But the success of songs like “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” seems to have activated Costello’s paranoid streak, sending him running, Dylan-like, for anything other than what audiences expected of him. Writing about his 1993 collaboration with the classical-minded Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, Costello recalls critics who accused him of suddenly straining for artistic respectability:
Clearly anyone who made such a statement had little or no knowledge of the critical hyperbole that can rain down on even the slightest talent before the bloom goes off the romance in pop music. I had found myself being taken too seriously and over-analysed from the very outset of my recording career.
All This Useless Beauty, Costello’s last record with the Attractions, was released in 1996 and reissued by Rhino in 2001. It’s a mature and ruminative album, full of songs that Costello had written either for or with other artists. “None of these lyrics contained any anger toward the characters,” he writes, “only disappointment that they had settled for so little. I could just as easily have been talking to myself.” Though he leaves the source of his self-disappointment unspecified, Costello hasn’t approached this kind of frankness in any interview or writing I’ve seen elsewhere. It’s particularly startling given that he was only five years removed from the record in question. But by then he had already inaugurated the obsessively dilettantish approach that has distinguished his post-Attractions career. Since 1996, Costello has appeared intent on leaving no creative opportunity untaken, whether hosting a talk show on basic cable or releasing a symphony, Il Sogno, in 2004.
It’s a career path that has put all but the most devoted fans off his scent, though the Costello revealed in these mini-memoirs is both more humble and more expressive than some disappointed fans might think him to be after the last 15 years. Whatever the merits of his recent albums (and a few are quite good indeed), he has come to embody a searching and catholic kind of musical fandom that only seems more appropriate now, when seemingly all of recorded history is available to anyone with an Internet connection. (His 2002 Vanity Fair article “Rocking Around the Clock,” which lists his favorite music for all 24 hours of the day, simply begs for a Spotify playlist.) Most musician memoirs are an indulgence for author and reader alike, but Costello’s is the rare one that actually conveys the musical mind and shows how complex and generous it can be.
Even if, like me, you’ve listened to 1982’s Imperial Bedroom countless times and admired the Attractions’ melding of styles over its 15 songs, it’s still stunning to read the tangle of allusions that Costello unravels in his essay. He explains that his listening habits at the time included Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, Erik Satie and Debussy, Miles Davis and the Left Banke. “Now as an adult,” he writes, “there was certainly something attractive about the way these records felt out of step with fashion and had a connection to so many musical threads.” That’s Costello’s late career in a sentence: chasing musical connections no matter how far afield of fashion they lead him. No wonder he took half a decade to write his memoirs—and then let them escape with a shrug.
Read John Lingan's guide to "Where Do I Start With Elvis Costello?"