Elvis Costello takes songwriting past passion, past profession and somewhere toward the clinical neighborhood of pathology. I once knew a guy named Donny who wrote 700 poems in a single summer about a girl who had hurt him. All the poems were bad – crude little knots of sad and angry with no form, no detail, no feel for the nodes of experience – but the achievement in toto was impressive. The man who wrote “I Want You,” rock ‘n’ roll’s most obsessively precise and precisely obsessed song about obsession, would have commended Donny on his motives and his immersive madness but would have scoffed at his stamina and the poor tone of his jealous imagination. Still, the bad poetry worked. It helped Donny realize that he felt this way because he liked to. He got past it – either changed his way of feeling or learned to accept and manage this part of himself, I don’t remember which – and went on to a normal life, with a Facebook page and everything.
Costello never has. We should have suspected something right around the time that Taking Liberties came out in 1980. Three years and four overstuffed albums into his breakneck career, no one was expecting a 20-track B-sides-and-rarities compilation from the bespectacled practitioner musicologist disguised as a punk. Of course no one was surprised that it was a good album – one that rarely calls upon the broad tolerances of completist fans. What is stunning about Taking Liberties is that it showcases entirely new styles and competencies, cards that the 25-year-old hadn’t yet played in his first 80 released songs. Some were precocious études, genre exercises from a man who would eventually try his hand at them all. But others were sui generis one-offs with no easy comparisons in his catalogue or in all of popular music. One such song, the inexplicable “Hoover Factory,” is a true singularity and a kind of perverse fan favorite.
The punchline is that seven years, six Attractions albums and his first solo release later, Costello dropped another excellent B-side catch-all, 1987’s Out of Our Idiot, which heavily featured runoff from my favorite, Imperial Bedroom. And no one noticed. I didn’t even notice until John Lefsky waved it in my face. Ten years of being buffeted by his verbal and melodic storms, the most articulate rage ever articulated, had toughened our skin to the point of numb indifference. New Costello songs were just more weather.
Costello gets it. He knows that rare makes dear. He confounds our notions of productivity and ambition, and he pays the price for it. He blows the curve for everyone else. In his presence, R. Stevie Moore and Bob Pollard look like Chidiock Tichborne. To be taken for granted is the natural fate of the man who put the “life” in “prolific.” But if you dropped out just in time to miss the Warner Brothers years and beyond, you’ve denied yourself an awful lot of greatness. If, for you, it was all about the unstable, careening magic of his ex-band, the Attractions, and never so much about the songs per se…well, that’s your woefully small-minded opinion, but you are pardoned.
Yes, he is a musical imperialist, but when he leaves rock and pop for exotic shores, he doesn’t just buy himself a modular Brazilian all-star ensemble and a new hat; he learns the music from the inside out. He taught himself notation so that he could work tooth and nail with the Brodsky Quartet on his art song cycle, The Juliet Letters, and later write a credible large-scale orchestral work on his own. When he collaborates with other legends, it is always the other legends who get the sweet end of the deal: not commercial success, necessarily, but rather the best work that they’d done in years.
Sometimes they storm off in a huff because E. C. had the temerity to be honest with them. He taught Burt Bacharach how to be Burt Bacharach again. When he co-wrote about a dozen really sturdy songs with Paul McCartney, he did what every Beatle fan knew needed to be done, but what no one on Earth had the balls to do: He pushed the greatest natural talent ever to be a little harder on himself and more discriminating.
His most recent release is Wise up Ghost, a polarizing collaboration with ?uestlove and the Roots. But when Costello hits the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston on Thursday, November 14, he’ll have only a guitar in hand (or perhaps a ukulele). Solo shows often smack of stinginess and an eye on the margins, but Costello is a real wizard in this setting. Though he routinely belittles his own guitar-playing, referring to himself as Little Hands of Concrete, recent songs like the delightful fingerstyle rag “A Slow Drag with Josephine” from 2010’s National Ransom suggest that these craggy fingers have learned a few new tricks. No surprise there. E.C.’s career has been about everything except comfort and complacency.
Elvis Costello, Thursday, November 14, 8 p.m., $60/$70, Ulster Performing Arts Center, 601 Broadway, Kingston; (800) 745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.