Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus, better known by his Stage Name
"Elvis Costello", has been a sometimes popular and always respectable musician and songwriter since the late seventies
. He honed his skills playing in the pub rock band Flip City at night while working as a computer operator at Revlon's London branch. Soon after that, he signed a contract with fledgling record label Stiff and adopted a new name – an ironic Shout-Out
to Elvis Presley
(who died soon afterward) combined with his mother's maiden name.
Costello was initially associated in the public mind with Punk Rock
, and in terms of attitude there was a resemblance. (He had enjoyed seeing the Sex Pistols
go head to head with morning TV host Bill Grundy.) Musically, his closest kinship was to classic sixties
pop: The Kinks
, Bob Dylan
, early Who
and especially The Beatles
. While he had a troubled relationship
with his backup band the Attractions, they were most suited to interpreting his diverse catalog of songs.
Although he is often associated with his use of puns and wordplay in lyrics, these are devices that are most evident in his early works. As he has matured, Costello's humor has become less brash and sarcastic, more jocular and self-mocking
. His curiosity and desire to collaborate with others has, among many other adventures, lead him to compose a score for the ballet, tour with T-Bone Burnett as a country duo, and write an album's worth of songs with Burt Bacharach.Television
has seen him being banned from Saturday Night Live
for a dozen years for changing songs unannounced, subbing for David Letterman
during his heart surgery, and appearing As Himself
on The Simpsons
. Charges that he is an international art thief
are still being investigated.
He also hosted two seasons
of a music/interview show called Spectacle: Elvis Costello with...
which aired on the Sundance Channel in the US and Channel Four
in the UK.
"Everyday, everyday, everyday I write the tropes":
- Accent Upon The Wrong Syllable: "Sunday's Best" has two examples: "Be prepared for the EN-gaged sign" and "Don't look now, un-DER the bed".
- Album Title Drop: This is a common trope in his catalog and includes:
- My Aim Is True (from a line in "Allison"), Punch the Clock (from "The Greatest Thing"), King of America (from "Brilliant Mistake"), Blood and Chocolate (from "Uncomplicated"), and Brutal Youth (from "Favourite Hour").
- Played With:
- This Year's Model: a line in "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" refers to "last year's model", and another song on the album is titled "This Year's Girl".
- Mighty Like A Rose: "The Other Side Of Summer" refers to "the mightiest rose, the absence of perfume".
- Angrish: At the end of "The Deportees' Club".
- Animated Music Video: "Accidents Will Happen", which was later displayed at the Museum of Modern Art.
- Answer Song: Costello has said that "This Year's Girl" is this to the song "Stupid Girl" by The Rolling Stones.
- Argentina Is Naziland: Not just Argentina, but arguably the whole continent as suggested by this line from "Less Than Zero", which is about seeing British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley on television again:
Well I hear that South America is coming into style
- Artifact Title: The album Almost Blue was named after a song considered for inclusion on it. Costello then decided that he would make an album of country covers and dropped the song from the album. The song later appeared on Imperial Bedroom, which also had a Title Track that was taken out of the tracklist and later appeared on compilations and expanded versions of the album.
- The Band Minus the Face:
- The Attractions released Mad About the Wrong Boy, a "solo" album without Costello, in 1980. Costello later covered one of its songs, "Sad About Girls".
- The Imposters is The Attractions minus Bruce Thomas.
- Baroque Pop: Imperial Bedroom has elements of this style.
- Breakup Song: Quite a few, including "I'm Not Angry" and "I Felt the Chill". "Party Girl" is not so much a breakup song as a "I'm sorry, but we can never date" song.
- Canon Discontinuity: Costello hates his 1982 single "Party Party" and has eradicated it from his discography, refusing to allow it to be included on any of his albums - not even expanded reissues or outtake collections. This appears to be a running gag at this point.
- Careful With That Axe:
- "ALMOST BEATEN TO THE PUNCH!"
- Several songs have a more straightforward "OW!!!", namely "Five Gears in Reverse", "Tokyo Storm Warning", and "Button My Lip".
- "Let Him Dangle" has a very passionate "STRING HIM UP!".
- The intro and outro to "Man Out Of Time", which were grafted on from an earlier, more raucous version.
- Checkpoint Charlie: Costello uses the phrase in "Oliver's Army".
- Concept Album: The Juliet Letters is based around the concept of letters, with different songs representing different types of correspondence.
