When Elvis Costello first burst onto the music scene in 1977, he was seen as an angry young firebrand and one of the sharpest voices in the new wave/punk revolution.
Few would have guessed that more than 40 years later, Costello would be one of the most celebrated and genre-spanning songwriters of his generation, an artist comfortable collaborating with the likes of Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint, and Tony Bennett while still maintaining his edgy rock credibility. Costello initially impressed critics and fans with a volley of four albums that were striking and immediate, while each boasted a distinct sound: enlightened pub rock (1977's My Aim Is True), a lean, venomous punk-infused attack (1978's This Year's Model), polished but acid-tongued pop (1979's Armed Forces), and soul-rooted minimalism (1980's Get Happy!!). Eclecticism would become a dominant theme in his career, as his catalog included detours into country (1981's Almost Blue), Baroque pop (1982's Imperial Bedroom), Americana (1986's King of America), classical (1993's The Juliet Letters), Brill Building pop (1998's Painted from Memory), bluegrass-influenced acoustic music (2010's National Ransom), and adventurous R&B (2013's Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs). Regardless of his musical surroundings, his constant strength was always the excellence of his songwriting, his pithy, literate lyrics full of clever word play and double meanings blending with the well-crafted melodies that were always his secret weapon. A savvy student of music of all stripes, Costello was also a fine judge of talent, and his primary backing bands, the Attractions and the Imposters, showed he knew how to present his music with both passion and precision, and possessed a commitment to craft that set him apart from many of his peers. And his productivity and creative restlessness helped him maintain a relevance that has kept him sounding contemporary more than four decades after his debut, with no sign of stopping.
The son of British bandleader Ross McManus, Costello (born Declan McManus) worked as a computer programmer during the early '70s, performing under the name D.P. Costello in various folk clubs. In 1976, he became the leader of country-rock group Flip City. During this time, he recorded several demo tapes of his original material with the intention of landing a record contract. A copy of these tapes made its way to Jake Riviera, one of the heads of the fledgling independent record label Stiff. Riviera signed Costello to Stiff as a solo artist in 1977; the singer/songwriter adopted the name Elvis Costello at this time, taking his first name from Elvis Presley and his last name from his mother's maiden name.
With former Brinsley Schwarz bassist Nick Lowe producing, Costello began recording his debut album with the American band Clover providing support. "Less Than Zero," the first single released from these sessions, appeared in April of 1977. The single failed to chart, as did its follow-up, "Alison," which was released the following month. By the summer of 1977, Costello's permanent backing band had been assembled. Featuring bassist Bruce Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve, and drummer Pete Thomas (no relation to Bruce), the group was named the Attractions; they made their live debut in July of 1977.
Costello's debut album, My Aim Is True, was released in the summer of 1977 to positive reviews; it climbed to number 14 on the British charts but it wasn't released on his American label, Columbia, until later in the year. Along with Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, and Wreckless Eric, Costello participated in the Stiff label's Live package tour in the fall. At the end of the year, Jake Riviera split from Stiff to form Radar Records, taking Costello and Lowe with him. Costello's last single for Stiff, the reggae-inflected "Watching the Detectives," became his first hit, climbing to number 15 at the end of the year.
This Year's Model, Costello's first album recorded with the Attractions, was released in the spring of 1978. A rawer, harder-rocking record than My Aim Is True, This Year's Model was also a bigger hit, reaching number four in Britain and number 30 in America. Released the following year, Armed Forces was a more ambitious and musically diverse album than either of his previous records. It was another hit, reaching number two in the U.K. and cracking the Top Ten in the U.S. "Oliver's Army," the first single from the album, also peaked at number two in Britain; none of the singles from Armed Forces charted in America. In the summer of 1979, he produced the self-titled debut album by the Specials, the leaders of the ska revival movement.
In February of 1980, the soul-influenced Get Happy!! was released; it was the first record on Riviera's new record label, F-Beat. Get Happy!! was another hit, peaking at number two in Britain and number 11 in America. Later that year, a collection of B-sides, singles, and outtakes called Taking Liberties was released in America; in Britain, a similar album called Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers appeared as a cassette-only release, complete with different tracks than the American version.
Costello and the Attractions released Trust in early 1981; it was Costello's fifth album in a row produced by Nick Lowe. Trust debuted at number nine in the British charts and worked its way into the Top 30 in the U.S. During the spring of 1981, Costello and the Attractions began recording an album of country covers with famed Nashville producer Billy Sherrill, who recorded hit records for George Jones and Charlie Rich, among others. The resulting album, Almost Blue, was released at the end of the year to mixed reviews, although the single "A Good Year for the Roses" was a British Top Ten hit.
Costello's next album, Imperial Bedroom (1982), was an ambitious set of lushly arranged pop produced by Geoff Emerick, who engineered several of the Beatles' most acclaimed albums. Imperial Bedroom received some of his best reviews, yet it failed to yield a Top 40 hit in either England or America; the album did debut at number six in the U.K. For 1983's Punch the Clock, Costello worked with Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who were responsible for several of the biggest British hits in the early '80s. The collaboration proved commercially successful, as the album peaked at number three in the U.K. (number 24 in the U.S.) and the single "Everyday I Write the Book" cracked the Top 40 in both Britain and America. Costello tried to replicate the success of Punch the Clock with his next record, 1984's Goodbye Cruel World, but the album was a commercial and critical failure.
