Elvis Costello Essay - Critical Essays

Costello, Elvis


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.

Allan Jones

I'd like to see ["My Aim Is True"] on the chart within the week, please. In fact, "My Aim Is True" could, given the opportunity and exposure, rocket with ease to national prominence: the collection contains enough potential hit singles to stock a bloody juke-box, believe me.

Two of the cuts, "Less Than Zero" and "Alison",… conveniently suggest the scope of Costello's writing and provide musical reference points for the uninitiated. Elvis … has a rare talent for seizing an image, an idea or a musical style and, however familiar its original shape, creating out of it something quite powerfully individual….

"Less Than Zero" is a vivid reflection of Elvis' affection and empathy with Sixties' r&b; simultaneously, the song … introduces, through its colourful evocation of suburban perversions and wry cynicism, the mordant, Ortonesque humour that characterises several of the songs included here. "Alison," by comparison, is a classically crafted pop song enhanced by stylish guitar inflections and Elvis' restrained vocal passion. The song also reflects Costello's other principal preoccupation as a writer: it's centered, like so many of the songs in this collection, around the termination of a relationship (a theme Elvis views with authentic insight, from a variety of perspectives).

Elsewhere, Elvis deals more explicitly with the emotional violence that attends the disintegration of love affairs,...

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Dave Schulps

[My Aim Is True is] this year's most auspicious debut album…. [There's] an intangible quality about Elvis that … makes me think he's destined for great things in the near future. (pp. 42-3)

Perhaps it's the way he combines anger and vulnerability on "I'm Not Angry," "Miracle Man," or "Alison" to become every little guy who ever wanted to be something he wasn't; or maybe it's the way he just rocks away so hard, so loose and unselfconsciously that you're won over by the sheer guts of his performance. In a year that is beginning to look more and more like a landmark in rock 'n' roll history, Elvis Costello has produced a classic in his first try. Where he'll go from here should be exciting to watch. (p. 43)

Dave Schulps, "Records: 'My Aim Is True'," in Trouser Press (copyright © 1977 by Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, Inc.), Vol. 4, No. 4, October, 1977, pp. 42-3.

Paul Rambali

We all know boys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses and vice versa, so bespectacled rockers should theoretically have an even harder time in the adulation stakes. Not so; Elvis Costello, the latest sensation to explode on these shores, proves you don't have to squint at an audience in order to get your message across….

Costello's first appearance on vinyl was early this year with the single "Less than Zero." As abstract a record as could be, he gave few clues to his territory…. The lyrics were shrouded in a strange, twisted sarcasm and seemed to express contempt for the way everybody goes about living a lifestyle rather than simply living. I later discovered that the song has something to do with Oswald Mosley, a British fascist leader of the '30s, but it's still hard to make sense out of it…. [It] was intriguing … on a surreal basis—and catchy to boot….

Some months later "Alison," Costello's second single, was released. In retrospect, "Alison" should have been the perfect summer hit, it has many qualities similar to 10cc's "I'm Not in Love." A beautiful, tender and melancholy ballad that does for me what [Todd] Rundgren's Something/Anything used to do. But perhaps it was a little too close; the pain and hurt show too clearly…. Anyone whose heart doesn't tighten a little when they hear "Alison" must have been brought up in a steel cage….

On the face of it My Aim Is...

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Sam Sutherland

Costello is the press agent's dream: a galvanic artist whose screwball appearance only heightens the force of his debut album, "My Aim Is True." If he appears to suffer from temporal dislocation, the visual symptoms only reinforce his music's rock classicism….

His songs are ripe with a sense of history and a barbed wit, but he is neither a nostalgic impersonator nor a parodist. Visual and musical echoes of the '50s and '60s are undeniably there, but as a singer and writer, he appears to have absorbed his influences enough to obscure any singular models….

Nor does Costello typify New Wave's assumed flamboyant primitivism…. [Both] playing and songwriting attest to a melodic sense forged directly from the best rock and pop sources. Welcome to the Working Week, which opens the album, may carry a scathing contempt for middle-class verities, but it rocks like crazy and even manages to kid Costello's own imminent celebrity….

That tension between genuine rage and saving humor emerges as one of the album's, and the artist's, most convincing virtues. Less than Zero salts its blunt nihilism … with a quirky surrealism as pithy and truly funny as some of Dylan's more whimsical mid-'60s mindgames, yet the wordless refrain is at least as close to simple r&b workouts. Such intriguing fusions of musical and verbal sense recur throughout. (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,...

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Simon Frith

Costello is a craftsman…. [His songs] are, indeed, impressive. A master of ambiguity and cliche, pun and precision, Costello is an astonishingly adept writer. He has the confidence to defy conventions of rhyme and grammar and metre and imposes his own syntax on the world. If reviewing were the same thing as essay grading, I'd give him As for sheer cleverness….