- Content Warning: A tongue-in-cheek one was affixed on the front cover of Almost Blue, warning buyers that the album "contains country music".
- Cover Album: Almost Blue and Kojak Variety.
- Dead Artists Are Better: "The Loved Ones" is an aversion. It's "a tale about the morbid practice of refusing to leave a nice clean corpse by contriving the legend of your decline."
- Deadpan Snarker: His persona, and most likely his real demeanor, at least in the early stages of his career. His attitude has mellowed a little with time. On the other hand, given that his response to the death of Margaret Thatcher was to dust off some of his old anti-Thatcherite songs, he hasn't exactly gone soft.
- Digital Piracy Is Okay: On 2004's The Delivery Man, the standard FBI anti-piracy warning is prefaced by a note reading: "The artist does not endorse the following statement. The FBI doesn't have his home phone number and he hopes they don't have yours."
- Dream Team:
- He had a sporadic songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney, leading to several McCartney/Costello compositions scattered over both artists' albums in the late 80s and early 90s. One of their joint compositions, "Veronica", became one of the biggest hits of Costello's career. Costello joked that their collaboration reversed the dynamics one would expect, with Paul being the one who tried to write entire songs in one chord and similar weirdness, and Elvis being the one who was coming up with more melodic material.
- He recorded an album with famed Rap/R&B band The Roots in 2013.
- Esperanto, the Universal Language: The credits of Costello's 1986 album Blood and Chocolate are in Esperanto, although some words are misspelled.
- Excited Show Title!: Get Happy!!, The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!!
- Film Noir: "Watching the Detectives" is a stylish run through the signifiers of the genre.
- Genre Adultery: Costello doesn't just commit Genre Adultery — he commits Genre Nymphomania. Outside of Rock music, he's done an album of sixties Soul Pop (Get Happy), country covers (Almost Blue), chamber music (The Juliet Letters), roots rock (King of America, The Delivery Man), jazz (My Flame Burns Blue), classical (Il Sogno), and bluegrass (Secret, Profane & Sugarcane).
- Godwin's Law: "Two Little Hitlers".
- Gone Horribly Right: His attempt to "bring a tiresome conversation to a swift conclusion" by using the "N word".
- I Have Many Names: Names he's used in his songwriting credits include: Declan MacManus, The Imposter, and Napoleon Dynamitenote .
- Inaction Video: "I Wanna Be Loved". Costello notes:
"The video clip made for this song is the only one that I feel really adds anything much to the performance. It was shot by Evan English while we were on tour in Melbourne. Having insisted that I stay up all night so that I was feeling quite overwrought, and this being a period of particularly difficult personal circumstances, Evan then placed me in a photo-booth set. As I performed the song, sometimes singing live over the track as well as lip-synching, a great variety of people entered the frame, whispering, blowing in my ear, or kissing me on the cheek. The effect was very unsettling, and the range of reactions seen were entirely genuine and somehow added gravity to a rather plastic-sounding record."
- Ink-Suit Actor: Played himself on The Simpsons.
- Last Note Nightmare: The sudden ending of the already unnerving "Night Rally".
- Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Watching The Detectives
- Lonely Piano Piece: "Someone Took the Words Away", particularly effective since Costello is known for writing songs with a lot of words crammed into them.
- Longing Look: Mentioned by name in "Everyday I Write the Book."
- Lyrical Cold Open: Costello's first three albums each possess one: "Welcome to the Working Week", "No Action", and "Accidents Will Happen". Other examples include "Mystery Dance", "I Hope You're Happy Now", "Next Time 'Round", "Indoor Fireworks", and "Poisoned Rose".
- Lyrical Dissonance:
- The upbeat music that Costello tends to employ often masks how dark the lyrics are. One example is "Veronica", whose tune is so happy and poppy that you have to pay close attention to the lyrics to get that the song is about an elderly woman with Alzheimer's Disease.
- Those twinkling keyboard riffs in "Green Shirt" accompany such lyrics as:
Better cut off all identifying labels
Before they put you on the torture table
'Cause somewhere in the Quisling clinic
there's a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes
- An even more well-known example of this trope is "Oliver's Army", an upbeat Abba-inspired song (no, really) that sounds quite cheerful until you realise it's about sending young working-class men, barely out of school, off to fight and die in foreign wars.
- Murder Ballad:
- "Let Him Dangle" and "Kinder Murder".
- His cover of Leon Payne's "Psycho".
