“I want to bite the hand that feeds me/I want to bite that hand so badly/I want to make them wish they’d never seen me.” Against a backbeat of pulsating bass and tremulous keyboards, Elvis Costello first sneered these lines thirty years ago on “Radio, Radio,” the caustic finale of the raucous second side of This Year’s Model, his major-label debut. The album has recently been given another lavish reissue treatment, this time by Universal (the previous two were by Rykodisc and Rhino), and with each reissue, complete with new liner notes and bonus tracks, Costello racks up yet another sale of the back catalog. Yet no matter how many times he’s repackaged, the Elvis Costello of the late ’70s will not become harmless. Those songs still have legs–along with teeth. Here’s a couplet from “The Beat”: “I don’t wanna be your lover/I just wanna be your victim.” Ouch. Elvis is this year’s model yet again.
The bite of Costello’s music has always been as keen as his musical appetite. He knows his Schubert Lieder, his Miles and Coltrane albums, his Mozart and Wagner operas, and his Ethiopian ’70s pop so extensively that he could be rock ‘n’ roll’s most prodigious aesthete, or at least archivist. The B-side covers of “My Funny Valentine” and “Gloomy Sunday” were early hints of his curatorial passion. But since he didn’t earn the title of angry young man for nothing, we know that he’s not shy about sharing his hatreds as well as his passions, and anyone familiar with his musical objects of enmity would be perplexed by his current role as the opening act for the Police during their North American stadium and arena tour. When Costello listed his 500 favorite CDs for Vanity Fair in November 2000, he made a point of noting whose music was absent: “You will see that some very famous names are missing completely. There is nothing at all by Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Michael Jackson, or Sting. You may love them. They just don’t do it for me.” Three years later, when the Police and Elvis Costello and the Attractions were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Costello was asked his opinion of the Police’s performance: “They were bloody dreadful.”
When Costello performed “Radio, Radio” to a gathering horde of Police fans in Buffalo’s HSBC Arena on May 3, he sang the line about biting the hand that feeds him with conviction. He was hitting the same notes as his younger self, but he made no attempt to imitate them. What had been, in its genesis, adenoidal and guttural became steely, reserved, bellowing and a bit resigned. Three decades later, radio–really the music business–is still in the hands of such a lot of fools. It was just another day at the office: Costello sounded pissed off, as if he were a deskbound drone with a wanker for a boss.
The megastars performed a glitzy nostalgia show, bouncing with professional efficiency through a two-hour set that included pretty much every crowd-pleasing tune one would expect from an arena show with a three-figure ticket price. It began with Sting playing “Bring on the Night” an octave down from its original recording, with some fancy guitar picking and a mysterious offstage voice providing harmony–not quite Ashlee Simpson territory, but a little unsettling. Every conceivable hit followed, and their signature refrains–“sending out an SOS,” “de doo doo doo, de da da da,” “so lonely,” “put on the red light”–were hammered into the crowd with a mind-numbing repetition stretched out by the band’s inimitable, relentless white-guy ska grooves. The trio performed “Invisible Sun” against a backdrop of manipulative images of starving Third World children. (OK, proceeds from special VIP tickets went to the microfinance organization Unitus.) Sting also shook his 56-year-old ass at the suburban moms in the crowd, who went wild. This from a guy who recently topped the classical music charts with Songs From the Labyrinth, his performances of the late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century lutenist and lyricist John Dowland. He has now found himself mining a more contemporary (and remunerative) nostalgia beat. Back in 1982, Costello summed up this mix of charity and vanity on “Town Cryer”: “Other boys use the splendor of their trembling lip/They’re so teddy bear tender and tragically hip.”
Costello made way for the heritage act after playing an hourlong set. He showed off his octaves and vocal stamina while reminding the audience that he was, as usual, in creative overdrive. Backed by the Imposters (two-thirds of the original Attractions, with Davey Faragher filling in on bass for the exiled Bruce Thomas), Costello mixed up songs from the recently released Momofuku, his twenty-eighth album, with old hits, including a slightly funked-up “Every Day I Write the Book,” a blistering “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea” (or was it Buffalo?), an anthemic, irony-free run through Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding?” (which could have been dedicated to John McCain) and “Alison,” with Costello crooning mellifluously and somewhat bitterly for the girl who got away. Steve Nieve’s rococo keyboard lines were fancy enough for a Royal Conservatory dropout and gritty enough for rock ‘n’ roll; drummer Pete Thomas was steady as ever; newcomer Faragher had done his homework and held his own with melodic support. OK, so the band banged out the obligatory sex, drugs and masturbation anthem “Pump It Up” for the zillionth time. Everyone has to make a living.