But, while I admire Costello's skills, I'm uneasy about what he does with them: There's something oppressive about his music. When I first heard his album [My Aim Is True] I thought my tetchy response was too subjective to make critical sense: Maybe I was just jealous that such an ambitious rock intellectual had made it….


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Allan Jones

"This Year's Model"—and it's difficult to believe from the maturity of the writing and the performance that it's only The Man's second album!—is an achievement so comprehensive, so inspired, that it exhausts superlatives. It promotes its author to the foremost ranks of contemporary rock writers. Clear out of sight of most of his rivals and comparisons….

Elvis Costello's prodigious talent, we can see in retrospect, was only superficially exposed on his first album.

While it is true that "Aim's" specific themes of revenge, jealousy, infidelity, deceit and betrayal are central to this album's most powerful songs—"Lip Service," "Lipstick Vogue" and "Living In...

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Patrick Goldstein

First off, Elvis—no matter how vehemently he attacks his rock elders—is just as much a product of his influences as any other garage band veteran. He named himself after one rock idol and has capitalized on his striking resemblance to another. His lyrics borrow their venom from Pete Townshend and their resignation from Gram Parsons. And his band, the Attractions, with their Farfiso dominated mid-section, are direct Anglo descendents of Question Mark and the Mysterians.

And Elvis can strike his rock populist pose and rail against the music biz to his heart's content, but without CBS's awesome promotional muscle, our boy would be no more renowned in America than fellow Stiffers Wreckless Eric and...

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Allan Jones

[Costello], clearly, was not the kind of talent that came every morning free with a packet of crackers….

[The proposition that Elvis was reminiscent of Bob Dylan became clearer the more I thought about it.] It wasn't so much that Elvis was copping Dylanesque attitudes, lyrical stances or anything as specific as that (though it was clear that Dylan had left an emphatic mark on the boy). No; it was something a little deeper.

Later, I realised that this was something close to what it must have been like to have been drawn for the first time, in the Sixties, to Dylan's mesmerising universe….

[Here] was someone who could potentially provoke similar associations,...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Jon Pareles

Somebody must have told Elvis Costello about "the Mystery Dance": sex. All about it. Told him, showed him—and burned him so badly that the idea of romance scares the living hell out of him, yet he can't get sex off his mind…. This Year's Model stays close to the thick of sexual warfare. Elvis vs. fear and lies, Elvis vs. anyone who gets close….

This Year's Model shows none of the detachment of My Aim Is True…. [The] lyrics stay personal. No politics, very little philosophy (although "Night Rally" on the British version has a bit of both). Costello is still bugged by the same thing: "Knowing you're with him is driving me crazy" ("No Action"). This time, though, he won't...

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Kit Rachlis

Listening to Elvis Costello is like walking down a dark, empty street and hearing another set of heels. His music doesn't make you dance, it makes you jump. It doesn't matter that he's stalking his obsessions and not you, because nobody ought to be this sure of his obsessions. But Costello appears determined never to reach that age when, as Joan Didion once put it, "the wounds begin to heal whether one wants them to or not." This Year's Model … is Costello's attempt to make certain those wounds stay open.

Elvis Costello feeds off terror; sometimes it almost seems as if he deliberately conjures it up so he can finger its jagged grain and twist its neck. On last year's My Aim Is...

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Tony Rayns

"Armed Forces" consolidates everything that Elvis Costello achieved with The Attractions on Last Year's Model. Some of the songs and arrangements here would have fitted on the last album ["This Year's Model"]; others seem designed to 'stretch' the band and demonstrate its flexibility. There's less gut attack, less overall aggression this time; instead a more relaxed display of energy and precision, of the kind that springs from unusual self-confidence. And the confidence is largely justified. Who else currently makes 12-cut albums without a single duff track?…

But it's still a sideways step. Costello has moved away from the put-down-by-numbers approach of his earlier songwriting towards—what? A...

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Kit Rachlis

"I'll do anything to confuse the enemy." If Elvis Costello had a business card, those words (from "The Beat") would be on it, the equivalent of Paladin's "Have Gun Will Travel." Costello doesn't go on to tell us who the enemy is because he doesn't have to. He has made it clear from the first that he doesn't trust anyone entirely—the British government, the music industry, his fans, his lovers, least of all himself. These are the armed forces that the title of his new album is referring to. If Costello is not quite as belligerent on Armed Forces as he was on his previous two albums, the title announces that he still sees the world in terms of power. It's this fascination with power—more than his command of...

