Some grow soft as they grow old, turning in their guitars for string sections and stools. Others simply retrace old, familiar steps until they become parodies--laughingstocks. Even more just seem to run out of talent, until they become shadows in a dark room. Too often fans talk about what used to be instead of what's to come. How many Van Morrison admirers reach for The Healing Game instead of Astral Weeks? Do Sinatra fetishists play Duets or In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning? And is there a single Al Green acolyte who plays 1995's tepid comeback Your Heart's in Good Hands when it sits on the shelf next to a copy of Let's Stay Together?
Declan MacManus, better known as Elvis Costello, knows too well the threat of being run down and destroyed by your own history. He has spent the better part of this decade trying to outrun his past, to escape those old photos of a pigeon-toed, knock-kneed punk staring down the world through Buddy Holly rims and those old songs about "revenge and guilt," as he once snarled.
For a while, he refused to play the old favorites, deleted "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" and "Pump It Up" and "Radio Radio" or songs from Blood and Chocolate and King of America from his sets. Instead, he performed songs from 1989's Spike and '91's Mighty Like a Rose, and audiences--shrinking with the release of each successive record--became restless, disinterested. They found no pleasure in such claustrophobic, bittersweet (and so often, just bitter) songs such as "So Like Candy," "All Grown Up," the cacophonous "Hurry Down Doomsday," even "Veronica," the closest thing he's had to a hit in the United States in a decade. They scoffed when he appeared on magazine covers with Jerry Garcia, looking so much like the Grateful Dead leader you couldn't tell the two apart. The faithful felt betrayed.
Which didn't bother Costello so much. He stopped playing rock and roll for a long while, recording in 1993 a strings-and-vocals album with the Brodsky Quartet. Titled The Juliet Letters, it was a subtle, lovely triumph--and it remains among the poorest-selling of all his records, and the most reviled by even his staunchest admirers and apologists. He would also, in time, record a track with the Jazz Passengers, another with the gospel-singing angels of the Fairfield Four, and appear as vocalist on John Harle's classical gem Terror + Magnificence.
He showed up on MTV singing George Gershwin with Tony Bennett, recorded a live import-only album with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell that featured a song by Charles Mingus and a cover of "Gigi," and joined mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter on a Swedish stage. Oh, yes--and he would also write a song with Burt Bacharach for a movie that really didn't deserve such a special blessing.
"Obviously I've experimented a lot in the early part of this decade with some very experimental ways to construct records," he says. "It consequently gave people the impression of claustrophobia and confusion in a few instances. But it is a necessary part of just finding out what you want to do or you're capable of. I have no sense of apology or regret about any of those records. There are some great things on Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, and some things I can understand entirely why they bewildered people. The Brodsky Quartet record was a big surprise, because it lacked any of the sounds people were used to hearing around my voice, and some people from the classical world that came to it from the quartet playing may have found difficulty accepting the quality of my voice in that context. Even some people who knew me from pop records perhaps agree with that." And he laughs.
Elvis would reunite with his old band, the Attractions, as well as old pal and collaborator Nick Lowe for one complete rock-and-roll record, 1994's Brutal Youth. But the album--his first collaboration with Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas, and Steve Nieve in almost a decade--seemed less a return to turned-up glory than simply a revisiting of old ghosts. He would tour with the Attractions once more, performing the old songs and rewarding the audience for their patience. But no matter how brilliant the shows--and they were indeed extraordinary, furious and funny all at once--it seemed Costello had become the very thing he had tried to avoid becoming.