After the release of Goodbye Cruel World, Costello embarked on his first solo tour in the summer of 1984. He was relatively inactive in 1985, releasing only one new single ("The People's Limousine," a collaboration with singer/songwriter T-Bone Burnett released under the name the Coward Brothers) and producing Rum Sodomy and the Lash, the second album by the punk-folk band the Pogues. Both projects were indications that he was moving toward a stripped-down, folky approach, and 1986's King of America confirmed that suspicion. Recorded without the Attractions and released under the name the Costello Show, King of America was essentially a country-folk album and it received the best reviews of any album he had recorded since Imperial Bedroom. It was followed at the end of the year by the edgy Blood and Chocolate, a reunion with the Attractions and producer Nick Lowe. Costello would not record another album with the Attractions until 1994.
During 1987, Costello negotiated a new worldwide record contract with Warner Bros. and began a songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney. Two years later, he released Spike, the most musically diverse collection he had ever recorded. Spike featured the first appearance of songs written by Costello and McCartney, including the single "Veronica." "Veronica" became his biggest American hit, peaking at number 19. Two years later, he released Mighty Like a Rose, which echoed Spike in its diversity, yet it was a darker, more challenging record. In 1993, Costello collaborated with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters, a song cycle that was the songwriter's first attempt at classical music; he also wrote an entire album for former Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James called Now Ain't the Time for Your Tears. That same year, Costello licensed the rights to his pre-1987 catalog (My Aim Is True to Blood and Chocolate) to Rykodisc in America.
Costello reunited with the Attractions to record the majority of 1994's Brutal Youth, the most straightforward and pop-oriented album he had recorded since Goodbye Cruel World. The Attractions backed Costello on a worldwide tour in 1994 and played concerts with him throughout 1995. In 1995, he released his long-shelved collection of covers, Kojak Variety. In the spring of 1996, Costello released All This Useless Beauty, which featured a number of original songs he had given to other artists but never recorded himself. Painted from Memory, a collaboration with the legendary Burt Bacharach, followed in 1998. The album was a success critically, but it only succeeded in foreign markets, outside of its home countries of the United States and Britain. A jazz version of the record made with Bill Frisell was put on hold when Costello's label began to freeze up due to political maneuvering. Undaunted, Costello and Bacharach hit the road and performed in the States and Europe. Then, after Bacharach left, Costello added Steve Nieve to the tour and traveled around the world on what they dubbed the Lonely World Tour. This took them into 1999, when both Notting Hill and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me featured significant contributions from Costello. In fact, he appeared with Bacharach in the latter as one of a pair of Carnaby Street musicians, albeit street musicians with a gorgeous grand piano at their disposal.
Continuing his tour with Nieve, he began singing the last song without a microphone, forcing the audience to sit in complete silence as he usually performed "Couldn't Call It Unexpected, No. 4" with nothing but his dulcet baritone filling the auditorium. After the record company's various mergers ended, Costello found himself on Universal and tested their promotional abilities with a second greatest-hits record (The Very Best of Elvis Costello). The label promoted the album strongly, making it a hit in his native Britain. Unfortunately, they also made it clear that they had no intention of giving a new album the same promotional push, leaving him to venture into other fields as he awaited the end of his record contract. His first project was a collection of pop standards performed with Anne Sofie Von Otter, which included a few songs originally written by Costello. The album was released in March 2001 on the Deutsche Grammophon label, neatly coinciding with the extensive re-release of his entire catalog up to 1996 under Rhino Records. Each disc included an extra CD of rare material and liner notes written by Costello himself, making them incredible treats for fans.
In 2001, he found himself with a residency at UCLA, where he performed several concerts and was instrumental in teaching music during the year. He also began work on a self-produced album that featured Pete Thomas and Nieve -- now billed as a band called the Imposters -- entitled When I Was Cruel, and the album finally found release via Island Records in the spring of 2002; at the end of the year, he released a collection of B-sides and leftovers from the album's sessions entitled Cruel Smile.
When I Was Cruel kicked off another productive era for the ever-prolific Costello. In 2003, he returned with North, a collection of classically styled pop songs pitched halfway between Gershwin and Sondheim. The next year, he collaborated with his new wife, Diana Krall, on her first collection of original material, The Girl in the Other Room. That fall, Costello released two albums of his own original material: a classical work entitled Il Sogno and the concept album The Delivery Man, a rock & roll record cut with the Imposters. Issued in 2006, My Flame Burns Blue was a live album with Costello fronting the 52-piece jazz orchestra the Metropole Orkest; the release featured classic Costello songs (with new orchestral arrangements) alongside new compositions and a performance of Il Sogno in its entirety.
The River in Reverse, a collaboration with R&B legend Allen Toussaint, arrived in 2006, followed by Momofuku, another effort credited to Elvis Costello & the Imposters, in 2008. That same year, Costello teamed up with veteran producer T-Bone Burnett for a series of recording sessions, the results of which were compiled into Secret, Profane & Sugar Cane and readied for release in early 2009. The pair also recorded a second album, National Ransom, which appeared the following year. In 2011, Costello & the Imposters released The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!!, which was recorded live over a two-day stint at the Wiltern in Los Angeles. The next year or so was relatively quiet, but at the end of 2012 he released a new compilation called In Motion Pictures, which rounded up songs he contributed to films.
Costello devoted himself to working with hip-hop band the Roots in 2013. Originally planned as a reinterpretation of songs from his vast catalog, the album Wise Up Ghost turned into a full-fledged collaboration and was greeted by positive reviews upon its September 2013 release on Blue Note. In 2015, Costello announced that he was completing work on his memoirs, and that the book, titled Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, was scheduled for publication in October 2015. Costello also compiled a companion album, Unfaithful Music & Soundtrack Album, which featured a career-spanning selection of songs from his catalog, as well as two previously unreleased selections.
In July 2018, Costello revealed that he was recovering from a "small but very aggressive cancer." By the time he delivered the news, he was not only on the mend but had a new album with the Imposters in the can. Look Now, the group's first record together in a decade, appeared in October 2018; it won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album the following year. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi