What shall we do with all this useless beauty?" once crooned Elvis Costello. And in so many words, among so many more, one of rock & roll's premier malcontents sketched a good part of his own professional dilemma. Costello owns a special place in pop music, somewhere between schoolteacher and dropout, storyteller and wall-eyed punk. His aim, albeit true, has never been simple. He is the crown prince of bilious conjecture, often scalding past the simple outskirts of his melodies and deep into the throat of almost unbearable anguish. He knows your pain, and through his songs, you feel a little closer to his, too.
"The only two things that matter to me, the only motivation points for me writing all these songs, are revenge and guilt," a young Costello told NME legend Nick Kent in 1977. "Those are the only emotions I know about, that I can feel. Love? I dunno what it means, really, and it doesn't exist in my songs." Although he later refuted that statement, his ambivalence to the great subject of love has tempered his every move since.
Born Declan Patrick McManus in 1955, few could have foreseen the rise of his 1977 debut, "My Aim Is True," a slice of unfettered effrontery that introduced the world to the "other Elvis" and became the largest selling import of all time in the States. His rebellion was noted then for its refusal to give in to the style-over-substance new-wave-ism of his inaugural years. He was the other side of the other rock loner David Bowie: eclectic but ugly, genius but angry, current but without pretense. He never wrote a simple love song.
Twenty-three records later, Costello is an entirely different beast. On the sleeve of his just-published "Elvis Costello: A Biography" by Tony Clayton-Lea, he states, "My ultimate vocation in life is to be an irritant." In some small way, his high-profile collaborations have seen him doing just that, pressing world-weary texture into the manicured crafts of such respected artisans as Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and the Brodsky Quartet. Like Bacharach, who wrote love songs for Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield, Costello has become the same sort of collaborative pollutant with rock chicks like Aimee Mann and Brit bad girl Wendy James. Useless beauty, indeed.
Additionally, "Painted From Memory," Costello's adult misery piece with Bacharach, and its instrumental counterpart, the just-released "The Sweetest Punch (Songs of Costello)," cast Costello into the same realm of lovelorn commentary that made him famous, but with the necessary reserve of 20-plus years in the business.;"God give me strength," he sings on "Painted From Memory." Truly, the anguish and the beauty are still there.