Monday, October 22, 2018


A Costello review from the 80s, just to show that I once regarded him as the artist who could save rock and roll.

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GET HAPPY--Elvis Costello and the Attractions
sizeable wedge of the unstoppable herd of reviewers and assorted ill-cultured taste mongers have exhausted their supply of superlatives in justifying rock critics defending their declaration that  The Clash's London Calling record the hottest double record set since Exiles On Main Street, I've been tempted to retaliate with an only a half-facetious declaration. Elvis Costello's new record, Get Happy!! (I would have written) is the most remarkable double rock record since Blonde On Blonde. With the gauntlet thrown to the floor, warring factions would man the ramparts and try to pick each other off with sniper-tongued pot-shots. Nonsense on two counts. First, although Get Happy!! Contains 20 songs; it is, in fact, a single record with 10 selections per side, whereas Dylan's double set Blonde On Blonde, with several pieces going well over three minutes, holds less material. More importantly, however, is the nonsense rock reviewers in general (myself included) indulge in when they sling about comparisons that pale once separated from the heat of the moment. 

Common sense and sober thinking show that the Clash is an earnest band that hasn't developed the stylistic subtleties that the Stones used to manage and that Costello, apart from a shared genius for non-sequiturs, has little in common with Dylan. This brings us to what Get Happy!! Really is: neither a masterpiece nor a landmark to be prematurely canonized, but instead a firm confirmation of the significant talent his audience suspected he possessed. The major revelation on getting Happy!! Is that Costello, like many had hoped, has transcended the slight trappings of new wave and has become a songwriter, an artist with a firm grasp on his material who can write songs using an encyclopedic array of song styles to their full measure. The 20 songs on getting Happy!! Comprise something of a brief course in the history of pop music style. Costello, it should be pointed out, is hardly a new wave dilettante who plagiarizes other people's art because he's unable to develop his own voice. Instead, Costello shares methodological affinities with the patron saint of the French New Wave film school, Jean Luc-Godard. Godard, who, through his young life had been surfeited with American genre films by John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, and other Hollywood directors, took to making his own films during the late 60s, using many of the same camera stylistics of his American influences. Godard, aware that he was a French intellectual first and that he couldn't make "American" films no matter how much he admired the visual gracefulness American directors occasionally managed, ended up subverting the genres, inserting heavy doses of philosophy, Marxist literary criticism, semiological dissertations on language, and other notions stemming from the French proclivity for spinning theories, concepts that Godard's American film influences would doubtlessly stand gap-mouth at. Then, film genres to Godard were a medium he could use, alter, retool, change, subvert. Costello is a songwriter, of course, and one wouldn't belabor a comparison between him and Godard beyond a simple point: like Godard, Costello shuffles music styles and makes use of them the way he wants. He does this through his lyrics, which along with Steely Dan's, are the most disturbing, dense, and brutal in rock. 

Frequently, Costello enjoys writing a lyric with no literal meaning against a melody that evokes something else entirely. In "Secondary Modern," with a soft croon over a tune that could pass for some of the blander efforts of Jackson Browne, Costello sings: "This must be the place / Second place in the human race / Down in the basement / Now I know what he meant / Secondary modern / Won't be a problem / Til the girls go home..." As pleasing as anything else could be, the melody says one thing, but the lyrics, full of sparse details and indirect innuendo, deny that pleasure. Costello's aim seems to set us up in the visceral plane and then pull the rug out from under us once the words sink in. Dangerous activity. Lack of space makes it impossible to go into a song-by-song account, but here are some choice tracks. "Motel Matches," set in a gospel vein, is abstracted teenage heartbreak, an implied story of a lover's concern for his girlfriend's loose ways. "Opportunity," a jaunty tune in a stiff gallop tempo that matters, incredible enough, the Hider and Mussolini baby boom campaigns. 

"Man Called Uncle" is an excellent hard rocker where Costello condemns beautiful people who've resigned their free will so that they could become mere sexual playthings to rich people and express a tacit yearning for real love without usury. Costello's central theme throughout is that he's against anything that keeps people from becoming the human being he'd like to see them evolve, against those institutions that divide people, denatures them, turn them into a mindless horde that consumes, kills, and continually destroy each other.

