When the well runs dry

The vitality stops, but the music just keeps on comin'

Ten years ago it would've been a major event in my life--receiving a new Elvis Costello album in the mail--but when I got All This Useless Beauty last month, it just went in the big pile. After a few days I finally got around to listening to the Costello LP, which comes out May 14, and like his last few releases on Warner Bros., it did absolutely nothing for me.

I don't know if it's a good record or a lousy one. All I was sure of was that I didn't want to listen to any more of Elvis Costello's clever wordplay, complex tempo changes, and sarcastic pop vocals. Maybe the over-familiarity is my fault, because I used to spend almost more time listening to such Elvis albums as Get Happy and Trust than I did sleeping. But the way I hear it, Costello's prolific early period has caught up with him, and he no longer has anything to say that he hasn't said before--and better.

Like so many artists who gulp rather than sip their allotment of creative juices, yet still have bills to pay, Costello is entrenched in the post-vital period of his career. And we longtime fans must suffer through the disappointment.

What happens when your heroes keep making boring records? Usually nothing, because new albums by old faves are as easy to ignore as the last Sinead O'Connor record. Plus, since the 1988 release of Prince's Lovesexy, most record stores have become equipped with listening stations. The risk is minimal, until you think about what a recent song like "Egg Cream" does to the oeuvre of Lou Reed. Can "Pale Blue Eyes" still sound as mesmerizing after you've heard the new chorus of "You scream/I scream/We all want egg cream?" If you're like the 70 percent of the population that's in favor of the death penalty, you must firmly believe a person is only as good as the worst thing they've ever done, and so it's possible that you can't listen to the Velvet Underground after blowing $15.99 on Set the Twilight Reeling.

The best way for an artist to sustain interest in his or her musical career for longer than 10 years is to keep evolving, but not just for the sake of doing something different. Acts that have maintained their artistic integrity through some very good times include U2, Los Lobos, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Cave, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. All of those still-crucial artists have kept advancing their sounds and mixing it up with changes of pace. They evolve, take chances, get out of the house once in a while; they keep "looking for the goose bumps," as Kim Deal says. Some artists continue to shed their skins (compare Los Lobos' bar-band How Will the Wolf Survive? in 1984 to the distorted ambient-blues of Colossal Head 12 years later), while others choose to hole up in their platinum shells.

Sometimes it takes a shakeup of some sort to help restore vitality, whether this new twist is due to a label switch, a different producer, a membership change, or an intervention. The Cowboy Junkies were heading for ho-hum status after failing to top the gorgeous serenity of The Trinity Session for three albums in a row, but then moved from RCA to Geffen and recorded Lay It Down, one of the best LPs of 1996 so far. Then there's Steve Earle, who has discovered, after 20 years, he does his best work without drugs.

If an athlete loses a step or doesn't burn with as much intensity as he did in the past, he gets cut, traded, or talked into retiring. It doesn't matter if your name is Phil Simms or Howie Long and you've led your team to the Super Bowl: One minute you're the best at your position; the next thing you know, you're wearing a blazer and using a "Telestrator."

In pop music, however, where the fans can't read the box scores every morning, there are no clear-cut winners and losers, and so the gamut of "old-timers" who continue to play this young person's game runs from AC/DC to ZZ Top. Both of those bands, like many on the following list, are still great live acts because they have their entire careers from which to draw. But their recent recorded work only goes to show why they call it "product."

The List of Diminishing Returns
Last great album: Back In Black (1980)
LPs released since: 9
Next LP should be stickered: "Bon Scott: Still Dead"

David Bowie
Last great album: Scary Monsters (1980)
LPs released since: 9
Next LP should be stickered: "At least it's not Tin Machine."

Rosanne Cash
Last great album: King's Record Shop (1987)
LPs released since: 3
Next LP should be stickered: "Another window to the soul. All sales final."

Elvis Costello
Last great album: King of America (1986)
LPs released since: 7
Next LP should be stickered: "Still better than Graham Parker."

The Cramps
Last great album: Psychedelic Jungle (1981)
LPs released since: 8

Next LP should be stickered: "Psychobilly pioneers unhirable in any other occupation."

John Hiatt
Last great album: Bring the Family (1987)
LPs released since: 5

Next LP should be stickered: "You already own this album. It's called Bring the Family."

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