For those of us who have kept up with Costello, with each new release or tour we look for yet another genre plundered, signs of cracks in yet another relationship. And whether Costello is singing original chamber compositions with the Brodsky Quartet, performing his own vocalese renditions of Charles Mingus compositions with the Mingus Big Band or churning out rock ‘n’ roll with the Imposters, he gives us a place to find parts of ourselves in his seemingly endless catalog of beauty and bile. How many of us, in our brutal youth, dreamed of singing, say, “I Want You,” “Party Girl” or a number of other rejection gestalts to a deserving target? In 1977 the 22-year-old Elvis claimed that his emotions did not range beyond “revenge and guilt,” and the pairing stuck as a kind of objective correlative for songs like “Lipstick Vogue,” “You Belong to Me,” “Accidents Will Happen” and, well, almost everything else he recorded at the time. He wanted to call his third album Emotional Fascism, which could be yet another Costello Category, a state that many listeners found addictive. (The record’s final title, Armed Forces, got the point across well enough.) By 1982, on Imperial Bedroom, he gave us a metaphysical conceit, a pairing of opposites that, at the time, seemed inseparable and that could also be a skeleton key to his work: “Love and unhappiness go arm and arm/Long-suffering friends of your fatal charm.” Costello is a meticulous craftsman who also clearly has, for lack of a better term, issues.
With Momofuku, the issues are of a more esoteric sort. Named after the recently deceased inventor of the ramen noodle, the album is the audio equivalent of just adding boiled water. Momofuku was quickly inspired last February when Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis invited Costello to sing on her solo album. During Lewis’s recording sessions, one thing led to another, and Costello suddenly had a batch of new songs, with Lewis among a harmonizing chorus who hold court and provide a dash of ironic, loungy sweetness and light throughout the record. That lush sound is made more enticing by its packaging: a double vinyl LP with three tracks on each side, which also makes for some light lifting. Let the songs settle in, flip, listen and repeat. Indeed, for the first two weeks after its April 22 release, Momofuku was, as Costello said on his label’s website, available only in the archaic medium, “as the supreme being intended.” (Since then it’s also been available as a CD and an MP3.)
Momofuku‘s opening track, “No Hiding Place,” is therefore appropriate in its Luddite theme, a screed against Internet trash talkers–all the sock puppets and snarky bloggers who fight and fester in the virtual gutter. Costello is, like the Dylan of “Idiot Wind,” one of rock’s great pugilists, crafting scorched-earth invectives with meticulous care and raw rhetorical power. He snarls at a little guy with his anonymous digital perch: “You can say anything you want to/In your fetching cloak of anonymity/Are you feeling out of breath now/In your desperate pursuit of infamy?” That word, “infamy,” goes down with a lovely harmony, but Costello is just getting started. “Let’s see how brave you are/When I’m about this far,” Costello challenges, concluding, “You sit in judgment and bitch/Well, baby that’s rich/You’re nothing but a snitch.” Apparently, some of us had been threatening our friend Costello–never a wise move.
Are these fictional harpies usurping Costello’s cast of fictional victims? Or has he been personally affronted? “Sometimes I almost feel/Just like a human being,” he seethed on “Lipstick Vogue,” on This Year’s Model. But then what, exactly, did he feel like most other times? Someone resembling the enraged, screwed-up twerp genius he was playing? Whatever. It worked, it was real and it was a rock ‘n’ roll victory lap: My Aim Is True (1977); This Year’s Model (1978); Armed Forces (1979); Get Happy!! (1980); Trust (1981); and, of course, Imperial Bedroom (1982), a masterpiece of cabaret and orchestra pop produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick that offered, on the closing chorus of “Pidgin English,” a blatant message from the Beatles’ first original B-side–the phrase “P.S. I Love You” repeated three times by a heavenly chorus of Costellos. There are many who go to Costello concerts only to hear songs from this early creative burst, uninterested in the maturity he was already achieving on Imperial Bedroom, even though he was all of 27 at the time.
