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Taking Liberties

For a guy once known for his unwillingness to do interviews, Elvis Costello has turned out to be one of pop music's most insightful commentators. Over the years, he's actually emerged as something of a "player-coach," to borrow a term Rolling Stone once applied to Pete Townshend (in fact, Costello made his official debut as a music critic several years ago with a glowing review of a T-Bone Burnett album in Musician magazine).

So it's hardly surprising that this bespectacled godfather of New Wave has generally been the best analyst of his own work. He's also been unusually objective about the way others perceive him. In 1994, while discussing the critical savaging that had greeted his '90s releases, Costello said, "It was my turn. I was comparatively bulletproof until [1991's] Mighty Like a Rose."

Longtime Costello watchers might debate exactly when their hero became a mere mortal (my college radio station's glossary of artists deemed Costello "the king of rock until Punch the Clock"). But Costello's assessment is basically accurate. Costello entered this decade riding a creative winning streak that defied one of the fundamental rules about great rock artists: that after about six or seven years (often less), they either dry up or get distracted, never again to attain their early heights.

But Costello was always unlike any other rock artist. Early in his career, he declared, "I'm not going to be around to witness my artistic decline." Some interpreted such statements as pre-emptive suicide notes, but what Costello was really saying was that he refused to cave in to the conventional wisdom about how creativity works. He'd seen too many rock icons slip into self-parody, and he was damned if he was going to let it happen to him. Anyway, this son of a British big-band singer had taken considerable inspiration from pre-rock pop tunesmiths like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hart--composers who had long, sustained creative peaks.

Costello was not only defiant, he was prolific; possibly more prolific than any other rock-era songwriter. Known for his ability to craft an album's worth of songs in one weekend (as he did for pop tart Wendy James in 1992), he confessed to Rolling Stone's Greil Marcus in 1982 that he actually had to slow himself down at times. His ability to string together clever puns and elegant melodies has often seemed limitless.

But in the early '90s, Costello looked like an artist strangely adrift. In 1989, he'd hit one out of the park with the eclectic Spike, his first album for Warner Bros. after more than a decade at Columbia. That year he had the two biggest American hits of his career, with "Veronica" and Paul McCartney's "My Brave Face" (a song co-written by Costello). "Veronica" even won an MTV award that year for "Best Male Video."

In the aftermath of Spike, however, Costello squandered much of this good will with Mighty Like a Rose, which possessed all the liabilities that Costello haters had always claimed to hear in his music: rote crankiness, excessive wordiness, and bombastic, pseudo-soulful vocalizing.

More than the music itself, though, what really disoriented Costello adherents during this period was his apparent transformation into an unkempt hippie. He grew a scraggly beard, let his hair grow long, and became a dead ringer for deceased Grateful Dead keyboardist Pigpen. As if to make the connection unmistakable, Costello appeared on the cover of Musician magazine with Jerry Garcia. It was hard to decide who looked worse.

Of course, fan repulsion to Costello's "beard phase" only showed how superficial pop listeners can be. Costello addressed the topic with typical defiance with Record Collector: "It's my life and my body, and if I want to fuck myself up and have a beard and wear my hair long, that's my business. I have my own reasons for that change of image, some of them willful."

Costello's hippie look didn't last long, but he followed Mighty Like a Rose with the least listenable album of his career, The Juliet Letters, a classical-pop fusion with the Brodsky Quartet. It was a sincere and painstaking effort to break new ground (Costello even learned to read and write musical notation), but too many of the songs strayed perilously close to the bombastic, middlebrow territory of an Andrew Lloyd Webber. Costello's audience averted its collective eyes.

This inauspicious entry into the '90s set the tone for a problematic relationship with Warner Bros. Future projects like Kojak Variety (covers of some of Costello's favorite songs) and All This Useless Beauty (new recordings of old songs that Costello had written for other people) probably cemented the feeling at the label that Costello was being deliberately perverse.

The situation parallels Neil Young's nightmarish experience at Geffen in the '80s, when he followed a techno-pop album with a rockabilly album and later made a brassy blues album. The suit-and-ties at Geffen snorted, "We want a real Neil Young album," to which Young responded by saying that every album he'd made had been a "Neil Young album."

Costello's relationship with Warner Bros. never reached the venomous levels that Young and Geffen got to, but things clearly soured along the way. It reached the point where even an album like 1994's Brutal Youth, which came close to the vintage Costello sound and reunited him with his old band, the Attractions, got lukewarm response from the label. Costello became convinced that the album's "hit single" was the gorgeous ballad "You Tripped at Every Step." However, Warner Bros. refused to fund a video for the song, leaving Costello thinking that an opportunity had been missed. The input Costello got from the label reached a peak of absurdity when one Warner staffer encouraged him to make music that was "less Guns n' Roses and more Juliet Letters."

The upheaval with Warner Bros. obscured the fact that Costello's post-Juliet Letters work was actually pretty strong. Brutal Youth was uneven, but at least half of it ranked with Costello's finest songwriting. Kojak Variety was an indulgence, but a vastly superior indulgence to Costello's 1981 album of country covers, Almost Blue. Even better than those records was All This Useless Beauty, a record whose concept promised little, but whose execution made it possibly Costello's least-appreciated gem. In particular, "You Bowed Down" (written for ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn), "Distorted Angel" and "Poor Fractured Atlas" were beautifully rendered art-pop songs that made a subtle but unmistakable point: This man was such a gifted tunesmith that he'd given away songs that others would kill for.

So, in light of all this, Costello's brilliant 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory (his first for Mercury), is not necessarily such a shocking comeback. Costello's never lacked for good songs, but what Painted From Memory has that the Warner Bros. releases lacked is a cohesiveness and a consistently sympathetic musical vision.

Costello once observed that collaborative songwriting tends not to result in personal revelation, but Painted From Memory certainly feels like it comes from a place very deep within Costello. The majestic melodies and sharply observed details of songs like "Tears at the Birthday Party" ("What if we never learn how to behave/I did something and you never forgave me") and "I Still Have That Other Girl" inspire some of Costello's best-ever singing: subtle and controlled, with much more effective and economical employment of the pseudo-operatic flourishes that weighed down The Juliet Letters.

In fact, Painted From Memory feels a bit like the song cycle The Juliet Letters wanted to be. Songs comment upon each other and follow the emotional arc of a failed relationship. It reflects an ambition that few songwriters would even dare show these days. As he did with McCartney a decade earlier, Costello encourages Bacharach to revisit his trademark motifs, and generally succeeds, with the exception of a couple of Al Jarreau-ish tunes that recall Bacharach's limp '80s hits.

While few could ever deny Costello's intelligence and musical ingenuity, some infidels have persistently complained that something was missing, an intangible that all the greats have. Two years ago, in The Irish Times, Paddy McAloon put his finger on this line of thinking, when he wrote, "I don't find him very natural. There isn't grace there that I see in people who would be considered less in such elevated company. I like to hear grace in music. Irving Berlin had it. Paul McCartney has it."

Painted From Memory might not be Costello's best album--it would be hard to match classics like Imperial Bedroom or Get Happy!!--but it might mark the point where even people like McAloon have to lay down their arms. With Painted From Memory, Costello unquestionably achieves that rarest of musical zones: a state of grace.

Elvis Costello is scheduled to perform on Sunday, June 6, at Celebrity Theatre. Showtime is 8 p.m.