distribution agreement, FremantleMedia Enterprises CEO David Ellender said, “Music programming is an important part of the FME portfolio and the opportunity to distribute ‘Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…’ is very exciting. Costello is a legendary performer whose experience in the music and entertainment industry not only attracted a range of internationally renowned iconic performers, but also offered them the unique opportunity to join a ‘discussion between equals.’ This formula appealed to audiences around the world.”
Neil McCallum, Head Of Music for Channel 4, said, “This was a phenomenal project involving the world’s leading music artists, and we were delighted that Channel 4 viewers were able to witness first hand a compelling mix of conversation and unique performances, all brought together by the esteemed Elvis Costello.”
“Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…” was a co-production of Rocket Pictures, SpyBox Pictures, Prospero Pictures and reinvention entertainment. Executive Producers were Sir Elton John, Elvis Costello, David Furnish, Steve Hamilton-Shaw, Jordan Jacobs, Martin Katz and Stephen Warden. Co-Executive Producer is Alex Coletti.
All that, and Andrew Moorhouse, convinced me I should have paid more attention when I first heard Elvis Costello,… and so to be honest, I was half way there already before Andrew delivered his eulogy !
Andrew Moorhouse also loves poetry and is the owner / publisher of Fine Press Poetry, which has released collections by Simon Armitage and Andrew Motion among many other fine poets.