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THE DELIVERY MAN--Elvis Costello and the Imposters
I had the faint hope that Elvis Costello's most recent CD, "The Delivery Man," would be a solid and tuneful set of punchy rock and roll and sharply written lyrics as was Costello's previous "When I Was Cruel" from four years ago, but such is hardly the case. Well, no, that understates the disappointment, which was something akin to questioning my tastes when I was in college and feeling compelled, fleetingly so, to apologize for all the positive reviews I'd given his albums in the Seventies and early eighties when I felt I still had some purchase on informing the culture and the people in it about the best work the best of us were doing. Fortunately, I stopped drinking some years ago and avoided anything so rash; I went to sleep, and the worst despair was gone, but I was still irked, cheesed off, madder than a wet hen. Elvis Costello has been sucking for years now. I was tired of waiting for one of those "return to forms" one anticipates aging rockers to do, hoping they live long enough to make one more disc that has half the kick such musicians might have had back in the day, or the night, or just around when they cared. One way or the other, it amounts to waiting for someone to die, yourself or the artist in question. It's a long game of chicken. It's been long enough to wait for Dylan or the Stones to decide that they want to make music again that sounded like they still enjoyed their work as much as the money they make from it. 

Costello isn't that old, and he hasn't lost his talent; his ambition just got in the way of it. The songs are wandering bits of amorphous mood-setting, vaguely sad, melancholic, inward drawn. The worst of "Painted from Memory" is an irresolutely medium-tempo collection of muzak dirges with Burt Bacharach (both of whom apparently forgetting that Bachrach's work is marked as much by quirky, uptempo tunes) meets the pulseless shoe-gazing sniffling of "North."Costello has been trying to show everyone how much he's matured and grown as an artist and writer. Still, unlike someone like Paul Simon, who improved dramatically in his solo work after he finally bid adieu to the collegiate poesy of Simon and Garfunkel's too-precious word mongering, Costello tries to get it all in, to say it all in one song, and then again in the song after that. His songs tear at the seams, and there is not the overflow of talent you'd like, but rather an uncontainable spillage. Through "Rhymin' Simon" and onward, Simon knows the meaning of restraint, containment, care in image, and metaphor. He remains a songwriter with a solid sense of pop structure, forcing him to make each song the best he can. Costello is, on occasion, a better melodist than Simon and a more attractive, verbally dexterous lyricist. Still, his lack of care sinks him here and throughout most of his output in the '90s. His closet in terms of sheer talent, Tom Waits does the sloppy and the unrestrained with the kind of genius we reserve for Miles Davis and Picasso. Costello is shy of genius, is a brilliant craftsman when he applies the technique, and reapplying himself is precisely what is called for. 

The songs on the new one are unfocused and drift in structure--Costello seems to be trying to convince that playing is indecisive about how he wants a melody to unfold. He is artfully oblique, but he forgets to absorb fifty or so years of rock, pop, and rhythm and blues styles and then compose fantastically upbeat music that was subtly argued at once in the lyrics and intensely rocking with the music. The density of mood he gets across is enough to evoke Hamlet-like assumptions of deep thought and artful equivocation on crucial narrative points.

 Costello had entered middle age with some overblown assumptions that he needs to be artier, moodier, more depressed, diffuse, more obtuse than he was when he was a young punk trying to make a buck off his bad attitude. There are those die-hard fans who would counter that Costello's lyrics are the subtlest and most literary of his career, something I would argue against. Still, all the same, this is a weak defense of the general torpor that saturates "The Delivery Man." Even if so, albums that are more interesting to read than to listen to are fit, on principle, to be used for target practice at the next skeet shoot.
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and Burt Bacharach 
Two pop music-wise guys team up for a vehicle that should have been a tour-de-force from start to finish but got stuck in a ditch, wheels spinning, engine roaring uselessly. There is an insistence on medium ballads or funeral march ballads, sadder-than-dead fish torch songs, and though there is merit to a good number of them, the torpor wears you out. Costello continually tries to hit the high notes at seemingly the exact same moment in each song, with his pitch the equal of having a live magpie taped to your face. It's a horrible, piercing experience before long, and the rationale is that it's a brave thing he's doing by using his limited apparatus for the high points on the sheet music won't cut ice. Bacharach, I recall, wrote a good number of spry up-tempo songs as well and had a sense of humor. Perhaps he felt he needed to get serious now that he was getting some serious attention from critics because the acclaimed Costello designed to work with him. The album is dour, gloomy, utterly depressed in the long run; it would have been best if they canned half the songs here and released only the genuinely fantastic work. It would have been better if they remembered bringing their sense of humor to the sessions when they recorded this.

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