Napoleon Dynamite and probably several undiscovered names since have lengthened his impressive list of aliases. And in a bid to see the Vengeful Nerd bumped off, and the words ‘generous’ and ‘compassionate’ attached to his songs instead of the usual ‘twisted’ and ‘misanthropic’, McManus toned down the bile count. He even simpliﬁed his lyrics — ‘Once I’d discovered ambiguity and irony could be strong techniques, I started thinking that obscurity was as well,’ he said — but Costello being Costello, only by degrees.
At the time, he would stun interviewers by describing a song as ‘totally straightforward, another simple love song’, but even a ‘straightforward’ song by Costello standards is a complex affair wreathed in often bafﬂing imagery. He has likened ‘Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)’ from Mighty Like A Rose, to a painting, and if the stream ofconsciousness opus ‘Tokyo Storm Warning’ (from BloodAnd Chocolate), was his Guernica, then ‘Doomsday’ is a more savagely-daubed abstract, mocking the niceties of metre and making little sense. The MacManus that made Mighty Like A Rose is still prey to some of the worst excesses of any of his pseudonymous predecessors: awkward rhymes and lines that don’t just set up a tension with the metre ofthe lyric, they kick it to the ﬂoor and pelt it with sticks.
What has gone unremarked is that, as he pared down his tricky wordplay, their complexity, confusion and opacity transferred themselves to the music. Not only are his albums becoming centreless jumbles ofstyles, the songs on Spike and Mighty Like A Rose are frequently ﬂorid and Byzantine. ‘Miss Macbeth’ on Spike seemed like an entire fairground playing at once, and ‘Harpies Bizarre’ on the new album is typically overloaded, with a woodwind break in the middle that might be a nod ofthe head to The Beatles or it might
not — you can only look at minutely-detailed miniatures painted on the heads of pins for so long before eyestrain develops. There is space to breathe — Declan MacManus likes his ballads — but the assault ofstyles and genres becomes oppressive in itself. Although he has scorned the ‘new George Gershwin’ tag awarded him by the New York Times, he must be secretly pleased — didn’t his occasional songwriting partner Paul McCartney have similar plaudits thrown his way? And his excitement over a , recent conversion to classical music, his instrumental compositions for The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the work he did for the i soundtrack of GBH (via an arranger, although he is talking now of learning to read music so he can compose, a marked contrast to McCartney). even the very nature of the extended ensembles he’s been using for the past five years. suggest that for all the confusion and often unsatisfactory nature of his current work. he sees exciting times ahead. An escape from the bonds of his public persona — again — might be on the cards — not as the ‘new George Gershwin’, but as the next phase of Declan MacManus.
Elvis Costello Aml The Rude l’ii'e play the Barrow/and, Glasgow on Sat 13 and the Playhouse. Edinburgh on Sun [4.
. _ J The List 13 — 25Ju|y 19917