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Though singer-songwriter Elvis Costello rose to fame during the English punk movement in the 1970s, he surpassed the limitations of the genre through his fascination for other musical styles, from American country and blues to reggae, jazz and classical composition, as well as his highly literate, often biting lyrics. Costello's early work with his crack backing band, the Attractions, bristled with passion and venom on songs like "Oliver's Army," "Watching the Detectives" and "Pump It Up," but he also showed an exceptional capacity for quieter material, displaying a jazzman's delivery on songs like "Alison" and "Almost Blue." Costello's fortunes rose and fell during the 1980s and 1990s as he explored various genres and sounds, but by the new millennium, his body of work was so vast and his adventurous spirit so well-loved that his experiments were welcomed by a dedicated audience of listeners. To that end, he released albums of country, folk, jazz and even orchestral works, while still remaining true to his rock-n-roll roots, all of which underscored his status as one of popular music's most accomplished and protean talents.Born Declan Patrick MacManus in London, England on Aug. 25, 1954, Elvis...
Though singer-songwriter Elvis Costello rose to fame during the English punk movement in the 1970s, he surpassed the limitations of the genre through his fascination for other musical styles, from American country and blues to reggae, jazz and classical composition, as well as his highly literate, often biting lyrics. Costello's early work with his crack backing band, the Attractions, bristled with passion and venom on songs like "Oliver's Army," "Watching the Detectives" and "Pump It Up," but he also showed an exceptional capacity for quieter material, displaying a jazzman's delivery on songs like "Alison" and "Almost Blue." Costello's fortunes rose and fell during the 1980s and 1990s as he explored various genres and sounds, but by the new millennium, his body of work was so vast and his adventurous spirit so well-loved that his experiments were welcomed by a dedicated audience of listeners. To that end, he released albums of country, folk, jazz and even orchestral works, while still remaining true to his rock-n-roll roots, all of which underscored his status as one of popular music's most accomplished and protean talents.
Born Declan Patrick MacManus in London, England on Aug. 25, 1954, Elvis Costello was the son of Irish jazz trumpeter Ross MacManus and his wife, Lilian. Raised in Twickenham, he moved to the seaport town of Birkenhead in 1971, where he formed his first band, a folk duo called Rusty. Costello then completed secondary school at St. Francis Xavier's College before returning to London; there, he formed a pub rock act called Flip City, for which he billed himself as D.P. Costello, a moniker inspired by his father's own stage name, Day Costello. During this period, he also made his first broadcast recording, providing backing vocals for a television commercial written and penned by his father for R. White's Lemonade. While performing with Flip City, Costello also recorded several demo tapes of original material, one of which made its way to the independent label Stiff Records. The label's founder, Jake Riviera, signed Costello to his roster in 1977, and suggested that the singer adopt "Elvis" as his new first name.
With fellow Stiff labelmate Nick Lowe serving as producer, Costello began work on his debut album, My Aim is True, in 1977. Though its lead singles, "Less Than Zero" and "Alison," failed to generate much chart interest, the album itself rose to No. 14 in the United Kingdom. However, Stiff lacked an American distributor, which meant that the record went unheard in the United States. Costello attempted to right the situation by protesting outside of a CBS Records convention in London, which earned him both an arrest and a deal with Columbia Records several months later. He soon assembled a backing band, the Attractions, to join Lowe, Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric on a Stiff Records package tour that helped to build an audience and send his third single, "Watching the Detectives," to No. 15 on the U.K. singles chart. Costello left Stiff soon after to join Riviera at his new label, Radar Records.
His second album, This Year's Model (1978), surpassed its predecessor with harder-rocking hits like "Pump It Up," which helped to propel the record into the Top 30 in America. But his third record, Armed Forces (1979), underscored a restless, ambitious musical scope, as embodied by politically charged tunes like "Oliver's Army," which decried military build-up around the world, and a song list that veered from upbeat ska ("Moods for Moderns") to intricate pop ("Accidents Will Happen"). The album was his first to break into the Top 10 in the United States, though the praise that surrounded Costello was briefly halted by an 1979 incident in a hotel bar in Ohio in which the singer became embroiled in an alcohol-fueled argument with singers Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett that culminated in a racially offensive tirade against James Brown and Ray Charles. Costello quickly apologized for the incident and contributed to Britain's Rock Against Racism campaign as atonement. The end of the year saw Costello serve as producer for the 2 Tone ska band the Specials' self-titled debut album.
In 1980, Costello adopted the sound of American soul music for Get Happy!! which shot to No. 11 on the stateside albums chart. The album also showcased Costello's growing penchant for verbal intricacy in his lyrics, though the singer would later dismiss this talent as verbosity. Its follow-up, Trust (1981), was something of an underperformer when compared to its predecessor, peaking in the Top 30 in the United States, while the singles "Clubland" and "From a Whisper to a Scream," which featured Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze on vocals, hovered at the lower depths of the charts. His next record, Almost Blue (1981), featured Costello and the Attractions covering country classics by the likes of George Jones and Gram Parsons, which drew mixed results from reviewers and listeners alike. Imperial Bedroom (1982) followed similar suit, with Costello adopting a mercurial approach to the material, including a 40-piece orchestra and different vocal approaches. No hit singles were produced from the record, though the moody "Almost Blue" was successfully covered by jazz singer-trumpeter Chet Baker prior to his death.