Five years earlier, when My Aim Is True was released on the little indie label Stiff and hit the big time (reaching No. 14 in Britain and No. 32 in the United States), Costello was still a frustrated computer operator with bad teeth. For the punks, 1977 was supposed to be year zero. The Clash laid down the law stringently in “1977”: “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones/In 1977.” It was a musical orthodoxy even the Clash couldn’t sustain; by the time they released London Calling two years later, with its ska influences and classic rock hooks, they had fought the law and the law had not won. Costello exuded an anger that shadowed the punk rage of the ’70s, but he also drew inspiration from a range of musicians–including the Beatles, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, the Band and Joni Mitchell–whose LPs would not be found on Malcolm McLaren’s turntable. He offered something more melodic, more familiar, as he clawed his way into London’s screeching parade. It is astonishing to imagine that on My Aim Is True, backed by members of Huey Lewis’s band, Costello could uncork songs that would last for decades: “Alison,” “Watching the Detectives” and “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes” are still staples in Costello’s set. Still, even if the songs could transcend time, they were also, in a crucial way, of the time. The year that My Aim Is True was released was also the year that Woody Allen’s Annie Hall won the Oscar for Best Picture. Neurotic dweebs with glasses could be plausible leading men in 1977.
Costello’s neuroses and mutations have usually coincided with the end of one love affair and the beginning of a new one. Costello’s first five years of pill-popping brilliance and nasty behavior–needled along by messianic praise from rock critics–came on the heels of a 1974 shotgun wedding to Mary McManus alongside a subsequent, postfame turbulent romance with Playboy Playmate (and mother of Liv Tyler) Bebe Buell. Costello’s rather unexciting song cycle North (2003) exploited the topic of broken hearts quite nakedly: in the first track he bids adieu to Cait O’Riordan (wife number two) and several tunes later sings about finding new love with jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall (wife number three). Elvis’s midcareer creative resurgence had coincided with the bloom of new love with O’Riordan in 1985, when Costello was a battle-scarred 30 and O’Riordan a wiry 20-year-old bassist for the Pogues. Their romance came in the wake of Goodbye Cruel World (1984), an album so poorly produced–a duet with Darryl Hall was one of its many embarrassments–that Costello threatened to quit the music business. When the album was reissued by Rykodisc in 1995, he began the liner notes with a declaration: “Congratulations! You just bought the worst album of my career.”
The year 1986 was an annus mirabilis: Costello reclaimed his given name of Declan McManus, sprouted a scruffy beard and regained his musical integrity with King of America, in which he ditched the Attractions for a vibrant, quirky ensemble that included legendary jazz bassist Ray Brown and guitarist James Burton, who had previously played with another guy named Elvis. The songwriting was never sharper, the singing as supple and emotive as ever. Costello also never seemed less interested in being commercially successful. With its slide and acoustic guitar, its upright bass and its deft explorations in musical folklore before anyone had ever heard of “roots music,” this was an album destined for a cult, not the charts. “You made the girls all turn their heads, and in turn they made you miserable,” Costello sang on “Little Palaces.” By then, he had long realized that getting the girl is just where the trouble begins; he had, in other words, matured–precociously, of course.
Just when Costello appeared to have transformed himself–as a bearded pop seer with an obscure Irish name–he returned, cleanshaven, to his old stage name and his old band. The result, Blood and Chocolate, appeared months after King of America, and even though he had a new wife, he was about to break up his band. “Blood and chocolate” are the first words uttered on the album’s first track, “Uncomplicated,” and while not exactly a metaphysical conceit, it is a pairing of necessary substances. On “I Want You,” “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head,” “Poor Napoleon” and other songs, the thing Costello craves is always blended–painfully–with the thing he needs. And however bitten he may have sounded emotionally, he was always in full possession of his linguistic prowess: “Since when were you so generous and inarticulate?” asked Costello, who sounded like he was neither.
If Costello had no use for his old band, he found no shortage of new musicians. And so, as if he was unloading everything he could post-Attractions, Spike (1989) and Mighty Like a Rose (1991) both contained superlative songwriting, powerful singing and swoon-worthy guest stars. “…This Town…,” Spike‘s opener, is played in an ensemble with Paul McCartney on bass and Roger McGuinn on twelve-string guitar. The albums have not gained the popularity of Costello’s earlier work with the Attractions. Perhaps no one knew how to classify them. This music was all over the place, almost all of it in the third person: “Chewing Gum,” a nasty take of a disappointed Asian mail-order bride, features a funk beat, fill-ins with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and antiphonal playing from guitarist Marc Ribot, a postmodern virtuoso best known for keeping up with the genius growls emanating from the scorched lower reaches of the chest cavity of Tom Waits. “Veronica,” co-written with McCartney, is a slickly produced hit of pop perfection. Mighty Like a Rose features “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over),” an apocalyptic dance number for people who don’t know how to dance, and “How to Be Dumb,” a “Positively 4th Street”-type revenge song aimed at Costello’s ex-bassist Bruce Thomas, whose book The Big Wheel (1990) contained unflattering descriptions of a character known only as “the singer.” Among the lines of Elvis’s retort: “You always had to dress up your envy in some half-remembered philosophy.”
