Elvis Costello’s Diverging Roads
Not to Get All Robert Frost About It...

If there’s one truth I have learned through my artistic travels, it is this: people like boxes.

Boxes, categories, signs, what have you – people like being able to point at something and say, “This is this.” The tendency to label songs and box them with others of the same type leads to formatted radio stations and genre-driven record company marketing, with the focus on demographics rather than music. As far as the suits are concerned, their customers are not music fans, they are genre consumers. “These people in this state buy country CDs. Tim McGraw makes country CDs. Hence, we will sell this many Tim McGraw CDs in this state, especially if Tim wears a big ol’ cowboy hat and boots in all of our targeted marketing. This is this.”

There is the occasional synergistic overlap – the demographics for rap and metal, for instance – but for the most part, the more popular musicians and their fans stay in their boxes, and smile about it. With identity-based clothing marketing, it’s much easier now to spot denizens of certain boxes, too. It’s important to remember, as you’re strapping on your studded wristband and lacing up your military boots, that it’s not just a style, it’s your entire identity.

Fascinatingly, there also seems to be some pride associated with being the most identified with your box – real punk fans rail against any so-called punk fan who likes Good Charlotte, for example. It’s an amazing marketing trick. Rather than the company defining people as certain types, they’ve managed to get the people themselves to proclaim their genre loudly and proudly. Instead of “this is this,” it’s “I am this,” and more importantly, “I am more this than you are.” The direct corollary is, of course, “please sell me more of this.”

And they do, and they make it easy to find more of whatever category you fit into. There’s a visual shorthand to which we’ve all become accustomed – cowboy hats = country, for example – that even extends to name-brand clothing that signifies certain styles of rap. Even the fonts used on the CD covers are designed to communicate a style, a genre, a box. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does leave little room for those artists who know that music as a whole cares nothing for labels and categories.

Unfortunately, the current system of fragmentation and specialization has forced some far-reaching musical minds to compartmentalize their ambitions. Perhaps the template for that sort of thing is the great Frank Zappa, who started out making albums that gleefully shoved rock and blues up next to avant-garde orchestral scores, jazz and cartoon music. That abandon reached its apex with Lather, the four-record set Zappa delivered to Warner Bros. in the late ‘70s. Its 15-car-pileup mentality proved too much for the label, who demanded it be cut into smaller, more easily digestible albums.

Zappa arranged those albums by type, and he was never the same after that. He made guitar albums, orchestral albums, synthesizer albums and live records, but he never really combined the styles into one mind-expanding whole the way he had before. Not to say his post-Lather albums were bad, but they were limited in scope – Them Or Us is a rock record, The Yellow Shark is orchestral, Guitar is a collection of six-string solos. Zappa would never again produce a moment like the startling jump from “Titties ‘n’ Beer” into “The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution,” and then into “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary.”

A similar thing seems to be happening to Elvis Costello. He used to make wild, genre-spanning albums like Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, on which slammers like “Playboy To a Man” would brush up against orchestrated ditties like “Sweet Pear.” Spike is a great example of an album that recklessly veers from style to style, from the funk of “Chewing Gum” to the bouncy jazz-pop of “God’s Comic” to the vitriolic folk of “Tramp the Dirt Down.”

Since then, Costello has been the king of compartmentalization. It’s not like he doesn’t have a history with this sort of thing – Almost Blue was his country covers album, Imperial Bedroom was his chamber-pop record – but each album since Rose has stuck to one or two things. The result is that, like Zappa’s, Costello’s catalog as a whole is remarkably diverse and all-inclusive, but the individual albums are sealed off from their counterparts.

It’s to the point now that whenever Costello makes a “rock” record, he announces it as such, perhaps aware that it would be the rare modern music fan who can keep up with his stylistic divergences. Since Rose, Costello has teamed up with the Brodsky String Quartet for The Juliet Letters, collaborated with Burt Bacharach on the delightfully pomp-pop Painted From Memory, and sung with opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter on From the Stars. He’s done songs for Disney and The X-Files, and worked with Nick Cave and Brian Eno.