Costello had parted ways with Nick Lowe as producer with Almost Blue, which was overseen by Nashville producer Billy Sherrill. Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick handled production duties on Imperial Bedroom, but his first success without Lowe came with U.K. producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who had scored hits for the likes of Madness and Dexys Midnight Runners. Punch the Clock (1983) generated a Top 40 single with "Everyday I Write the Book," an ebullient pop gem featuring soulful brass and a female vocal duo. The song pushed the record to the Top 30 on the albums chart in the United States, but an attempt to recreate its success with Goodbye Cruel World (1984) was a dismal failure which prompted Costello to disband the Attractions and announce his retirement. However, he was soon on the road as a solo act, though his recorded output was limited to a single song, "The People's Limousine," a duet with T-Bone Burnett that was credited to The Coward Brothers. Costello also returned to the producer's chair to oversee Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (1985) by the Irish punk-folk group the Pogues.
When Costello returned to recording in 1986, he had adopted a more stripped-down, acoustic sound with a crack team of Nashville sidemen dubbed the Confederates, including the legendary guitarist James Burton, behind him. The resulting album, King of America (1986), received some of his best reviews since the early 1980s, and prompted an American tour that featured Costello playing multiple shows per city, one featuring the Confederates, the other featuring a reconstituted Attractions minus bassist Bruce Thomas, who had engaged in a long-simmering antagonistic relationship with Costello for years. Billed as Napoleon Dynamite, Costello reunited with Lowe and the Attractions for Blood and Chocolate (1986), but the effort reached only No. 84 on the Billboard albums chart.
The following year, Costello recorded Spike (1987) for a new label, Warner Bros. Collaborations with Paul McCartney yielded a Top 20 single in "Veronica," which became his biggest hit in America. The generally upbeat tone of the album was soon supplanted by a darker vision of a world in flux for Mighty Like a Rose (1991). Costello himself had also adopted a more serious tone, replacing his trademark spectacles and '50s-inspired veneer for a heavy beard. The record's downbeat tone, as evidenced by the acidic Beach Boys manqué "The Other Side of Summer" and "Invasion Hit Parade," failed to convince Spike fans to pick up the new record, and it quickly sank from the charts. Costello then collaborated with the Brodsky Quartet on a collection of classical pieces called The Juliet Letters (1993) before one final reunion with the Attractions on Brutal Youth (1994). A solid collection of pop material, it rose to No. 34 on the Billboard chart, prompting a world tour that quickly collapsed under the weight of conflict between Costello and Bruce Thomas. In 1995, he released a long-gestating album of cover songs called Kojak Variety, which set the tone for his subsequent releases: All This Useless Beauty (1996) was comprised of songs Costello had written for other artists, while a jazz EP with guitarist Bill Frisell and Painted Memory, a 1998 collaboration with songwriter Burt Bacharach, filled out the remainder of the 1990s.
A series of contractual problems with his new label, Polygram, due to restructuring within its parent company, Universal Music Group, led to several of these efforts suffering from under-promotion. Costello rode out the end of his contract with the label with a series of eclectic projects, including a collaboration with classical singer Anne Sophie von Otter and a stint as artist in residence at UCLA in 2001. The following year, he reconvened the Attractions - again without Thomas - as the Imposters, who backed him on his 2002 album When I Was Cruel. Thomas appeared briefly with, but did not perform with Costello during the group's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, the same year he released North, a collection of classically influenced pop songs rooted around the collapse of his marriage to singer Cait O'Riordon and new romance with jazz performer Diana Krall. A 2004 collaboration with T-Bone Burnett and Alison Krauss on the song "Scarlet Tide," featured in the film "Cold Mountain" (2003), earned a 2004 nomination for an Academy Award.
Costello then settled into an exceptionally prolific period that found him co-writing tracks with Krall on her 2004 record The Girl in the Other Room, then penning his first orchestral work, Il Sogno and recording a new album with the Imposters called The Delivery Man (2004) that broke onto the U.S. Top 40 albums chart. In 2006, he recorded The River in Reverse, a collaboration with R&B songwriter Allen Toussaint, then reteamed with the Imposters for Momofuku (2008), which featured songs co-written with Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley. That same year, he began a critically acclaimed stint as host of "Spectacle" (Channel 4/CTV, 2008-2010), a series of interviews and shared performances with fellow musicians. The country record Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009), a reunion with T-Bone Burnett for Starbucks' Hear Music label, soon followed, as did 2010's National Ransom. That same year, Costello made headlines for withdrawing from a concert in Israel to protest that country's conflict with Palestine. In 2011, he released The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!!, a live record that documented a pair of Los Angeles area shows featuring the title gimmick, a large roulette-like wheel with which audience members could randomly select songs for the evening's set list.
By Paul Gaita
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