Elvis Costello – Thick Frames and Shifting Styles

Starting out on this week, I hadn’t really thought about how all these bands that I’ve been drawn to lately are related.  Most are loosely connected, sounding somewhat similar to each other or falling in the same relative genre, yet, with The Specials and today’s artist, Elvis Costello, the connection is direct.  Just two years after Costello released his debut album, My Aim is True, he had his hand in producing the debut album for another burgeoning British band.  That band was The Specials.  While The Specials were a breakbeat ska band, Costello was more of straight forward pub rock artist, but they both shared the same mentality of the English underground music scene.

Costello, (who was born Declan Patrick MacManus) began his career by hustling his way through the local London music scene at night and working menial jobs during the day to make ends meet.  Inspired by his father, who was a musician himself, and early rock bands, Costello adopted a strongly pop sound guided by his distinct voice and prowess as a storyteller.  In 1976 Costello signed to Stiff Records, a newfound label that was scooping up British New Wave artists, and began working on his first album.  At the behest of his label he adopted a stage moniker, taking Elvis from Presley and Costello from his own father’s stage name.  The album, which consisted of songs that Costello had written late at night after coming home from his data-entry job, was slow to take off, forcing Costello to keep his day job during the release, but three weeks later it all clicked and Costello gained overnight success.

My Aim is True became one of the greatest rock albums of not only the mid-seventies, but of all time, propelling Costello into the world music spotlight.  Yet it wasn’t just the album itself that helped Costello’s rise, it was his overall image.  The now famous cover of My Aim is True shows him wearing a colored sportcoat, his signature Buddy Holly glasses, and a well worn Jazzmaster, setting the stage for Costello’s career.  His two next albums, This Year’s Model and Armed Forces captured this same aesthetic, harkening back to those early days of rock and roll when showmanship and personality were equally as important as how you sounded.

In the eighties, Costello began to show just how expansive his musical background is, branching out into soul, country western, harder rock, punk, new wave, and jazz.  While this didn’t always spell success for Costello, it did show his diversity as an artist, something that was reflected in his presence, donning polka dot shirts, patterned jackets, and porkpie hats.  His exploration into other genres continued into the nineties as Costello dug deeper into jazz and classical, growing a beard and producing vast orchestrated pieces.  Coupled with with darker outfits and a long beard, this became Costello’s most severe period.  Yet, by the late nineties Costello had swung back to his roots, returning to the straightforward pop songs of his past.

As the turn of the century rolled around, Costello settled into his current stage, flowing through various genres with each respective album.  Now clean shaven, and a bit more toned down, Costello still throws in those patterned sportcoats, low-top brimmed hats, darker dress shirts.  As a man that has always been renowned for his ability to tell stories through his music no matter how it may be classified, Costello consistently keeps that solid, well-put together base adding in various touches here and there to echo his emotions during that period.  And of course, no matter what, he’ll always have his thick Buddy Holly glasses.

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