Why don’t we let rock stars grow up? The pop music domain is like a confederation of Never-Never Land and the Island of Lost Boys, where nobody can ever grow old and nasty behavior is the social code. It is some fifty years now since rock and roll began to emerge as a musical style and a cultural phenomenon, originally of a piece with the adolescent rebellion against postwar conservatism that the rebelled-upon used to call juvenile delinquency. The music’s surviving originators—Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis, most of them now septuagenarians—continue to make their livings singing the same raucous, primal tunes about high school, fast cars, and sex to aging fans who may not have experienced some of those things in a while. No matter that Berry would rather be performing Tin Pan Alley standards such as “I’m Through With Love,” nor that Diddley is constantly writing new material few people care to hear, nor that Little Richard, an ordained Seventh-Day Adventist minister, prefers to sing gospel music. (Jerry Lee Lewis is congenitally delinquent, but that’s another issue.) Rock and roll is here to stay put.
Disposed to more expansive conceptions of rock’s potential, venturesome musicians of succeeding eras—such as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Pete Townshend, and their heirs—have stretched and re-shaped rock and roll innumerable times, and many others, including Paul McCartney, Joe Jackson, and Stewart Copeland (the former drummer for the Police and no relation to Aaron Copland, though he refers to the composer as his “honorary uncle”), have dropped the genre—temporarily, as a rule—to experiment with classical forms such as the symphony and the oratorio and the opera. Still, we tend to prefer our rockers young and angry. We look cynically upon overt demonstrations of creative ambition as over-reaching, especially when popular artists dare to cross the chalk lines of category and genre. We dismiss as pretentious their efforts in musical styles positioned above rock on the artistic hierarchy, which is unfair regardless of the fact that McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio, for example, is indeed terminally pretentious. (A few of McCartney’s less grandiose concert pieces, among them a tuneful piano study called “A Leaf,” have a genial charm.) Many of us of the postwar generation submit to a kind of philistine elitism, rejecting the privilege of an artist successful in an informal discipline to attempt a formal art, because we see the latter as bourgeois and the interest in it as a betrayal of the anti-establishment ethic to which rock and roll still lays claim, decades after it became the music of the establishment. By the same token, we are quick to embrace the latest young group of rough-hewn bad boys (Pantera, Turbonegro) and to exalt them for their puerility and their crudity.
I suspect that thoughts of this sort have occasionally struck Elvis Costello, whose brave, mercurial career achieves a denouement this month with the release of North, his twenty-fourth album, a collection of somber art songs in the vein of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Asked about the title, Costello has explained: “That’s where I’m headed.” Clearly he sees the project as a mark of his creative progress; he has noted that he wrote all the songs at the piano, like the composers in our mental image of the great masters, rather than on the guitar, historically the instrument of vernacular musicians. He also wrote the album’s orchestrations for twenty-eight strings and nine horns (using a pencil on music paper, not a computer), and he conducted the orchestra himself. “I don’t think the New York Philharmonic is going to call me up,” he joked to Rolling Stone. Then again, Costello did not call Lorin Maazel. Twenty-six years after he borrowed Huey Lewis’s backup band to make his first album for a start-up punk-rock label called Stiff Records, Costello could assume the podium to lead a sizable orchestra on a recording for Deutsche Grammophon. To misquote the title of his famous second album, this year’s is a luxury model.
The route that Costello has followed to northerly artistic territory has been serpentine, with pins all over the musical map. Raised in Birkenhead, across the Mersey River from Liverpool, he started in his teens as a pub-band singer and songwriter indebted to the Beatles and their influences—that is, to all of pop music history. His debut LP, My Aim Is True, which appeared in 1977, was an international hit of the punk/New Wave years, and permanently cemented his public image as a volatile nerd, somewhat obscuring the discipline and the sophistication already evident in songs such as “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives.” Following a series of infectious, aggressively clever albums made with his deft little band, the Attractions, Costello took a hard turn westward and released an album of his favorite country tunes called Almost Blue, performed demurely, with reverence, in 1981. Costello’s audience started looking for the exits.
In the 1980s, Costello reached his maturity as a pop songwriter, producing a fine collection of buoyant tunes about betrayal, duplicity, and related hazards of his romantic paradigm in Imperial Bedroom (1982), as well as a couple of near-equals in King of America (1986) and Spike (1989), the latter a wildly eclectic pastiche of things from several albums that Costello had abandoned. “By the time I got to my fifth album, by the early eighties, I wasn’t listening to pop music—I was listening to all jazz,” Costello told the music journalist Fred Schruers. “You can hear [that] the shape of songs starts to change.” Though he was still writing in the pop milieu and would have a hit from time to time (such as Spike’s “Veronica,” co-written with McCartney), the growing subtlety of his lyrics (which relied less on gimmickry and shock value, and more on narrative detail) and the complexity of his music (which broke away from traditional popular-song forms and broadened harmonically to accommodate a diversity of guest musicians, including jazz bassist Ray Brown and the Dirty Dozen Jazz Band) were making Costello an increasingly specialized taste.
