Elvis Costello is a musical chameleon. In his forty year career he has produced work in a swath of genres from new wave and pop to classical and country. Behind the comically large glasses is an artist with a distinct voice and unshakable unique sensibility. Costello is a multi-instrumentalist as well as a master lyricist. He blends the obscure and the oblique with effortless style. Even when his words become abstract, the meaning and emotion behind them is never lost to the listener.
Costello was one of many British artists part of the new wave of rock in the late 70s. His early work is often associated with punk, but his lyrics were more complex and literary than his contemporaries. Even still, Costello had all the bite and sarcasm of a punk. During the promotion of his debut he spat in the face of SNL and was banned for over ten years. Costello had the hunger, he had the raw talent, but his secret weapon was producer Nick Lowe. Lowe, being a gifted and prolific songwriter and musician in his own right, was able to sculpt Costello's endless new compositions into tight arrangements with memorable hooks. Costello's debut My Aim is True was a moderate success in England, but he was unknown to the American public until his SNL stunt and a successful single in “Watching the Detectives” put him on the radar of the music press. A string of successes produced by Lowe, and including progressively mature lyrics and complex arrangements in the late 70s, propelled him to fame.
What makes Costello unique is his willingness to experiment with genre. Throughout the 80s and 90s Costello collaborated with artists as diverse as Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, branching out to record country, classical, as well as his trademark literary rock. “Veronica” from the album Spike, co-written with McCartney, rose to #20 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989, as well as winning Costello a VMA for Best Male Video.
Although Costello is talented beyond question, his catalog is just outside the reach of mainstream music fans. He is an artist comfortable with his renown for being unpredictable. His musical foundation was built on rock and roll, but he expanded beyond the limitations of a genre with such a limited form. He carved out an audience for himself among devotees of alternative, country, and pop. Too weird for classic rock, too straight to be punk, and too eclectic for genre labels, but with enough variety to satisfy any music lover. A new reissue campaign beginning with his third album, Armed Forces, has the opportunity to introduce Costello to a new generation of music enthusiasts, as well as an album of new material with the Impostors due out in November. Discerning listeners willing to explore the breadth and depth of Costello's musical journey will come away surprised by his ability to cross musical boundaries, to blend the artistic with the popular.
Written by Garrett Kearns