The Other ElvisNov 12
Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977.
Just a few weeks earlier, Elvis Costello was born, with the release of his first album, My Aim is True. Those obsessed with symmetry (namely, me) could pour plenty of meaning into that coincidence. In the foreground, you have the death of a man whose early career gave rock ‘n’ roll its legs but whose later years represented every bloated excess that the music industry had come to embrace. In the shadow of that death, one of the most intelligent and passionate musical artists of all time quietly set his first album onto record store racks, with every intention of tearing the world apart with his melodic punk. One star fades from the pop hemisphere; another flares to take its place. Out with the old, in with the new. Though not exactly, since Presley has hardly disappeared from our lives since his death and Costello hasn’t exactly become a household name.
Yet if the artistic agendas of a frustrated truck driver from Memphis and a frustrated computer programmer from England can have anything in common, it’s a constant fire to incite, one that Presley slowly extinguished as his popularity skyrocketed and that Costello has fed as the fuel of his career. The same instinct that propelled Presley to mumble “Let’s get real gone” into a Sun Studios microphone and ignite his band into a frenzy on “Blue Moon of Kentucky” would drive Costello in his early concert appearances to tear through a furious set, then storm off stage without so much as a “Thank you” or an encore. At the same time, their respective furies have never claimed a particular focus; for Presley, his literal goal may simply have been to get his listeners “real gone” with his music, while Costello was probably claiming a hefty chunk of the same righteous anger that fueled much of the punk scene in England.
Over the years, Costello has eschewed the “angry young man” label for which he first became known. But when you first hear Elvis Costello, whether it’s his latest album with the Impostors or any of his previous work, it’s that anger that hooks you in, the jerking, fire-spitting spite that is the soul of so many of his albums. It’s always there, in a whisper or a scream, lurking deep within or burning on the surface. You can feel the fire; it singes your ears, maybe in a way that music really hasn’t since the dawn of the King’s reign.
I fell in love with Costello’s music for the same reason that many other angry young men fall in love with it. He was a scrawny, clever pop star who said everything I felt incapable of saying about life and love; I was a scrawny, clever nobody who embraced his vicious tracts like a holy gospel. How many similar post-adolescents have also pledged allegiance to the Man after the inaugural spin of their Costello cherry-busting album, rushing out to buy his entire catalogue in a single pop and nursing a lifelong fetish for thick Buddy Holly glasses and skinny ties? For me, that first Costello record was Spike, which I bought because it had the song “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” on it, as well as Costello’s wistful pop hit “Veronica.” At the time, I was busy pretending that Costello’s lyrics on “Deep Dark” somehow applied to a woman I was dating: “One of these days you’re gonna have to face a deep dark truthful mirror/And it’s gonna tell you things that I still love you too much to say.” The rest of the record grabbed me enough to send me out for My Aim is True, but I didn’t really “get” that album until at least a year later.
In fact, neither of those albums were the one that sent me swooning into the depths of my ongoing love affair with Costello. No, it was Blood and Chocolate, a record regularly underappreciated by die-hard Costellites, that drove me mad with pop ecstasy. Again, part of it had to do with reading my own situation into one of the songs; “I Hope You’re Happy Now” seemed written for a guy who had made my own life a living hell because he couldn’t get over the fact that I’d started dating his ex-girlfriend. If there was anyone who I thrilled to imagine “like a matador with his pork sword while we all die of laughter,” it was this guy.
Then I really stopped to listen to “I Want You,” six minutes of pure seething desire burned onto plastic, and I could not believe my ears. Forget the invective in the lyrics themselves. Here was this guy who not only harbored all these sinister desires toward a woman who’d left him in the cold, but could also sustain this constant level of menace for a full six minutes, past any logical point of conclusion, and then let the song come to a gentle stop. Only it wasn’t gentle at all, because you knew it was a conclusion and not a resolution; the singer would simply build up his anger to the point where all this fury would just come bubbling out again. We may never hear about it, but we knew it would happen. It made the “I Want You” songs by Dylan and the Beatles sound like frolicking musical postcards.
I’ve never been much of a rock evangelist, but I couldn’t resist. I played “I Want You” for my girlfriend; she hated it. Some of my friends were confused and it made a few people uncomfortable. Still I raved on throughout the dorm, until one guy finally paid me some real attention.
“This is amazing,” I said. “I can’t believe this exists.”
“What do you expect?” he replied. “It’s Elvis Costello.”
And still, through the pseudo-intellectual bullshit approach and the personal perspective approach, I feel like I haven’t really articulated why I adore the man’s music so much. He has spoken to my heart in ways no other artist has, revealed hidden secrets in the people I know and the world in which I take up space. He has done all this through some of the most exhliarating music and ingenious words that I’ve ever heard. And he’s still doing it; I’m still finding pieces of meaning in albums that I’ve internalized through repeated listenings.
But other than the fact that he’s, um, really good or something, why? In what way does Costello speak to me that the music of my other obsessions, guys like Springsteen and Ben Folds and even Elton John, does not? Yeah, he’s angry sometimes and he’s a genius. So is Dylan; so is John Lennon. I don’t follow their every artistic movement with fierce precision. As I’m sitting here and My Aim is True is firing up on the CD player, I’m thinking of the coincidence that each of Costello’s first three albums opens with his voice. Before a note of music is played, you hear him sing.
There might be something in that. Just like Presley, Costello has always been known as a voice. For the King, it simply meant that vocal swagger that would never die out, even when the man was squeezed into sparkly jumpsuits a few sizes too small and lazily trotting through his past glories on a Vegas stage. For Costello, that “voice” means so much more. It’s the scissors that jab into your soul every time he opens his mouth, and it’s that fire in his music that never burns out, and it’s the words that collide together in ways that I’m not even sure Costello himself could explain. It’s a white-hot artistic totality that has yet to dissipate, even if it has wandered a bit too far afield on occasion.
It’s a conclusion that sounds boring even as I type it, but darnit, his artistic voice is just so damn consistent. You can draw a line from My Aim is True to this year’s When I Was Cruel and find the same themes groping each other within his songs. At the same time, he’s versatile as all hell, both for his stylistic variety (name me one other pop singer/songwriter who’s dared to record an album of R&B stylings and a record with a string quartet within a decade of one another) and for his continually evolving songwriting style. They’re all Elvis Costello songs, but his sound never gets boring. Somehow the style retains its most essential qualities and continues to evolve.
Maybe that’s why I love Elvis Costello’s music so much: the unending variety and brilliance in his voice. Every album he’s ever released has touched me in some way, whether it inspires me to jump around like an ass in my room or drives me to reconsider my views on the female species. And every time he puts out a record, I’m there the day it comes out, because he’s uncompromising and he’s almost never failed me.
But then, what did I expect? He’s Elvis Costello.
This article originally appeared in Pop-Culture-Corn Magazine.