In the fall of 1980, Elvis Costello released a collection of 20 stellar songs called Get Happy!!, and although it was his fourth near-perfect record in as many years, the performer was anything but elated. In fact, he was secretly contemplating retirement.
“I didn’t want to do it anymore,” Costello admitted to writer Greil Marcus a couple years later. “I didn’t see any point.”
Who you calling angry? Out of the gates as a punk in 1977, Elvis Costello changed genres like snappy suits ever since. What styles will he throw on at the John?
Costello had debuted in 1977 with My Aim Is True, an album that presented the 23-year-old right out of the gate as a whip-smart song craftsman whose vitriolic mood matched the aggression punk rock was then promulgating. “My ultimate vocation in life is to be an irritant,” he told a reporter at the time, and though songs like “Less than Zero” and “Watching the Detectives” were much more nuanced and developed than straight-ahead punk, Costello was promptly lumped in with supposed peers like The Sex Pistols and The Clash.
For his next album, Costello added a group of backing musicians called the Attractions who matched his intensity in their energetic performance. With tracks like “Pump It Up,” “No Action” and “Radio Radio,” the resulting record, This Year’s Model, was a masterwork. It also cemented his reputation as a malcontent and its follow-up Armed Forces—with songs like “Accidents Will Happen” and “Two Little Hitlers”—did nothing to change this perception. Almost as significant, the overly literate records failed to make a commercial dent in America where the British-born Costello yearned to succeed.
Modeled as a tribute to soul music, Get Happy!! seemed designed to buck his place in contemporary music, as songs like “Beaten to the Punch” and “The Imposter” were swathed in a backing that was more likely to induce dancing than anger. So Costello could not be faulted for despairing when the album made no impact sales-wise but was also quickly slotted as just another product of the warped and frustrated mind he was supposed to possess. “I was aware of the fact that there was no way that [it] was going to be a Number One record,” he admitted to Marcus before revealing what really gnawed at him. “That record was called another ‘Angry Young Man’ record! We were a little, pigeon-holed cult.”
It may seem hard now to believe that Costello contemplated quitting, but if he indeed did, he wasted little time in pulling himself out of the mire by taking a tack that has proved to be a pattern followed throughout his career. Only a few short months later, Costello traveled to Nashville to record an album that was about as far from consternated youth as could be. Produced by George Jones’ legendary producer Billy Sherrill, Almost Blue was a collection of classic country covers, and while it was largely denounced critically, it did deny his detractors the categorization Costello so reviled.
As the angry young man distinction began to erode, Costello continued to toy with his musical approach over the next 10 years, with uneven results (Trust, Imperial Bedroom, Blood and Chocolate and King of America from this period are all superb), but also to some commercial acceptance here in the States with songs like “Every Day I Write the Book” and “Veronica” (written with Paul McCartney).
In many ways, he had achieved what had so eluded him a decade before but if he seemed to settle into a familiar role, Costello then threw everyone, critics and audience alike, for a loop with The Juliet Letters in 1993. Recorded with a classical quartet, the album was billed as “a song sequence for string quartet and voice,” and was as far from a standard Elvis Costello album as possible, at least until that point. That venture kick-started a period of wild experimentation that saw him record with figures like jazzman Bill Frisell and pop composer Burt Bacharach. There were also two classical scores for TV and film and in between all of these a fine rock album called Brutal Youth and another of covers. According to Costello, the divergence was intentional. “I walked away from it,” he told Rolling Stone in 2004. “I didn’t want to be bigger and bigger. And it’s worked out.”
Costello’s fourth decade of making music has been as erratic as the previous one, as it started with a collaboration with opera singer Sofie Van Otter called For the Stars, then a raucous rock album, When I Was Cruel, that was followed by the classical-influenced North and Il Sogno, a ballet score. Then came another about turn with The Delivery Man, an album of country-inspired compositions, and most recently, 2006’s The River in Reverse, recorded with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint.
If Costello’s tenure of making music is any indication, then the lengthy period of experimentation may soon dictate another shift. “I’m terrifically impulsive, but I see things through,” Costello explained to RS. “I’m very patient. Maybe I have a misplaced belief in my own immortality.”