The game of
Elvis Costello and his eternal Sidekicks The Attractions are getting used to being unpredictable. Just don’t suggest it’s becoming a habit. writes Alastair Mabbott.
t would probably be easier if he had ditched The Attractions. debunked rock ‘n’ roll and settled down to a new life as the 9(ls‘ answer to Ivor Novello or Kurt Weill. But no. our great all-rounder Elvis Costello still gets together with his old muckers Pete. Bruce and Steve — The Attractions — one of the great British rock units for. over the last couple of years. frequent albums and tours.
You’d be steering into a minefield by looking upon last year‘s scorching Brutal Youth or even the more delicate textures of the new album. All This Useless Beauty. as though they’re examples of Costello returning gratefully to his roots. or turning out ‘regular‘ albums as a balance to his more elevated ‘side-projects‘. Things don‘t work out that neatly. As he says himself: ‘Music’s just lots of different kinds of structures. and I‘m telling stories or,trying to express some feeling that I’ve had about something. or a notion that occurred to me. and
Elvis Costello: he’s got a ticket to ride
I try to find the best music that serves those purposes.‘
So even if The Juliet Letters. with The Brodsky Quartet. and Deep Dead Blue. a duo album with avant-jau guitarist Bill Frisell. showed Costello branching off into hitherto uncharted areas. where to slot his ‘covers album’. Kojak Variety'.’ Or. indeed. All This Useless Beauty? An Attractions album. btit as different from Brutal Youth. as that record was different from King (If/America or Spike. it was
‘whipped into shape‘ from a motherlode of
dozens of new songs on a five—night New York residency earlier this year. Subtle and soulful. it is. he says. ‘a very accurate representation of my frame of mind. from a musical point of view. at this point’.
Costello is eager to downplay the common link between several of the songs on the new album. which is that they were written by him for other singers (Roger McGuinn. June Tabor and Aimee Mann have all recorded their
ELVIS COSTELLO FEATURE
Costello offerings; two others were written with Johnny Cash and Sam Moore. of Sam and Dave fame. in mind). The (‘D booklet makes no mention of this. and (‘ostello dismisses that angle as ‘irrelevant. a footnote at best‘. He‘s probably right to do so — anything which looked like a ‘lheme‘ would probably have it earmarked straight away for the ‘side-projects‘ dumper in many people's minds.
Make no mistake. Costello. already a man of wide tastes. has been busting out all over. especially since he learned to write music notation while working on the score for Alan Blcasdale's (iBlI (he later followed that tip with the music for Jake‘s Progress). There was no stopping him. l"irst. The Brodsky Quartet then. last year. his l’ttt .‘llt‘tlt l’tn'lttt/t/ett Playthings. for \ iols and counter-tenor. was unveiled on the Sottth Bank.
Controversially. (‘ostcllo's increasing high- brow support led to him being appointed artistic director ofthe South Bank's Meltdown Festival. where in addition to all the acts he'd personally selected. his short orchestral work lit/ye ()ng/y was premiered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He's now composing a work for the classical singer Anne Sofie von ()ttet‘.
‘The other thing you have to accept.’ he announces — the first being that All This Useless Beauty shows off the versatility of The Attractions better than any previous record — ‘is that because I‘ve done lots of other things there are people in the audience whose point of connection with me is something like The .ltt/iet
‘l’m telling stories or trying to express some feeling that I’ve had about something, or a notion that occurred to me, and I try to find the best music that serves those purposes.’
Letters and before that everything was too noisy and scratchy and shottty and bitey. Now here was something they could understand — and of course there are certain songs on this record that they will still be able to listen to. and. you never know. they're probably getting their ears expanded over into the more raucous material here because they understand that within the noise and the confusion there is music and there is sense. it isn‘t just a load of random shite.‘
This is what he thinks critics find much harder to grasp than the public.
‘Musical conservatism has reached a really critical point. I think. in criticism.‘ he says. referring to the reaction to the (‘ostello/Frisell album. ‘But. actually. when you get out into the public. you‘ll find that people have a much wider range of tastes than the critics would like you to believe.‘
And paradoxically: ‘l‘m aware that all the things that have been the most controversial. if you like. in a critical sense. have made me infinitely more friends that I didn’t have before in the actual public. The .ltt/t'et Letters got a wretched time in the press in England when it first came out. but I'm touring Andalucia in January with The Brodsky Quartet. so I don’t give a shit. It's being played in Montreal. it’s already been turned into a theatre production in Sweden. . . the thing has a life ofits own beyond any ambition that I or the Quartet might have for it. So music can’t be stopped by mere words. Words are not the equal of music. in my opinion.’
[Elvis Costello And The Attractions play The Barrow/and. Glasgow on Sunday 2/ July.
The List 28 Jun-ll Jul I996 17