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Music / Elvis Costello

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Veronica sits in her favourite chair, she sits very quiet and still,
And they call her a name that they never get right, and if they don't then nobody else will.
But she used to have a carefree mind of her own, with a devilish look in her eye,
Saying "You can call me anything you like, but my name is Veronica"
— "Veronica"

Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus OBE (born 25 August 1954), better known by his stage name Elvis Costello, is a sometimes popular and always respectable British musician and songwriter who's been around since the late 1970s.

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 great-grandmother'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 '60s 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 highly suited to interpreting his diverse catalog of songs.

Although Costello is often associated with his use of puns and wordplay in lyrics, these elements are most noticeable in his early work. As he's matured, Costello's humor has become less brash and sarcastic, instead leaning towards a more jocular and self-mocking tone. His curiosity and desire to collaborate with others has — among other adventures — led him to compose a score for the ballet, tour with T-Bone Burnett as a country duo, and write both an album's worth of songs with Burt Bacharach and yet another backed only by string quartet.

Costello is also an author. His first book, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, was released in 2015. While working on it, he denied it would be an autobiography, which is technically true — it's a memoir. It also took much longer than expected to write; perhaps ending up more than double the length of the 300-and-some pages promised by the publisher had something to do with that.

Costello hosted two seasons of a music/interview show called Spectacle: Elvis Costello with... which aired on the Sundance Channel in the US and Channel 4 in the UK. 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 and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Charges that he is an international art thief are still being investigated.

Costello was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.


^=with the Attractions
^^=with the Imposters

  • My Aim Is True (1977)
  • This Year's Model^ (1978)
  • Armed Forces^ (1979)
  • Get Happy!!!^ (1980)
  • Trust^ (1981)
  • Almost Blue^ (1981)
  • Imperial Bedroom^ (1982)
  • Punch the Clock^ (1983)
  • Goodbye Cruel World^ (1984)
  • King of America (1986)
  • Blood & Chocolate^ (1986)
  • Spike (1989)
  • Mighty Like a Rose (1991)
  • The Juliet Letters (with the Brodsky Quartet) (1993)
  • Brutal Youth^ (1994)
  • Kojak Variety (1995)
  • All This Useless Beauty^ (1996)
  • Painted from Memory (with Burt Bacharach) (1998)
  • When I Was Cruel^^ (2002)
  • North (2003)
  • The Delivery Man^^ (2004)
  • The River in Reverse^^ (with Allen Toussaint) (2006)
  • Momofuku^^ (2008)
  • Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009)
  • National Ransom (2010)
  • Wise Up Ghost (with The Roots) (2013)
  • Look Now^^ (2018)
  • Hey Clockface (2020)
  • The Boy Named If^^ (2022)

