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Wednesday, July 3, 2002
This year's model
Hello cruel world, Elvis is back and as relevant as ever
Having evolved over the past 25 years from an angry young man to a well-fed totem of artistic integrity, Elvis Costello would seem to have little left to prove. He started wandering outside the perimeters of rock in the early '80s, and several years ago hinted that he was through with rock. Then, in April, he pulled a Bowie, releasing "When I Was Cruel," a collection of fierce rock songs that has surprised even those who dismissed him as a dilettante after his earlier experiments. Striking while the iron is hot, in June he embarked on his first tour with a band in six years. The name of the group, the Imposters, may have been chosen to indicate that they aren't his original band, the Attractions, even though two of the three members actually are. It could also indicate something else entirely. After Costello's concert at Akasaka Blitz on June 28, broadcast personality Peter Barakan and entertainment writer Philip Brasor got together at the Hobgoblin Pub in Akasaka to discuss it . . .
* * *
Philip Brasor: You mentioned before the show that the first time you saw Costello you thought he was scary . . .
Peter Barakan: Well, it was when he was cruel. It was 1978 and I was working for a music publisher in Tokyo. We handled his catalog in Japan. I remember meeting him at some bar. I just popped in to say hello and talk a little business, but he was totally not interested and, in fact, was quite aggressive about not being interested. That attitude carried over to his live show. It was a very small venue, and the air was so tense you could cut it with a knife. Also, they were dressed in gakuseifuku [Japanese schoolboy uniforms], which made them look even more menacing.
Brasor: I remember seeing him during the infamous 1979 Armed Forces Tour, the one where he insulted Ray Charles and got punched out by [R&B singer] Bonnie Bramlett. [The show I saw] was at an auditorium in Berkeley, and he didn't acknowledge the audience at all. He played for less than 45 minutes and left, no encore. There was practically a riot, but it was one of the most exciting, intense concerts I've ever seen.
Barakan: You can get away with that when the songs are good.
Brasor: There was nothing dangerous about tonight's show, but it was still intense. In '79 the intensity came out of that danger, the feeling that he could storm off the stage at any moment. That wasn't going to happen tonight, but he managed to keep the audience off-balance in other ways. The band, too. Steve Nieve, who is a great pianist, didn't show off his technique at all. During his solos, he acted like a weirdo, what with that Theremin and all.
Barakan: What about all those guitars? I mean, Costello had more guitars than David Lindley the last time I saw him. A friend of mine told me that green one is a 1960s Japanese antique. I think he just bought it today. Did you notice it still had the price tag on it?
Brasor: I thought it was a customs label he forgot to remove.
* * *
Brasor: He played for two solid hours, about 25 songs, and yet a whole 15-year swath of his career was missing.
Barakan: Nothing at all from his time with Warner Brothers. There were a lot of songs from "This Year's Model."
Brasor: More interesting is how many songs he did from "Blood & Chocolate," which is almost identical to the new album, "When I Was Cruel," in mood and theme. You could even hear it in the segues. When they went directly from "I Hope You're Happy Now" into "Tear Off Your Own Head," it was a perfect fit. It's almost as if he hadn't produced anything since 1986.
Barakan: There are a lot of good songs from the last 15 years, but if I try to remember which songs came from which albums, I can't.
Brasor: It should be easy. There's the string quartet album, the German soprano album, the Bacharach collaboration. But in the long run, all that one-off experimentation can be self-cancelling.
Barakan: I think the Bacharach collaboration is amazing. It's in Costello's nature to want to always try something else. I know he was frustrated at Warner Brothers because they wouldn't accommodate all the things he wanted to do. When he switched to Polygram, he got to do some of them, but in a video interview I saw, he said it coincided with that whole major-label blood bath that went on for two or three years. He put off some of his grander projects and stuck to obscure things because they would suffer less.
Brasor: Which song did you like best?
Barakan: It was good hearing "Tokyo Storm Warning." I hadn't thought of that song in years.
Brasor: A bit of a no-brainer considering the circumstances.
Barakan: It was great fun, sort of like a cross between Dylan and The Monkees.
Brasor: Exactly. It's always reminded me of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," all those images. My favorite is the "crushed capsule hotel."
Barakan: What song did you like best?
Brasor: "I Want You" made the biggest impression, and not just because it was the last song. Or, then again, maybe because it was, since, on paper at least, such a slow, plodding number seems an odd choice for a closer.