Just recently, Costello formed a new backing band, the Impostors (actually two-thirds of his long-time backup group the Attractions with Davey Faragher on bass), and made two disparate records – the loud, prickly When I Was Cruel and the sedate ballad collection North. That the songs on both albums came from the same compositional mind is impressive. Aside from the inimitable voice, there is nothing that links these collections in any way. That isn’t a complaint, just an observation – Costello has taken his rock tendencies and his orchestral ambitions down divergent paths, and while I’d like to see them more integrated, what he’s giving us is pretty swell.

The divergence continues with two new albums this month, and if you can imagine it, these discs sound even less the product of one composer. First up is The Delivery Man, the first album Costello has made with the Impostors. If you’re thinking genres, this is more of an alt-country excursion, which explains its release on Lost Highway. This is the label that slipped into apoplexy when Ryan Adams dropped his twang, after all, and Delivery is right up their alley.

Actually, The Delivery Man is what used to be referred to as a session – a bunch of players in a room grooving on some simple, effective tunes. Costello and the Impostors rock out more than once – opener “Button My Lip” is a melodic shambles over a sloppy, energetic tumble, and “Bedlam” is a flurry of tones – but the vibe is country-rock. The songs are sometimes less than engaging, too, but when Costello hits a bright spot, like the creeping waltz of a title track or the old-time fury of “Monkey to Man,” he rides it well. Costello sounds about half his age here, shouting and growling with abandon.

The best I can say about The Delivery Man, in most ways an average Elvis Costello album, is that it sounds wonderfully live. These sound like first takes, especially the vocals, and it would have been easy to clutter this session up with more complex songs, ones that don’t take to barroom jamming. There is a downside to the album’s looseness – I can only imagine that Lucinda Williams’ scratchy, screechy vocal on “There’s a Story In Your Voice” was kept because it’s the first thing she spat out. Emmylou Harris fares much better on “Nothing Clings Like Ivy,” her voice meshing with Costello’s nicely.

Still, I can’t imagine that this album took longer than a week to record, and while the feel is nice, the songs are overall pretty forgettable. It seems that Costello was saving all his tricky melodies for his other project, Il Sogno, out simultaneously on Deutsche Gramophone. DG is a classical label, and Il Sogno looks like every other classical album on the shelves, except for Costello’s picture on the cover. There’s almost no mistaking this for a regular Elvis Costello album, so it’s unlikely anyone will purchase it by accident and fall in love with it by surprise.

Il Sogno is Costello’s first full score for orchestra, performed here by the London Symphony. (Coincidentally, the LSO also recorded Zappa’s long-form works for orchestra, furthering the parallel.) And as fun as The Delivery Man is, it’s here that the full range of Costello’s influences and abilities comes to the fore. Il Sogno is a ballet, inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it contains passages of Gershwin-esque pop, sweeping film score music, and some meaty, jazzy saxophone by John Harkle. Some of it is cartoony, like the brass motif that signals Puck’s entrance, and some of it is tender and moving, like the delicate trumpet on “Slumber.”

Where The Delivery Man sounds tossed off, Il Sogno is a fully realized work – 62 minutes of memorable melodic arrangements in a myriad of styles. (Not bad for a guy who only learned to write sheet music 10 years ago.) I would hate to think that this is now the consequence of his divergent paths – that we will get finely considered orchestral albums like this and North, and sloppy rock records like Delivery and Cruel. As much as I like these two new installments, I can’t help wishing that Costello would break the boxes open and let their contents mix. How great would it be to get a single work that makes use of every part of his musical mind?

I don’t mean to sound like I’m putting Costello down. He has responded admirably to the genre-based marketplace and his own ambitions – he could just as easily have picked one path or the other, but he’s giving us both, perhaps hoping that some will respond to his entire vision. I just think it’s a shame that Il Sogno can’t sit comfortably beside The Delivery Man in a record store, and that the musical skills that brought both of these albums forth can’t co-exist on one disc. It’s all music, it all flows from the same river regardless of what label we try to give it. If you find yourself buying and liking one of these new Costello albums, do yourself a favor and try the other. We should be taking these boundaries down, not erecting them.

Next week, SMiLE!

See you in line Tuesday morning.