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 "Alison"), 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".
  • Alliterative Title: Armed Forces has several examples, including "Senior Service", "Big Boys", "Busy Bodies", "Moods for Moderns", and "Chemistry Class".
    • Other examples include "Welcome to the Working Week", "Miracle Man", "Hand in Hand", "Motel Matches", "Beyond Belief", "Glitter Gulch", etc.
  • 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 Nazi-Land: 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.
  • Artist and the Band: While The Attractions were first a backing band for Elvis, they released their own album in 1980.
  • The Band Minus the Face:
    • The Attractions released Mad About the Wrong Boy, a "solo" album without Costello on which they wrote and sang their own songs, 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.
  • Be Yourself: From "Pay It Back" on My Aim Is True:
    "And I tried so hard just to be myself
    But I keep on fading away"
  • Break-Up 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:
    • 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" as part of the song’s evocation of a Cold War milieu.
  • 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."
  • Film Noir: "Watching the Detectives" is a stylish run through the signifiers of the genre. "Episode of Blonde" also has elements of the form.
  • Generation Xerox: His father Ross McManus was a singer, songwriter and trumpet player who'd spent several decades working with British big band leader Joe Loss.
  • 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: Though most often credited as Elvis Costello, for a while in the late eighties and early nineties, he used the name Declan MacManus in most of his songwriting credits. Other identities pop up at whim: The Imposter has been used as the name of a writer/performer for a few assorted singles, occasionally also showing up in some production credits of Costello material. A 1982 track (which Costello wrote, produced, sang and played all instruments on) was credited to The Emotional Toothpaste. Napoleon Dynamitenote  was used as a performance pseudonym for a 1982 single and in the credits of a 1986 album. The name The Little Hands Of Concrete (or L.H.C.) is used in the credits of King Of America to identify Costello's contributions. Howard Coward is Costello's identity when performing as part of the Coward Brothers with T-Bone Burnett; the name has also popped up in a few production credits. He uses Eamonn Singer as an identity for some of the paintings and designs on albums and singles. A recent collector's-only 10" vinyl single from 2017 is credited to Sgt. Larry Singer. On the 1987 12" single "Blue Chair", Costello uses a number of these identities: the single is credited to Elvis Costello as a performer; the credited writer of all four tracks is "MacManus; track 1 is a Coward Brothers production, co-mixed by Howard Coward; track 3 features acoustic guitar by L.H.C.; track 4 is "A Napoleon Dynamite Production"; the 12" package as a whole is co-designed by Eamonn Singer.
  • 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.
  • In the Style of:
    • "The Other Side of Summer" was intended to evoke the classic sound of The Beach Boys from The '60s, but it's been pointed out that it sounds more like The Beach Boys circa Surf's Up or Holland.
    • "Oliver's Army" is in the style of ABBA.
  • Last Note Nightmare: The sudden ending of the already unnerving "Night Rally".
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Watching The Detectives:
    They beat him up until the teardrops start
    But he can't be wounded 'cause he's got no heart...
  • 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 open with one: "Welcome to the Working Week", "No Action", and "Accidents Will Happen", respectively. Other examples include "Mystery Dance", "I Hope You're Happy Now", "Next Time 'Round", "Indoor Fireworks", "Big Boys", 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; compare it with "Dancing Queen") 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.
    • "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" mixes this with The Cover Changes the Meaning. The original version by Sam & Dave is slower and more anguished. Costello's version is up-tempo, and the video features Costello and The Attractions dancing their way through the song; however, the lyrics are still about a broken-hearted lover lamenting that his girlfriend has left him.
  • Meaningful Rename: "Elvis Costello" is a double Shout-Out to Elvis Presley and his father Ross McManus, who recorded a Cover Version of "The Long and Winding Road" in 1970 under the name Day Costello, which became a hit in Australia. In 1972 (as Big Ross and the Memphis Sound) McManus recorded an Elvis Cover Album which later got reissued as Elvis' Dad Sings Elvis.
  • Murder Ballad:
    • "Let Him Dangle" and "Kinder Murder".
    • His cover of Leon Payne's "Psycho".
  • Nerd Glasses: One of his visual trademarks.
  • Nom de Mom: Costello is often reported as his mother's maiden name, but in reality it belonged to his great-grandmother.
  • 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". At emphatic length.
    It's the stupid details that my heart is breaking for
    It's the way your shoulders shake and what they're shaking for
    It's knowing that he knows you now after only guessing
    It's the thought of him undressing you or you undressing...
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • "Suit of Lights":
    It's a force of habit
    If it moves, then you fuck it, if it doesn't move you stab it
    • "How To Be Dumb":
    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"
  • Radio Song: "Radio Radio":
    Radio is a sound salvation
    Radio is cleaning up the nation
    They say you better listen to the voice of reason
    But they don't give you any choice 'cause they think that it's treason
    So you had better do as you are told
    You better listen to the radio ...
    I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
    I wanna bite that hand so badly
    I wanna make them wish they'd never seen me
  • Record Producer:
    • As well as the producing credits on his own albums, Costello has produced albums for The Specials, The Pogues and Squeeze. He also almost produced They Might Be Giants' Apollo 18.
    • On the other hand...
      • Nick Lowe produced many of his most acclaimed releases, including This Year's Model, My Aim Is True, Armed Forces, and Blood & Chocolate.
      • Geoff Emerick, former engineer for The Beatles, produced Imperial Bedroom and All This Useless Beauty.
      • T-Bone Burnett produced King of America and Spike.
      • Legendary country producer Billy Sherrill did the honors for Almost Blue.
  • 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 '60s.
  • Revisiting the Roots: The popular perception of Brutal Youth was as a reunion of the original Attractions lineup and a restoration of their original sound, but Costello openly rejected that idea, since he ended up working with Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas again more out of happenstance than design. Of course, this could also be viewed as Distinction Without a Difference.
  • Rhyming with Itself: The chorus of "Lip Service":
    "Lip service is all you'll ever get from me" [3x]
    "But if you change your mind, you can send it in a letter to me"
  • 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 on 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".
  • Self-Deprecation: Described himself in a mid-1980's interview as "Rock 'n' roll's Scrabble champion".
  • Separated by a Common Language: Since breaking into the American market, his work has started to focus on the Stateside audience and it shows in the lyrics, especially in his later work.
  • 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.
  • Serial Spouse: He's been married three times, most recently (2003-present) to Canadian jazz artist Diana Krall.
  • "Sesame Street" Cred:
  • 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. He jokingly referred to himself as "rock and roll's Scrabble champion" for this reason.
  • Silly Love Songs: North is full of heartfelt love songs, having been written in the period when he started dating Diana Krall.
  • Song Style Shift: "Man Out of Time" begins with a loud wail and a fast-paced guitar riff for a few bars, before it abruptly changes to the slower-paced guitar chords of the main melody. Then, at the end, it suddenly shifts back to the fast-paced guitar chords and loud wails of the beginning.
  • Stop and Go: "God's Comic".
  • Take That!/"The Villain Sucks" Song:
    • "Less Than Zero" is one to former British Union of Fascists leader Sir Oswald Mosley; Costello was inspired to write the song after seeing Mosley on a televised interview in which he attempted to deny his racist past.
    • "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).
  • Telephone Song: "No Action" is sung from the perspective of a man who no longer feels anything for his girlfriend — mentioning several times how, every time they talk on the phone, all he wants to do is hang up.
  • Textless Album Cover: King of America.
  • Truck Driver's Gear Change: Used subtly and effectively in "Oliver's Army".
  • The Troubles: Part of the subject of "Oliver's Army".
  • Vanilla Edition: Many of his Universal/Hip-O 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.
  • Wall of Text: The lyrics on the original release of Imperial Bedroom were printed this way.
  • 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".
  • You Can Leave Your Hat On: Played With, to incredibly dark effect, in "She's Pulling Out The Pin", which starts out describing a striptease ("She's pulling out the pin / That lets her hair fall down"), implies a dark relationship scenario in the character's background ("She's slipping off the hook / Unbuttoning her dress / There's just enough to make some man a mess"), drops a sinister hint ("Do you hear something ticking?"), and ultimately suggests that "she" (probably a different “she”) has done something very terrible, and the pin isn't just in her hair and the mess isn't just emotional...
    Full of shattered glass and mayhem
    Not one softly whispered amen...
    She's knocking down some doors
    And the smoke begins to fill
    Where the world without her ends
    And the next one begins
    She's pulling out the pin.