Music News

Elvis Costello Is King

My Elvis Costello phase started pretty much by accident. I found a cassette copy of Blood and Chocolate in a thrift store, marked at 50 cents, and bought it not knowing much about Costello or his work.

I did, however, have the concrete sense that I was supposed to know Costello. That he was one of those songwriters, like Strummer or Dylan or Springsteen, who were more than just tired rock 'n' roll icons. That his importance wasn't just established by years of critical evaluation, but that his work timelessly vibrated with a sense of urgency. That he was the kind of artist who wrote songs that mattered and no doubt inspired the indie rock or punk band's cassette I had in my deck.

Or so I'd read.

I listened to Blood and Chocolate while driving a half-hour to band practice. I popped the tape in. I had to rewind it, of course, so I did and pressed play. Side one confirmed my suspicions. The jilted strut of "I Hope You're Happy Now" filled me with joy; the loose, manic "Tokyo Storm Warning" established for me Costello's post-punk significance, with New Wave keys and Costello's spastic, hyper-literate lyrics.

It was the last track on side one that really did me in — the tortured, unbearably tense "I Want You." My teenage brain could scarcely comprehend the psychosexual drama of the song, Costello quietly but forcefully ripping apart the erotic ego, examining the inner workings of jealousy and lust from the inside out. The creeping, barbed guitars were accompanied by a terrifying screeching, noisier and more disturbing than any hardcore record I owned.

It would be years later, when I purchased an LP copy, before I realized that the extra noise on the track was actually a case of my cassette being damaged. By then it was too late; Costello had his hooks in me.

Costello's career has been a study in contrasts. The noisy, uppity rockers have always been balanced out by Costello's frequent forays into the realms of jazz, measured blues, country and Western, and classical music. He's collaborated with Burt Bacharach and with his wife, Diana Krall, and composed operas and film scores. He may have thematically used the n-word in an argument with Stephen Stills concerning Ray Charles and James Brown, but he also produced The Specials, one of the most prominent interracial groups of all time, and collaborated with soul/jazz icon Allen Toussaint on The River in Reverse, the definitive record of post-Katrina New Orleans.

In recent years, he's embraced his status as "elder rock statesman," collaborating with Fall Out Boy, Stephen Colbert, and Jenny Lewis. He's got a TV show now, Spectacle, on the Sundance Channel, where he's interviewed Herbie Hancock, Lou Reed, Bill Clinton, and Smokey Robinson. His latest album, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, finds him collaborating with producer T-Bone Burnett on a series of acoustic tunes, showcasing his fondness for bluegrass and traditional Americana, recalling the duo's 1986 collaboration King of America.

But even as pop culture's foremost "Angry Young Man" has matured, he's never lost the trappings that defined his early success, the stinging wit, the nervous energy, and that singular voice. Watching him on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon a few months ago, backed by The Roots and tearing through "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," I remembered that moment in my car, pulling up to band practice, filled with excitement and knowing there was nothing more important than playing my guitar.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.