Barakan: It makes sense. If you keep doing high-energy songs like "Pump It Up," the crowd is always going to want more.
Brasor: But I liked it because it was just as intense as "Pump It Up," though in a different way. It was intense in a theatrical way.
Barakan: That dark, purple lighting . . .
Brasor: And that single orange spot focused on his face as he kept circling back to that one line, "I want you." It was genuinely creepy.
Barakan: I felt the same way about "When I Was Cruel No. 2." That loop of the woman's voice was hypnotizing, insidious.
Brasor: And not just because it's repetitious. There's something else going on. Even in his early songs, he always allowed the emotional momentum to carry through. Like the bridge in "Lipstick Vogue" where the organ swirls around and everything drops out except the drums. He's so wound up and he's trying to calm himself down, but he can't. If he tried to do that now he'd look foolish, so that's why in concert the bridge had that abstract organ flourish. It's still a great concert number, but the emotional need that created it is long gone. It's more ironic, more playful, but it still sounds great.
Barakan: It's been 25 years since he recorded many of these songs, so he has to be in a completely different place. But I could tell that there's something there he still identifies with, even if it's only their value as concert material.
Brasor: He strikes me as someone who prefers not to dwell on past accomplishments. I think the reason he did the songs he did was because he thinks they're still valid.
Barakan: I certainly felt that way about "Oliver's Army," which is quite topical at the moment. And then a few songs later he did "Peace, Love and Understanding."
Brasor: His version has always been less tongue-in-cheek than Nick Lowe's.
Barakan: According to a book I read, he was a Nick Lowe groupie before he started performing.
Brasor: That's one of the reasons I never equated him with punk. People tended to look only at the attitude without understanding where it came from.
Barakan: Punks were teenagers.
Brasor: Squatters. He was a computer programmer. I mean, when he emerged, most singer-songwriters were romantic drifter types, outsiders. Costello was married and had a job. It made him much more real than any anti-establishment hippie or nihilistic punk. He threw it all away in public and was open about how much he resented that part of his life.
Barakan: Those early songs really got under your skin, and they were meant to. He was purposely obnoxious.
Brasor: Now he's a mensch.
Barakan: Well, he's accomplished so much. It's difficult to stay resentful when you get to do what you want to do. There's no reason for him not to have become more even-tempered.
Brasor: I guess I have that negative prejudice about rock musicians who become settled in success, and while I've always admired Costello's ambition I thought he lost his edge a long time ago. That's why the new album is so perplexing. There's nothing edgy about it, but it's undeniably inspired.
Barakan: I think it's excellent. His records have never sold very well, at least not since the very early ones. He doesn't have anything to live up to in that regard. Without that pressure to come up with hit singles, I think his artistic vitality has remained strong.
* * *
Brasor: The four-man rock band thing really suits him.
Barakan: It's a tossup for me. I like to hear the lyrics, and it's difficult when he plays so loud. The last time I saw him with the Attractions, I almost walked out because the sound was so bad. Though, I guess I know the songs well enough to remember the words.
Brasor: The audience certainly remembered them.
Barakan: That was amazing.
Brasor: Hard, too. It isn't easy to sing along with Costello. He'll never use one note if he can use four, and as for words, forget about it.
Barakan: You could really feel how close the audience was to the songs, how involved they were. The way they picked up on the chorus to "Alibi," it was really something.
Brasor: They obviously already know the new album backward and forward. It's taken me a while to get into it, mainly because I don't listen to albums the way I used to and this one requires some work. Ironically, what finally struck me was how fresh it sounds, tune-wise.
Barakan: It's hard to think of someone his age who can still pull that off.
Brasor: The older songs sounded a lot looser tonight. They didn't have that constricted quality of the originals. He took some of the poison out, like when he added that distracting be-bop ending to "Watching the Detectives."
Barakan: That kind of looseness is obvious on the new record. And he's done a very good job of incorporating the electronics into his songs, even on stage.
Brasor: I think it's because he likes pushing the buttons.
Elvis Costello & the Imposters: July 3, 7 p.m., at Nagoya Shimin Kaikan (Jail House,  936-6041); July 4, 7 p.m., at Osaka Festival Hall (Smash West,  6361-0313); July 5, 7 p.m., at Tokyo International Forum; and July 7, 6 p.m., at Shibuya Kokaido (Smash,  3444-6751). Tickets are 7,000 yen.