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Janet Maslin

Costello writes songs that are elusive at times, bursting with bright phrases you can't always catch…. He sings about violence with a vibrant romanticism, and about love with murder in his heart. He writes short, blunt compositions that don't pretend to be artful, though they are, and don't demand to be taken seriously, even though they're more stunning and substantial than anything rock has produced in a good long while. He doubles back on himself at every turn, and you're forced to take it or leave it….

There's only one way to listen to Elvis Costello's music: his way. The songs are so brief they barrel right by, leaving an impression of jubilant and spiteful energies at war with each other....

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Ira Robbins

When Bob Dylan broke up with his wife … a few years ago, the world was treated to the introspective and bitter Blood on the Tracks. Although Elvis's personal life is not quite as public (yet) as the Zim's, Armed Forces emerges from roughly the same emotional territory, although in Costello's case, since he was the dumper, not the dumpee, his venomous lyrics are a bit harder to comprehend. Of course, as the Sultan of Spite, Elvis has a reputation to protect, but you have to wonder about the emotional actions of someone who feeds on anger and frustration. Most of us wait for trouble to find us, but not Elvis—he runs right out and creates his own. Interesting endothermic lifestyle….


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Pete Silverton

Right now, commenting on Costello or the Clash, you're not talking about just another artist, you're confronting rock'n'roll as a whole form as it stands now. They're both state-of-the-art, the living embodiments of more than a score of years and the linchpins of most probable futures. Who else is there?….

[The] Clash are real easy to write about. All that dynamite copy but genuine (if sometimes slightly forced) rude boy chic. Piece of cake.

But Costello, he's so, so tricky….

[Like] most others, I can't help but be drawn like a voyeuristic moth to the panache of the Costello Blut und Eisen [That's "blood and iron," folks—Ed.] assault on the...

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Ira Robbins

The one factor that most strongly separates Elvis Costello from 99 per cent of the other artists that find their way onto this country's airwaves is his intensity. Some rockers wail convincingly; others write songs of depth and passion; a few play with real fire. But nobody (repeat: nobody) puts it all together with as much concerted power as Elvis and band. His second and third albums (the first suffers too much from imperfect execution) are ticking time bombs of flat-out fury. Even when) he's not tapping his seemingly bottomless well-spring of venom, Costello delivers the goods with convulsive tension. No one else could charge even a love song with so much convincing anxiety.


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Allan Jones

The movie director Sam Fuller once famously defined the cinema as a battleground. That's exactly what rock 'n' roll becomes in Costello's raging hands. Wrestling with demons most of us have only vaguely imagined, Costello doesn't just write and perform songs that are among the most literate and penetrating in the entire repertoire of rock 'n' roll, he unleashes upon his audience the darkest possible realities….

[You] never know how far he's capable of pushing himself. Every performance seems an attempt to achieve some kind of personal catharsis or an act of personal exorcism. It's compulsive and frightening, rarely entertaining in any conventional sense. He can make you feel as uncomfortable as he...

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Ira Robbins

Costello maniacs will already own the bulk of this record [Taking Liberties]; for the rest, this is almost entirely first-run….

If you've followed Costello, you pretty much know this album already. Suffice to say, this is prime stuff—as good as any of his preplanned albums, and certainly more consistent than Get Happy!!'s 20 maybes. Far from being basement tapes or a "History of," Taking Liberties provides further proof (if any were needed) of Costello's talent. Get it!

Ira Robbins, "Album Reviews: 'Taking Liberties'," in Trouser Press (copyright © 1980 by Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, Inc.), Vol. 7, No. 10, November, 1980, p....

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Billy Altman

Budding Costellogians are already filing away the chorus from "Clean Money" ("You won't take my love for tender") [on Taking Liberties] and, more importantly, the various references to currency—cash and/or plastic—abounding through such songs as "Sunday's Best" and "Crawling To The U.S.A." ("Attach me to your credit card and then you can undress me"). Shrewd devil that he is, Costello keeps everyone on their toes throughout most of his songs … and if you blink, you're apt to miss some of the cliche twisting and punning that are becoming his trademarks. For me, on this album, the most interesting things crop up where you'd least expect them, like Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine" (Get Happy!!...

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Allan Jones

"Trust" arrives like a flurry of punches, pinning back your ears as it pins you to the ropes; ducking one punch, you walk into another.

Some of the individual blows might lack a decisive impact, but the final combination puts you down for the count. Time was when Elvis would've left you on your knees, bleeding into your tears. "Trust" holds out its hand, hauls you back on your feet. Costello's vision is as fierce as ever, but the malice has gone; he can still rage, but he no longer scolds….

Having his albums around the house and playing them so often is still like having someone's abrasive conscience as a lodger though. No doubt, Elvis will remain too acerbic for comfortable...

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