What had happened was that he was asking to be taken seriously, much to the puzzlement of fans who had always mistaken him for a musically gifted novelty act. Stage-named like a cartoon character and decked out like one in oversized horn-rims and pompadour, Costello allowed himself to be packaged as punk’s delegate to the house of Spike Jones and Ray Stevens, and when he started crooning “Almost Blue” (a ballad highlight of Imperial Bedroom, not on the earlier album of the same title), his audience heard the second act of Pagliacci. What was so rattling about Costello’s change was that he was not being ironic. Ever since McCartney started putting music-hall numbers such as “When I’m Sixty-Four” on Beatles albums, listeners have been primed to accept pre-rock styles only if they are used ironically—a generous misreading of the sentimental Paulie’s likely intentions, I suspect.
Costello, who turned forty in 1994, spent most of the 1990s trying to figure out how to be a grown-up musician. For starters, he grew a beard, which in time became enormous. (My son has a theory that the self-seriousness of each of the Beatles’ music was directly proportionate to the mass of his facial hair, and the evidence is persuasive.) Costello turned to styles and forms of music that are traditionally deemed more serious than rock, pop, or country: jazz and formal composition. He sang with the Jazz Passengers and the Mingus Big Band (adding lyrics to several Mingus compositions as well); and he accepted two commissions to compose orchestral scores, one in 1991 for the BBC television drama G.B.H., the second, four years later, for the BBC mini-series Jake’s Progress. Both were written in collaboration with the prolific British screen composer Richard Harvey, who helped to translate Costello’s melodies into musical notation.
Frustrated by his musical illiteracy but emboldened by confidence in his talent, Costello set out to learn how to read and write the music that he could always hear and play on the guitar. “I realized it was really self-defeating to maintain this mental block that I had about musical notation,” he explained to the journalist Christopher Porter.
I wasn’t able to communicate very accurately to [the orchestra]. I had done some film music where I had composed the themes, but they’d always had to be orchestrated byother people.... I was very frustrated that some ideas were getting bent out of shape, so I enlisted some help ... and I got through this mental block [about notation]. ... It’s a very foolish one to describe, but I got through it, and within six months I was writing four-part string parts. And now I just wrote [a] two-hundred-page orchestral score with a pencil. So, I learned really fast. I’ve always been able to hear harmony really clearly, so it wasn’t a question of I didn’t under- stand the music. I understood very well what I was doing. I just had no need to write it down [before].
As Costello must have known, there is more to music theory than a gifted musician could intuit with the keenest ear for harmony (there are counterpoint and form, for instance), and composing orchestral music is as much a matter of learning notation as writing a novel is a matter of learning the alphabet. It is a marvel that the string-quartet settings that he composed in 1993 for The Juliet Letters, an album of songs featuring the Brodsky Quartet, are so lovely—simple and largely imitative, but gently appealing. Lyrically, the record was a nostalgic homage to epistolary expression, and it was the same thing musically; Costello had become enchanted with the act of putting pen to paper while the rest of world was lost in computers.
Costello gave his curiosity free rein over the musical landscape. Before he was finished with the 1990s, he had made a burnished album of ballads co-written with Burt Bacharach, the grand old lion of refined commercial pop; he had written songs with or for Aimee Mann, Johnny Cash, Roger McGuinn, Bonnie Raitt, and Paul McCartney (with whom he had started writing in the 1980s); he had composed an entire album of new tunes for the folkish British provocateur Wendy James; and he had performed with the uncategorizable American guitarist Bill Frisell—in addition to all his other work in pop, jazz, and formal music. A Google search of “Elvis Costello” and “eclectic” generates more than ten thousand hits, most of them involving his work in the last decade. Little of this genre-roving has sat particularly well with the pop audience, which prefers its explorers to cross borders of place rather than time. Costello’s breach of rock protocol is his pursuit of musical styles associated with the past or with older people, such as country, classical music, Tin Pan Alley, folk-rock, and the rest, instead of contemporary musics of places such as Africa, Cuba, or the Middle East, which are seen as cool.
Costello (like Paul McCartney and Jerry Garcia) is the son of a big-band musician, and his childhood of singing standards in parlor musicales (as both McCartney and Garcia did with their fathers) has informed his own music (as it has or did in the cases of McCartney and Garcia, the latter of whom was named for Jerome Kern). Costello’s father, Ross MacManus, a bebop trumpeter who became fairly well known in Britain as a vocalist for a Glenn Miller-style pop ensemble called the Joe Loss Orchestra, had used the pseudonym Day Costello—his grandmother’s surname—when he did some moonlighting from his duties for Loss. (MacManus even had a minor hit under the Costello name, a rendition of McCartney’s wholly unironic ballad “The Long and Winding Road,” in 1970.) His son Declan’s first words were supposedly “skin, mommy”—an entreaty to hear his favorite record at the time, Frank Sinatra’s exultant rendition of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” In taking up rock and roll under a stage name, he became the Elvis of the Costellos; and, now approaching fifty—Ross MacManus’s age when My Aim Is True was released—Costello is making much the same kind of music that his father was singing while he was establishing a musical identity of his own.
