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Elvis Costello: Pondering A Signpost

Elvis Costello (born Declan Patrick MacManus in London, 1952) has been writing, recording, and singing his songs since 1977, when My Aim Is True, his first album hit the shelves. Since then, he has made 33 albums (not counting compilations) in a variety of styles, from his most well-known pub rock tunes, to compositions for string quartet as well as full jazz orchestra.

Costello is probably best known for his songwriting. He has a unique lyrical style that often relies heavily on both wordplay and obscurity. Costello has stated numerous times, in interviews and in concert, that early in his career, he would intentionally change the subjects of his songs to make it unclear who was doing what. For instance, in his hit “Accidents Will Happen,” the chorus is “Accidents will happen/You’re only hit and run/You used to be the victim/Now you’re not the only one.” In his VH1 Performers concert, he stated that the real story behind the lyrics is more along the lines of “Accidents will happen/I’m only hit and run/I used to be your victim/Now I’m not the only one.” Clearly, he’s hiding his own pain by turning the lyrics into a ridicule of the woman who allowed herself to be used.

But more about wordplay. You’d be hard-pressed to read the lyric sheet from any Costello album without finding numerous examples. Most often, his wordplay centers around puns, double entendre, and tweaking well-known sayings. A few examples to illustrate:

• But you blew hot and cold/Turned my heart to a cinder/And with each passing day/You're less tender and more tinder (“The Only Flame in Town,” Goodbye Cruel World, 1984)
• She said that she was working for the ABC News/It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use (“Brilliant Mistake,” King of America, 1986)
• The long arm of the law slides up the outskirts of town (“Clubland,” Trust, 1981)
• Sulky girl/I saw you practicing your blackmail faces/Suddenly you’re talking like a duchess/But you’re still a waitress (“Sulky Girl,” Brutal Youth, 1994)

In recent years, coinciding with his marriage to jazz singer Diana Krall, Costello has focused his attention on jazz music. In 2003, he released North a cycle of jazz ballads that were clearly a love letter to Krall. Since then, he has released Piano Jazz (2005), My Flame Burns Blue (2006), and The River in Reverse(2006). While he has proven himself an accomplished composer, his fans are eagerly awaiting his return to rock and roll. Costello was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.

Submitted by:

Boris DeVries

Learn more about Elvis Costello.




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