Elvis Costello is a rare force in modern music, a musician that is timeless and classic while still being forward thinking and current. Evidenced in his recent release with none other than The Roots, Costello is able to adopt whatever modern sounds he desires without sounding like he’s pandering to “the younger audience” while still appealing to old fuddy duddys that pine for the days of “Allison” and “Accidents Will Happen”.
If Elton John or Paul McCartney, both musicians I admire a great deal and who continue releasing strong, relevant material, were to announce an album with The Roots it would feel like such a grab for young attention that I’d buy it on the assumption of listening to a train wreck but when Costello announces it, it seems about right. It seems that Costello can do nothing but be cool, a plague I too am afflicted with. In the 90’s, he did some duets with Burt Bacharach who is, almost without debate, not cool. By today’s standards, it would be like Josh Groban taking over lead vocals for the Foo Fighters and would be certain death to every career involved but Costello managed to make Burt cool and land a cameo in an Austin Powers movie because of it. It defies logic.
Discussing this with a good friend of mine, another huge Costello fan, he attributes Costello’s ability to transform so seamlessly with impulse. It’s not that Elvis is trying to be relevant or appeal to a new crowd, he just wants to work with the Roots and without the pretension of “this will sell a billion records and make me a star again” the albums turn out strong and organic and feel right. If you spend your career never looking behind you and focus simply on what you want to do now, you’re bound to have an eclectic and appealing catalog of music and Costello has proven that.
Part of the reason McCartney or Elton couldn’t get away with this album is because for over 40 years, they have been nothing but McCartney and Elton. Costello, on the other hand, has never been anything too specific. New Wave star? Sure, until he put out a country album. Country star? Sure, until he wrote pop songs with McCartney. Pop star? Maybe, until he did a jazzy album with Alan Toussaint. The man just plays music and writes good songs and without any specific expectation to live up to, he’s able to experiment and grow as an artist and, most importantly, have fun making music which is, so we’re told, what it’s all about.
I really dig Elvis Costello and The Roots may be one of the best live bands around these days and this pairing works, for me, on every level. It’s just enough hip hop, just enough Elvis