Elvis Costello Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elvis Costello 1955–

(Pseudonym of Declan Patrick McManus) British songwriter, singer, and musician.

Costello is the first artist emerging from the recent new wave of musicians to achieve commercial success. The movement, which began in 1976, was a social reaction to the repression and hopelessness of contemporary life and a musical reaction to the bland, overproduced product of holdover artists from the 1960s and uninspired groups of the mid-1970s. Costello presents an angry stance, both lyrically and in performance, and combines it with attention to content, song form, and melody, elements often lacking in the works of Costello's contemporaries. As a result, his songs are felt to be both reflective of the times and accessible to a wide range of listeners.

Costello has been called one of rock music's most literate songwriters. He uses puns, clever wordplay, and variations of grammar and syntax to relate his often cynical observations on politics, sex, the media and recording industries, and the ironies in the struggle for power in man/woman relationships. As an underlying theme, Costello writes that to live and to love are painful experiences, filled with dishonesty, betrayal, and denial; to trust, he feels, may be an invitation to suffer. Many of Costello's songs are self-evaluations in which he admits that his own vulnerability and guilt have caused some of his discomfort. However, his passion, romantic hopefulness, and sense of humor (often directed towards himself) keep Costello's compositions from total negativity.

One reason suggested for Costello's success is his alliance with classic pop songwriters such as Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. But his albums show a diversity of influences, such as country music, rhythm and blues, fifties rockabilly, reggae, the sixties sounds of the British Invasion, and prototype punk and garage bands. His appearance is reminiscent of Buddy Holly, and even his stage name suggests his affiliation with the rock tradition. Costello was initially compared to such songwriters as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Graham Parker, who had similar styles or concerns, but the variety of his songs and the originality of his approach keep him from being categorized.

Costello has been criticized for his obsessiveness, for the glibness of his language, for being overly serious, and for the depressing nature of many of his subjects and themes. It is also felt that his bitterness and eccentricity will keep him from achieving mass acceptance. However, young people respond to Costello's honest evaluations as a youthful perspective to which they can relate, and it is generally felt that his works have helped to raise the intellectual level and emotional intensity of popular songwriting.