Bruce Thomas is long gone from the band, yet Elvis the musician continues to reveal or conceal himself in elaborate ways on Momofuku. “Drum & Bone” wonders if human existence is all just a matter of our physical selves: “Maybe we’re nothing but skin and bone/Nerves that shatter/Tongues that flatter.” In the midst of this nihilism with a backbeat, Costello flashes a sense of humor that doesn’t quite rise above the tune’s dour premise: “And I’m trying to do the best I can/But I’m a limited, primitive kind of man.” We know too well that he’s neither limited nor primitive, which makes us wonder how much is tongue in cheek. Even more droll is “Mr. Feathers,” a song about a pervert who ogles girls, evoking “the echo in every smile that would curl into a leer, oh my dear.” All this is sung against a ragtime lilt that recalls the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon.” Mr. Feathers is unrepentant. Where is the revenge and guilt?
The two most spellbinding songs on Momofuku–“Harry Worth” and “Stella Hurt”–are tales of heartbreak told in the third person. “Harry Worth” shares the name of a British comic actor whose eponymous TV programs must have been present in the McManus household. Costello plays on the name with the line “She’d never know what Harry was worth.” The song–about a marriage gone south–is the kind of unhappy-couple narrative that Costello has been mining since “The Long Honeymoon,” from Imperial Bedroom, and “After the Fall,” from Mighty Like a Rose. Pete Thomas’s simple, crisp Latin beat, and Steve Nieve’s hotel lounge Wurlitzer give the song a kind of rock noir kitsch, with Elvis as the Cassandra of the first verse, crooning: “We passed in the hall and I met them well/But as their carriage arrived, I found that I couldn’t quite tell them.” Tell them what, exactly? In the chorus, Elvis, a marriage and divorce veteran, can already see where the trouble begins:
It’s not very far from tears to mirth
There are not many moments that will capture your breath
It’s not very long that you spend on this earth
She’d never know just what Harry was worth
All this sounds like a combination of the bossa nova of Jobim and the hard-boiled stories of Jim Thompson, and it certainly emphasizes the “death” part of wedding vows. “Do you hear that noise?” asks Harry. “Well that once was our song.” In this tragic tale, love–as the old lady on the street intones in Annie Hall–fades. Elvis observes, he croons, he sneers, and while the story is sad, the hooks are irresistible.
“Stella Hurt” is also a failure narrative, one based on a groove that owes a shilling or two to the Beatles’ “Hey, Bulldog” and is also, as Costello says on his label’s website, “a true story.” It recounts, almost literally, how in the 1930s the Southern debutante Teddy Grace was plucked from obscurity to become a successful jazz singer (recording with Jack Teagarden and Bob Crosby, among others). She gave her all to the USO efforts during World War II and then, after a series of bad marriages and financial losses, fell into poverty and obscurity. It’s a Depression-era narrative with a “Behind the Music” twist. What gave Teddy grace? Who made Stella hurt? As the Dickensian names accumulate, and as his own record spins, Costello imagines Stella’s records gathering dust: “The night is black as cracked shellac/Abandoned in an attic/Stella is silent as the grave/Until the needle drags her through the static.” All hail the record players, bringing out the dead! Once the tale is told, an inspired, hypnotic noise continues until it suddenly stops–as if a record needle has been lifted.
