Elvis Costello's career doesn't make the prospect of turning 30 any less intimidating. By the time he reached that age in August 1984, he'd already achieved more than some artists do in a lifetime. With help from mentor-producer Nick Lowe and a first-rate band called The Attractions (assembled after Clover, an early incarnation of Huey Lewis and the News, performed on Costello's opening salvo My Aim Is True) he'd made a suite of records outlining his distinctive, truly eclectic take on art punk.
At 24, Costello cut the definitive version of Lowe's world-weary anthem "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" — his wounded nasal whine delivering an expert portrayal of a faded flower child's befuddled disillusionment. He nearly suffocated under the weight of his own ego, drinking heavily and shooting off his mouth as he shot up the charts. When the press and the public turned against him, Costello made an invigorating 180-degree turn, channeling the energy he once reserved for rage and bitterness into studying soul, post-war vocal pop, and a carefully chosen set of country covers.
Many critics at the time considered those odd diversions, but the maestro was just cracking his knuckles. Costello began his next act by producing The Pogues' landmark Rum Sodomy and the Lash, a masterwork of balance between the scrappy punks and their deep Irish roots. Following that, he cut King of America with members of Elvis Presley's late-period band, Blood and Chocolate with the fractious Attractions, and Spike, a sprawling gem whose many moods ran from Crescent City jazz to Irish folk.
Over the decades that followed, Costello went on to work with a string quartet; compose a ballet score; collaborate with his wife, jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall, and pop maestro Burt Bacharach; and assemble an all-star Nashville-based American string band that morphed into an all-star Nashville-based rock band — while fashioning the Attractions' ashes into new backing unit The Imposters. When Hurricane Katrina displaced New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, Costello made an album with him. Toussaint returned the favor by joining the jaw-dropping house band for Costello's in-depth interview series Spectacle, later appearing on the guest roster alongside Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and sons of Arkansas Levon Helm and President Bill Clinton. That is one impressive curriculum vitae.
But the underlying achievement is the real reason to see Elvis Costello play solo at the Ryman tonight: He absorbs others' music with the academic rigor of a cultural anthropologist and the intuitive, ecstatic fervor of a revival preacher, giving back to each tradition as much as he gets. Wise Up Ghost, his 2013 collaboration with The Roots, is a fine example, in part because it shows Costello knows his limitations as well as his strengths. Rather than make a half-assed attempt at becoming an MC, Costello developed a hybrid approach with the group, wrapping his incisive writing around the finest live hip-hop band's deep funk-soul chops and progressive tendencies.
The pace of cultural evolution, and the speed at which the entertainment economy has to run to keep up, has increased dramatically since Costello got his start in the 1970s, ditching a job working with computers decades before their Orwellian bulk disappeared behind cheerful cloud-based interfaces. Back then, it was possible for an artist to spend more time developing and assimilating his influences, because a raging torrent of content wasn't surging past 24 hours a day. That's not to say today's artists are all hollow, disposable victims of Internet damage — some of the best popular songs this year, from EMA to St. Vincent to Daniel Pujol, transmit and transform the influence of digital culture as surely as the Costello of Armed Forces and Get Happy wielded his vinyl.
And that's not to say songcraft, or its appreciation, has withered in the years since Costello first unholstered his pen. One omnivorous standout who recently put down roots here in Music City is Deer Tick's John McCauley, whose passion for sharing a song becomes obvious when last call interrupts his solo set. Nor is cherishing songcraft the exclusive province of white males — or males, period. Though Prince is back on the road for limited engagements (if you can call his four-hour show at the Los Angeles Palladium in March in any way "limited"), Janelle Monáe's sci-fi R&B operas challenge his throne with their depth and scope.
But as relative newcomers struggle to make themselves heard above the wall of noise, opportunities are scarce to develop the kind of performance that Costello offers tonight — the kind that comes not only from a master songwriter's long, intimate relationship with his craft and influences, but from an audience's time-permitted familiarity with a single artist's career. As a result of his showman-scholar duality, Costello can sit down with a guitar or piano and play any song in his catalog — from "The Comedians," recently described by Roy Orbison's son Alex as "one of the best 'Orbison' songs that Roy did not write, if not the best," to "My Dark Life," an ambient one-off first recorded with Brian Eno for an X-Files tribute — and make it worth your time to listen.
He may play straight through, with a grace of interpretation that makes him disappear behind the song. Or he might let the asides and digressions flow, as he explains where this song comes from, segues into another song that inspired it, slips in a few exaggerated bars to demonstrate what that other song shouldn't be. In any case, he'll never let on that you're part of a master class in songwriting.
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