Unfaithful Servant

For intellectual music fans of a certain age — too young to be hippies and too old to love hip-hop — Elvis Costello represents a nearly untouchable level of cultural cool. There’s the iconic fashion sense, the sardonic public persona, the 30-plus spectacular albums, the mountains of mind-blowing collaborations. After more than 40 years of excellence, though, three things stand out: Costello’s half-sneering, half-preening vocal style, his mastery of every far-flung genre under the sun, and his epic life’s collection of literate, incisive lyrics. The man didn’t call himself “rock ‘n’ roll’s Scrabble champion” in the ’80s for nothing.

Even with his reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter, Costello has always been happy to play the entertainer. He did, after all, change his name in the mid-’70s from Declan Patrick McManus to D.P. Costello and then to Elvis Costello. The assumed surname came from his jazz trumpeter father, who borrowed it from his own grandmother. Meanwhile, the fresh first name bit was part marketing ploy, part ode to Elvis Presley, who ironically died a few months after Elvis the younger released his 1977 debut album, “My Aim Is True.”

Costello also drags heaps of self-coined nicknames behind him: Napoleon Dynamite (long before the eponymous film), Howard Coward, Little Hands of Concrete, the Beloved Entertainer, Eamonn Singer, the Emotional Toothpaste, the Imposter, Odile W. Husband. Then there’s his famous wardrobe — clunky Buddy Holly glasses, ridiculous tweed suits and fancy hats a 35-year constant. “I’m in show business,” Costello told The New Yorker in 2010. “If I want to wear big glasses and a hat, I will … It’s dress-up.” Of course, it’s dress-up with a purpose; in the late ’70s, Village Voice called Costello the “Avenging Dork,” and David Lee Roth later hit the nail right on the head when he added, “Music critics hate me and love Elvis Costello because they all look like Elvis Costello.”

But for all the put-ons and publicity stunts — busking outside a London CBS Records meeting to secure an America deal, conducting stormy relationships with Playboy model Bebe Buell and The Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan, getting knocked out by Bonnie Bramlett after dropping the “N-word” in reference to James Brown and Ray Charles — there’s no denying the strength of Costello’s craft. His first big hit, “Less Than Zero,” is a groovy, R&B-laced New Wave rocker that scans like early Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen yet still sounds jaunty and revelatory today. “Watching the Detectives” rides a smoked-out reggae beat that’s familiar to any regular viewer of PBS’s “History Detectives,” and “Radio Radio” may as well mark the birth of dyed-in-the-wool indie rock.

In the ’80s, Costello made successful musical hay out of Burt Bacharach, Sam & Dave and George Jones covers, wrote slow-burning ballads inspired by Britain’s ill-fated Falklands War, and collaborated with the likes of Paul McCartney. But in the ’90s, Costello shed nearly all of his rock-star pretenses, pursuing every eclectic fork that appeared on his artistic path. He dabbled in classical music orchestration, curated London’s Meltdown Fest, soundtracked numerous films, and made cameos in countless TV shows and movies. In 1999, he even got himself un-banned from “Saturday Night Live,” after notoriously pissing off Lorne Michaels due to an unpredictable 1977 last-minute substitution for the Sex Pistols.

As for his activities in this century, Costello continues to maintain his polymath ways. He’s filled in for David Letterman and hosted his own jam session/talk show on Channel 4/CTV, produced ballets and operas, penned music criticism for Vanity Fair, and earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Liverpool. He’s inserted himself into the Israeli-Palestinian debate by cancelling shows in the Holy Land, released new records inspired by New Orleans and Nashville, and re-released his first 17 albums with liner notes so voluminous, they serve as a de facto autobiography. In 2003, Costello was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, along with The Attractions, his longtime backing band.

There have been happy non-musical moments, too. In 2003, Costello embarked on his third and happiest marriage, to jazz singer Diana Krall, who gave birth to twin boys three years later. While domestic life has softened Costello in some ways — he hasn’t eaten meat since the ’80s or taken a drink in 15 years, and was described in 2008 as “the cool dad aging snazzily” by Oxford University scholar Dai Griffiths — it certainly hasn’t dulled his rapacious opinions on the state of the musical world.

Just last week, Costello slammed popular music reality shows like “American Idol,” “The Voice” and “X-Factor,” telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I hate those shows. They’re all ghastly … I don’t think music should be a blood sport. It would be good if it was fun.” Wait — the music nerd’s music nerd, saying music should be fun? “That doesn’t mean there’s no seriousness, no conscience, no lust, no desire, no humor,” Elvis Costello told The New Yorker in 2010. “There’s some artistry attributed to rock and roll where it’s supposed to be more authentic than show business. I don’t really hold to that.” ο

Nick McG

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