Momofuku‘s other force of reanimation is Costello’s voice, an instrument that continues to confound the conventional wisdom of the fate of the midlife pop star. As Costello approached 40 and moved on to musical purgation, he did so by learning how to read and score–in collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, a group best known for their performances of Shostakovich. In The Juliet Letters (1993), Elvis wove an epistolary narrative in which all the heartbreak, remorse, anger and tenderness is expressed through fictional characters. Without the support of any instrument beyond the Quartet’s strings, his voice was naked: a dangerous weapon or a tender, heartbroken croon. His singing would never be the same again. He could give an operatic trill (as he does on “The Other End of the Telescope,” co-written with Aimee Mann) or surge from a falsetto to a roaring, emotive tenor, most dramatically on “God Give Me Strength” with Burt Bacharach, who, like McCartney, was an object of Costello’s teenage idolatry and, much later, a collaborator on Painted From Memory (1998). Do lessons in music theory make you a better rocker? They certainly expand one’s musical palette, even if the main course is revenge and guilt.
With When I Was Cruel (2002), his first rock ‘n’ roll album in eight years, Costello had yet another marriage on the rocks. The album’s pinnacle is “When I Was Cruel, No. 2,” in which Costello, back in the first person, narrates a ceremony where his wives (exes and current) visit him like ghosts of past, present and future. It is a hypnotic seven minutes of emotions that veer beyond revenge and guilt to a more adult, fortysomething ennui; Costello belts out every tortured syllable not as a young punk but as a defiant cabaret diva, vocal chops intact, Weltzschmerz ripened by decades of wallowing, often loudly, in public. The haunting vamp is punctuated by a sample from “Un Bacio e Troppo Poco” by an Italian singer called Mina, whose repeated syllable, sounding like “un,” guides a complex song that, bitterly, mixes memory and desire:
I exit through the spotlight glare
I stepped out into thin air
Into a perfume so rarefied
“Here comes the bride”
Not quite aside, they snide, “She’s number four”
“There’s number three just by the door”
Those in the know, don’t even flatter her, they go one better
“She was selling speedboats in a trade show when he met her”
The nastiness is deferred (at first) onto the gossipy wedding guests; the speedboat remark is too tawdry even for the serial monogamist singer. And using “snide” as a verb would be ridiculous if it didn’t scan so well. After three decades of rock stardom, Elvis has more control of his adenoids. Each syllable is heavy with experience and turns droll when the maudlin occasion becomes too much. “See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the Dancing Queen,” he sings, royalties due to Abba.
On Momofuku, singing in the first person as well, Elvis writes of being a man in lust, and in love–family-man narratives that raise the question of whether Little Elvis, 54, is happy at last, yet again. On “Flutter & Wow,” which recalls the sound of the Beatles’ version of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” a recording metaphor becomes an erotic description: “Erase everything rotten/Fascinated and uptight/Make me shout out loud/Make me cry all day and night.” A flaw in an archaic mode of mechanical reproduction is tied to sexual energy, with the refrain: “You make the motor in me flutter and wow.” (“Wow and flutter,” also the title of a Stereolab song, refers to the imperfection of analog recording.) Costello embraces the flaws in the system; via metaphor, he embodies them. “Since the imperfect is so hot in us,/Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds,” wrote Wallace Stevens with a similar metaphorical flourish. Costello, burning the midnight oil in quickie sessions while performing on Jenny Lewis’s record, has his ear to the flaws of the tape unspooling before him, and he hears the crackle of love. If “My Three Sons” falls flat–it is fatherhood territory covered in better songs including Paul Simon’s “St. Judy’s Comet” and John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy”–it may be because he can strike gold with a positive metaphor only once in a while. He’s coming to this party without the revenge and guilt we were expecting. The imperfect is so hot in us, too.
Momofuku was recorded just in time for the massive tour with the Police, its intimate ditties hauled into cavernous arenas and stadiums. Yet just when you thought Costello was grinding through a tour supporting a headliner he didn’t believe in, something strange happened in Chicago on May 10. Elvis was in the middle of crooning “Alison” for the zillionth time when the headliner, the one with a name that can wound, took over the mic and busted out a verse, which then moved on to the out chorus. It seemed like an apparition, but there he was: singing with the enemy, in a performance that would conclude with Elvis not biting the hand that feeds him but holding it in a shared, shaky bow. (“Newcastle’s finest,” blurted Costello by the time their duet got to West Palm Beach on May 17.) Sting sang the verses, and Elvis kicked in a harmony on the upper end. When they finally reached the end, the vamp continued, as Elvis, sharing a mic with Sting, was shouting in his face, extending longer lines, first belted out from his chest, then warbled loudly with a kind of frenetic melisma. The repetitions were becoming obsessive, like a loop spun with three decades of resentment. The duel got louder and louder until countdown. So much sonic upheaval over four little words. The repeated phrase? “My aim is true.”