- Nerd Glasses: One of his visual trademarks.
- Non-Appearing Title: "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4", which relates to the line "I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again".
- "The Long Division" from the Burt Bacharach collaboration also qualifies.
- "Room With No Number" is technically an example of this. The refrain is always sung as "room without a number", never as the title phrase.
- Obsession Song: "I Want You".
- One Mario Limit: Defied, he adopted his stage name from the King himself.
- Precision F-Strike:
It's a force of habit
If it moves, then you fuck it, if it doesn't move you stab it
And beautiful people stampede to the doorway of the funniest fucker in the world
- Protest Song:
- "Shipbuilding," an anti-Falklands War song.
- "Tramp The Dirt Down", where he imagines himself standing on the grave of Margaret Thatcher and stamping on it. The song experienced a brief spike in popularity following her death.
- Pungeon Master: His earlier works dripped with puns, Get Happy!! especially.
"I'm so affected in the face of your affection"
"You lack lust, you're so lackluster"
- Record Producer:
- As well as the producing credits on his own albums, Costello has produced albums for The Specials, The Pogues and Squeeze.
- Nick Lowe produced many of his most acclaimed releases.
- Geoff Emerick, former engineer for The Beatles, produced Imperial Bedroom and All This Useless Beauty.
- T-Bone Burnett produced King of America and Spike.
- Recycled Soundtrack: Some variation; 1981's "Watch Your Step" sounds suspiciously similar to 1980's "Secondary Modern".
- Retraux: The cover for Get Happy!!, as well as its production style, was influenced by R&B from The Sixties.
- Revisiting the Roots: Brutal Youth, which both reunited him with The Attractions and revived his classic 70s style.
- Running Gag:
- Almost every version of Get Happy!! places emphasis on the number of tracks in its promotion. The original vinyl album featured twenty tracks one one record, and Elvis recorded a television promo promoting this fact while the album included a note from producer Nick Lowe to assuage customer fears that the quality would be sacrificed to fit the songs on. The 1994 Rykodisc reissue contained ten bonus tracks and a note from Elvis reading, "Thanks to the wonders of technology, we are able to present the new and improved Get Happy!! containing, count them, THIRTY TRACKS!!!" Nine years later, the Rhino reissue added a bonus disc containing thirty bonus tracks, bringing the total to 50. This trend died with the 2007 Hip-O releases, which drop the bonus tracks and liner notes.
- Elvis's commentary on his music videos from the DVD The Right Spectacle always points out how bizarre Steve Nieve's outfit is, from green shoes to a shirt made from a KFC bucket to a red jumper and a cowboy hat.
- Scatting: The jazzy "Almost Ideal Eyes".
- Self-Backing Vocalist: The Attractions/Imposters often provide backing vocals, but Costello also provides his own harmony vocals much of the time. One song where this is particularly noticeable is "King Horse".
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: A hallmark of much of Costello's early work, although after his collaboration with Burt Bacharach the tendency towards using a lot of words has eased slightly.
- Sequel Song: Sometimes his compositions just have too many words for one song. "American Without Tears No. 2" and "...Dust" are good examples of this. "When I Was Cruel No. 2" is unusual in that not only is it a completely different song than "When I Was Cruel No. 1", but it is on the album while "No. 1" was a B-side.
- Silly Love Songs: North is full of heartfelt love songs, having been written in the period when he started dating Diana Krall.
- Stop and Go: "God's Comic".
- Take That/The Villain Sucks Song:
- "Tramp the Dirt Down" is a long anti-Margaret Thatcher rant.
- One of the more pointed ones, "How To Be Dumb," is about the Attractions' bass player, Bruce Thomas.
- The words to a number of the songs on Punch The Clock ("The Greatest Thing" and "Love Went Mad") (reputedly) contain swipes at the macho posturing/anti-hard work themes of Wham!'s "Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do)" and "Young Guns (Go For It)" (though the Wham! songs themselves might have been parodies).
- Textless Album Cover: King of America
- The Troubles: "Oliver's Army".
- Vanilla Edition: Many of his Universal reissues, after the Rykodisc and Rhino reissues of his 1977-1986 catalog featured bonus tracks, even Goodbye Cruel World. Universal has released "deluxe editions" of some of his best albums like My Aim Is True and This Year's Model.
- Witch with a Capital B: From "Love Went Mad":
"I wish you luck with a capital F"
- Wrote the Book: "Every Day I Write The Book"