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When Elvis Costello was approached by fans during the mid-Eighties, he would squelch their questions with a two-word conversation stopper: "I'm retired." He used this reply, he says, "because it was just easier than trying to explain what I was actually doing." Chuckling, he adds, "What a bastard I was."
Note Costello's use of the past tense. The Elvis who signed with Stiff Records in June 1976 and promptly began spewing terse, angry words with music to match didn't pretend to be a charmer. He claimed to have called Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger" during a much-publicized 1979 bar argument with minor vocalist Bonnie Bramlett simply because he wanted to piss her off, and given his apparent love of provocation, this contention made sense. (He subsequently embarked on a subtle campaign to prove he wasn't a racist, producing a seminal disc by the Specials, a two-tone ska act, and assembling Get Happy!!, an LP heavily influenced by rhythm and blues.) But today's Costello is a far cry from that young, snotty flamethrower. Although the subject he enjoys talking about most is himself (and he does so at great length), he's relentlessly polite, and while he doesn't pretend that the world is a perfect place, he prefers making the best of situations over railing against the injustice of it all. "There's no point in my trying to fight the massive tide that's going this way in terms of the way the business is set up or the way things are valued," he says. "And I'm so lucky in other ways. It would just be bad manners to go on about that."
Of course, bad manners were a large part of Costello's appeal for the generation of alienated teens and twentysomethings who once hung on his every word: For them, he offered proof that cynical smarts and biting wit could be every bit as devastating as the knuckle sandwiches they ate far more often than they dished out. But while the Nineties Elvis is no less clever than his vituperative predecessor, he has far different goals: He now is determined to establish himself as a singer-songwriter in the tradition of the Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building veterans he's long worshiped. Painted From Memory, a collaboration with vaunted pop composer Burt Bacharach that was put out last year by Mercury Records, is his most blatant attempt yet to earn a spot on the century's tunesmithing pantheon, and it's advanced the mission nicely. The symmetry of the Costello-Bacharach pairing thrilled a majority of scribes, prompting them to gush over a disc that is, for the most part, not terribly entertaining.
Kind reviews have provided sweet redemption for Costello, who's watched the public greet practically every album he's made this decade--even 1994's Brutal Youth, a reunion with his original band, the Attractions--with indifference. Perhaps that's why he's so grateful for the audience he has left. "I've never tried to stack all the people in the world head on head until I had a big mound of people supporting me," he insists. "A lot of people bring that kind of megalomaniacal attitude to their careers, but I don't share it. I try to remember that there once was a time when I couldn't conceive of selling a handful of records in a week. Back then, I didn't know if I would get past next week in my career, let alone five years or ten years or fifteen or twenty years, which is where I am now."
Such professionalism seems at odds with Costello's early persona, but it was there all along. The man once known exclusively as Declan MacManus was born into a musical family--his father, Ross, was a singer with an English orchestra--and he concedes that he always looked at performing as "vocational." After dabbling in country music with a combo called Flip City and recording some C&W demos that were broadcast on a London radio show called Honky Tonk, Declan quit a computer job he later skewered in the tune "Lipstick Vogue" in order to serve as a roadie for Brinsley Schwarz, a pub-rock band anchored by bassist Nick Lowe. Before long, Lowe touted MacManus to Stiff Records owner Jake Riviera, who swiftly signed him. Afterward, Riviera cooked up a new moniker for his latest discovery. "Costello" was an obvious choice (it was the maiden name of Declan's mother, and he'd occasionally used it as a pseudonym), but "Elvis" was an inspiration that gained just the right hint of punkiness when the corpulent crooner who'd made it famous left the building for the last time in 1977. That the handle contrasted sharply with MacManus's look--he suggested a horn-rims-wearing 98-pound weakling with a score to settle--was an added bonus.
My Aim Is True, Costello's debut, which reached the States that same year under the auspices of Columbia Records, brought his alter ego to life with razor-edged ditties such as "Less Than Zero" and "I'm Not Angry." Yet more mainstream influences still lurked beneath the surface of his repertoire. The band that provided the music on Aim was an American country-rock act called Clover whose harmonica player was Huey Lewis (Lewis doesn't appear on the platter), and the song he contributed to Live Stiffs, a compilation album from the period, was "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," a chestnut co-written by none other than Burt Bacharach. Most observers saw this choice as sardonic, but Costello knew better.