Arts & Culture » Book Review

A new memoir traces the many incarnations of Elvis Costello

Even without the sneer, his aim has always been true.

by

comment

Nobody has ever sounded quite like Elvis Costello. For that matter, Costello has never sounded quite like himself—at least, that sneering, brash version of Elvis Costello that the world quickly got to know in the late 70s, when he burst into public consciousness with a trio of albums, starting with My Aim is True, that still stand as some of rock's greatest.

Ever since those early days, Costello's musical career has felt like one fascinating joyride, catapulting between musical styles seemingly at random, touching on classical composition, country ballads, rootsy blues rock, and many genres in between. For an artist whose output spans nearly four decades, Costello is aware that countless fans would love nothing more than "My Aim Is Still True," as he puts it in his new memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink.

But, just like his music, Unfaithful Music constantly defies expectations and the simple pleasures of faraway days. Written in a clipped, biting style, the book reads like Costello's greatest songs, equally lyrical and hard to pin down. It's a constantly illuminating, perpetually idiosyncratic read, fitting for a musician whose entire life has been one long reinvention.

Born Declan MacManus in London in 1954, Costello had a childhood that fostered his early love of music. His father, Ross MacManus, was an accomplished singer whom Costello idolized but seldom saw. Their relationship is a haunting thread that runs through the book. As Costello reached adulthood, his father became his best friend; Ross's slow death from Parkinson's gave Costello's saddest songs extra heft; he would perform them while choking back tears.

Elsewhere, Costello treats his readers to countless anecdotes about the many famous musicians with whom he's crossed paths. Particularly memorable is a 1978 encounter with David Bowie, an epic standoff of aloof coolness, the two the only patrons (each with a female companion in tow) in a restaurant overlooking Central Park, recounted years later in conspiratorial laughter between the legends.

Accompanying the memoir is a two-disc soundtrack, designed to trace the book's scattershot narrative. Unlike the memoir, the album is a wonderful primer for those looking to get a firmer grasp on Costello's unwieldy discography. The stylistic leaps across the soundtrack make sense of Costello's voracious musical appetite, documenting the impressive range of collaborators he's worked with, including Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint, and the Roots, among many others.

"It would have been so easy to remain in a permanent sneer," Costello writes, "perhaps even better for business, but my mind and heart were elsewhere." Unfaithful Music shines by illuminating Costello's inner music nerd and love of all genres, a fact made clear in his detailed attention to the myriad artists who have influenced his work. For 670 brilliant pages, we're allowed to tag along with one of the greats, witnessing the unchanging beauty of a man who refuses to settle down on his quest of musical self-exploration—and we're all better off for it.  v

Add a comment