North begins well, with a gray-hued orchestral prologue reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” and most of what follows remains in the Bernstein mode, straddling the poles of serious concert music and serious popular song. The former clearly exerts the stronger pull upon Costello these days, as it did upon Bernstein in his later years. Stephen Sondheim has said that his West Side Story collaborator contracted “importantitis,” a condition to which age increases an artist’s susceptibility; and Costello is apparently not immune to it. His latest music has a self-consciousness that tends to overwhelm its humor (mainly in the lyrics) and its spontaneity (care of the jazz soloists Lee Konitz on alto saxophone and Lew Soloff on muted trumpet).
There are ten songs on North, and purchasers of the CD also get individual passcodes to allow them to download one more selection—the title song, as a matter of fact. (I’m not entirely sure how this arrangement will work, but the gimmick seems moot, since the whole CD has already shown up on websites for free downloading.) The songs have a common sound: all are ballads, most of them exceedingly slow, and their style is an angular sort of quasi-recitative, out of tempo. They are much like the contemporary musical-theater writing of young composers such as Adam Guettel, in which melodic phrases wander, abruptly halt, jerk about, and take acrobatic leaps with little provocation, and in which the natural cadence of the words does not necessarily fit the music with the kind of precision fundamental to earlier theater-song craftspeople such as Guettel’s grandfather Richard Rodgers and his main collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. Costello sings, “But … if-I’d-only-known ... that this would BE the last lov-ING remark ... you left me IN the dark.” In contemporary pop music, such erratic phrasing is the norm; indeed, it is arguably an essential attribute, part of the music’s treasured rawness. I presume that Costello does not hear his jagged writing as untidy—or, if he does, that he prefers to keep things a little messy as a matter of generational pride.
Costello need not have explained that he composed all the pieces on North at the piano. Listening to the music, one can picture him at the keyboard, following the scales with his hands cupped in place. In “You Turned to Me,” for instance, he moves down the scale in C major, making impressive-sounding augmented chords with small variations on simple triads. Costello has gone all mushy for augmented chords, which sound jazzy and sophisticated, and he is nearly as charmed by the Dorian mode, which can have an eerie quality. His mastery of these devices is still developing; at points Costello’s harmony is arbitrarily complex, not yet organic. Compositionally, much of North sounds like exercises, although that is to Costello’s credit, in one sense. (He and I are roughly the same age, and I find it progressively more difficult to get myself to do exercises of any sort.) That Costello has the wherewithal to try a new musical instrument and to learn a new set of skills is remarkable in itself, and the resulting music is far more interesting than hearing him play “Pump It Up” for the jillionth time. (Costello plays piano—in a manner so spare it is nearly absent—on two tracks of North, and his longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve plays much the same way on all the others.)
Lyrically, North has Costello’s most disciplined writing—not his most dynamic (This Year’s Model) nor his most imaginative (Imperial Bedroom), but his most conversational, his simplest. Habitually verbose, Costello barely sounds like himself here. Each song on North has fewer than half the words of a typical selection on any previous Elvis Costello album, and they are employed with uncommon restraint. Only once does Costello use Tin Pan Alley clichés, in “I’m In the Mood Again,” and he does so with a theatrical wink: “I lay my head down on fine linens and satin/Away from the mad-hatters who live in Manhattan/The Empire State Building illuminating the sky/ I’m in the mood, I’m in the mood, I’m in the mood again.” The language is mostly personal and intimate, with Costello assuming fewer roles than usual. He is singing as himself, celebrating love and bemoaning its futility, and ruminating on the passage of time: “I never did what I was told/I trampled though the amber and the burnished gold/But now I clearly see how cruel the young can be.”
Modulating his voice to accommodate the material, Costello sings his sedate new songs in a more tempered version of the mellow baritone into which he has shifted for ballads since he crooned “My Funny Valentine” on the B-side of a single in 1978. Some of his old fans have belittled him for trying to be Frank Sinatra, but the classic pop singer to whom he is most indebted is Billy Eckstine, the original musically adventurous jazz-pop vocalist with a bad-boy reputation and a throbbing vibrato. I know Costello is an admirer of the late “Mr. B” because I saw him sitting with his mother and studying Eckstine in performance at the Blue Note nightclub in Manhattan sometime in the late 1980s. It was a strange, grim evening. Eckstine, while vigorous and in good voice, had fallen into disfavor and was struggling to reclaim his lost glory. As his finale, he fumbled through a pandering medley of recent pop hits far beneath an artist with his gifts—”Love the One You’re With” and “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” I remember, and something else of that ilk, maybe “Gentle on My Mind.” North may be a flawed effort, but its defects are aspirational, and I would rather suffer them than watch another great artist go south.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic.