While many can identify the thick-rimmed glasses and warm smirk that belong to Elvis Costello, few can name the British-songwriter's actual identity: Declan MacManus. Elvis Costello was born into a musical family. His grandfather and father both sang and the latter inspired MacManus to adopt the stage name "Costello"—MacManus' father performed under the name Day Costello. Elvis Costello expressed an interest in music early into his youth when, at age nine, he purchased of his first album, Georgie Fame's EP Fame At Last. Georgie Fame's soulful voice and bluesy vibe wail throughout Costello's earlier music, which has been dubbed "cerebral," "manic," and "sophisticated." His sophistication was what distinguished him from his punk contemporaries during the onset of his career, in the late '70s.
Costello was working as a data entry clerk at the prestigious Elizabeth Arden after a series of failed pitches to record companies when he began writing the tracks for what would be his first album, My Aim is True (1977). Before Costello recorded the album in a mere 24-hour period he sent the demo to, then, nascent Stiff Records where musician Nick Lowe, who was signed to the label as an artist and roved as a producer, vouched for Costello's talent. One of the album's many break out hits, "Alison," showcased Elvis Costello's layered lyrics, strained vocals, and knee-slapping rhythms. Shortly after the release of My Aim is True, Costello launched the Attractions, the band that would accompany his solo act. With pianist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas, and guitarist Pete Thomas, the Attractions juxtaposed rockabilly instrumentals against Costello's deeply intelligent lyrics. But Costello, with a wide interest in varying genres, wisely transitioned to a less country approach in his fourth album, Get Happy (1980).
Costello's personal life greatly influenced his music—his second album, Armed Forces, was a meditation on his turbulent relationship with former Playboy model, Bebe Buell and some critics speculate that Get Happy was Costello's response to an unfortunate incident that occurred one drunken evening with musicians Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett. The three were downing drinks in an Ohio bar when Costello referred to James Brown as a "jive ass nigger," then proclaimed that Ray Charles was a "blind, ignorant nigger." The eccentric Costello later issued an apology but, despite Costello's public apology, many critics argue that Get Happy was Costello's way of reconciling the unfortunate event. The song "Riot Act" is, perhaps, the most blatant reference to the incident. In it, Costello defends himself saying, "You can make me a matter of fact / Or a villain in a million / A slip of the tongue is gonna keep me civilian," While Costello may deny a correlation between Get Happy or, even, "Riot Act" and his "slip of the tongue" in that dingy Ohio bar, Costello cannot deny the R&B sound of Get Happy.
If Costello's transition from country rock to R & B is jarring, his later work can only be described as variant. Elvis Costello has collaborated with the likes of Paul McCartney, the Brodsky Quartet, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. But, only Costello's collaboration with Burt Bacharach yielded a Grammy. When Costello and Bacharach teamed up, Costello was on the second year of his retreat from music and Bacharach's absence had spanned over 20 years. It began as one collaborative track for the 1996 motion picture Grace of My Heart, but it transformed into a full-length album. After the album's release, after they received the 1998 Grammy for "Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals," Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach continued working together. They performed a variety of songs from the album at a scarce number of venues and one of their performances was even documented for an episode of the American public television program Sessions at West 54th.
Perhaps there is a consistency to Elvis Costello's inconsistency. He may hop from country to R&B to new wave to bee bop but his product remains mythic. While Costello has retired his lovelorn verses, he's not afraid to tap into his past. His newest album Secret, Profane, Sugarcane (2009), is mostly acoustic instrumentation and features the legendary T-Bone Burnett. There's even speculation that the album plays off the rockabilly King of America (1986), one song, "Stella Hurt," is about the swing and blues star of the forties, Teddy Grace. He may revisit his past but Elvis Costello's influence remains present.