- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

The reputations of most Hall of Fame musicians rest upon a core period of work, an interval of do-no-wrong creativity that results in a consecutive string of albums against which all subsequent work is compared longingly. New inductee Elvis Costello is no exception.

One must admit that his collaborations with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet and the opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter look impressive at least on paper. But make no mistake, those are the dabblings of an artist who has ceased to be relevant to a large majority of his old audience. Mr. Costello enters the hall because there was a time, an amazing six-record stretch, when he completely dominated his peers.

On the cover of his first album, 1977's "My Aim Is True," Mr. Costello stood knock-kneed and bug-eyed, a runty young man costumed in ill-fitting thrift-shop castoffs of a vaguely '50s vintage, awkwardly holding an old Fender guitar and staring suspiciously out into the world through nerdy, oversize spectacles. He resembled a cornered rat, and the record inside revealed that he had an extremely virulent case of rabies. Listening to the album now, it still seems inconceivable that someone so young, just 23, could be so bitter.

If Mr. Costello was precocious in his anger, however, it was immediately apparent that he was equally precocious in his ability to write songs. While the relatively brief punk era of the late '70s released a seemingly continuous stream of paradigm-shifting albums, "My Aim Is True" distinguished itself in large part by being the first to introduce a virtuoso songwriter in the classic (pre-punk) sense.

Backed by the American bar band Clover (which later would form the nucleus of Huey Lewis and the News) and produced by pub-rock veteran Nick Lowe, every song on "My Aim Is True," while not necessarily great, is perfect in its construction. If the album sounds a little low-budget today, the stylistic range of the material, from the cocktail-lounge poignancy of "Alison" to the rockabilly bounce of "Mystery Dance" to the cutthroat reggae of "Watching the Detectives" made Mr. Costello the leading candidate to emerge as the pre-eminent pop songwriter of his time.

With his second album, "This Years Model," again produced by Mr. Lowe, and backed by the newly recruited Attractions, Mr. Costello proved equal to what had become extravagant expectations. If Clover had provided Mr. Costello the serviceable vehicle he needed for getting his songs across (think of a battered-but-reliable old Chevy), with the Attractions the whiz kid had been handed the keys to a Ferrari. The envy of aspiring bandleaders everywhere, the Attractions pulled off the seemingly contradictory feat of playing garage-band music with the schooled virtuosity of the conservatory.

Steve Nieve's roller-rink-of-the-damned organ became Mr. Costello's signature sound, and the dynamic resourcefulness of Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete "No Relation" Thomas on drums gave Mr. Costello a vastly expanded rhythmic palette with which to work. Like their leader, the Attractions loved to show off, but somehow, every adrenalized note and every beat they played only served to enhance Mr. Costello's increasingly complex songs. From the opener, "No Action," through such now-classic anthems as "Pump It Up" and "Radio Radio," Mr. Costello and the Attractions were writing and playing music at a level that left their peers in the shade. Critics were slobbering, and there seemed to be no limit to their commercial potential.

With "Armed Forces," released in 1979, Mr. Costello was relaxing, just a bit, and the result was a lush pop album that was uncharacteristically confident and generous. "Oh I just don't know where to begin," go the album's opening lines (from the first single "Accidents Will Happen"), and Mr. Costello seemed fairly giddy with anticipation at the prospect of flaunting the contents of his musical treasure chest. "Oliver's Army" became a huge hit in England, and in songs such as "Party Girl," Mr. Costello revealed that he was capable of experiencing emotions other than "fear and guilt" (to use his own oft-quoted phrase) after all.

Alas, the giddiness was to be short-lived, and commercial breakout was not in the cards. While on tour in the United States, Mr. Costello got into a drunken musical argument in a hotel bar with the American musicians Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills, using the nword in the course of disparaging Ray Charles. Mr. Bramlett punched Mr. Costello, and the whole sordid affair, Mr. Costello's vicious racist slur included, was publicized without restraint by an American rock press that still wore ponytails, still used expressions such as "mellow out" and still harbored deep-seated doubts about these aggressive British "new-wavers" with their threateningly unorthodox, occasionally downright reactionary, political tendencies.

The incident provoked a justifiably outraged backlash and alienated a good portion of the American record-buying public. Record companies already were becoming leery of hitching their fortunes to punk musicians, who were known to vomit in airports and stab their girlfriends. Though the ensuing lack of record-company support may never have been made explicit, Mr. Costello, along with his growing legion of fans, must have had an intimation that his quest for true commercial stardom was essentially finished then and there.

He refused to plead his case to the press his outspoken support of anti-fascist groups and his well-documented fondness for black music. Instead, Mr. Costello responded to his critics by releasing "Get Happy," a subdued and remorseful collection of songs heavily influenced by classic R&B music from the '60s. Many of the songs were no more than sketches, as if literal meaning were beyond Mr. Costello's grasp, and Mr. Lowe and the Attractions used the opportunity to evoke emotions and mood through the use of deft, impressionistic arrangements. Not until "Riot Act," the album's incendiary closing song, does Mr. Costello finally vent his pent-up frustrations.

No longer lusting after pop stardom and no longer dragging his tail between his legs, Mr. Costello released the underappreciated "Trust" in 1981, in many ways his most assured and mature collection of songs. Though the lyrics remain fairly bleak and obscure, "Trust" finds Mr. Costello at his most melodic and synced-up with the Attractions in ways that obviate any need for busier orchestrations.

Perhaps thinking "Trust" to be the culmination of what could be recorded using a relatively live setup in the recording studio, Mr. Costello sought to immerse himself in the recording process itself on "Imperial Bedroom." Widely hailed as a masterpiece, this was the first album recorded without the services of Nick Lowe. (One-time Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick was brought in to realize Mr. Costello's ambitions.)

The resulting album, while beguiling and often brilliant, made plain what earlier albums had only hinted at: Mr. Costello had a dangerous tendency to confuse complexity with profundity. Further, his highly developed musical craftsmanship often ran far ahead of his ability to communicate coherently. His eroding command of his powers was too much for many fans to bear in a talent that once had been remarkable for the precision with which it was guided to its target.

The aptly titled "Punch the Clock" serves as the coda to this period, a last, half-hearted stab at commercial success that found Mr. Costello and the Attractions working with slick British pop producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who had crafted hits for Madness, Dexy's Midnight Runners and Teardrop Explodes. The album is state-of-the-art and features the pleasant pop-soul hit "Everyday I Write the Book," but for the first time, Mr. Costello sounds like he is just going through the motions. Only the chilling anti-war ballad "Shipbuilding" (featuring trumpeter Chet Baker's last recorded work) truly gets under your skin.

After that, Mr. Costello's restless musical wanderings led him away from many of the things he did best, although the results were not always uninteresting when glimpsed occasionally on MTV or overheard on the drugstore radio. The sheer volume of work all but ensured that he would come up with the occasional gem ("I Want You," "Poisoned Rose," "The Other Side of Summer," "Indoor Fireworks"), but the days of running to the record store in fevered anticipation of his new albums were over.

Rock 'n' roll has never wanted for angry young men, and Elvis Costello is not the first one to mellow into the role of respected establishment figure. Yet given the astonishing intensity of his youthful rage and the breadth of his subsequent accomplishments as a composer, it is safe to say that no other artist has had quite so far to travel between those two extremes.

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