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Elvis Costello in the Nineties

This week’s guest on SPECTACLE, President Bill Clinton, is probably the single most defining figure of the 1990s. His election in 1992 marked the triumph of the Baby Boom generation on the global stage, and during his two terms in the White House, the United States enjoyed peace and unprecedented prosperity; the record federal budget deficit that he inherited had been turned into the largest surplus in history by the time he left office in 2001.

For Elvis Costello, though, the ‘90s weren’t a placid time—his decade was most notable for a boundless sense of musical exploration. Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Elvis was unarguably a rock artist, occasionally (and increasingly) experimenting with more traditional pop and roots song forms. His first release of the new decade, 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose, remained squarely in that territory. But in 1993, Elvis took his biggest creative leap yet, collaborating with the Brodsky Quartet on a classical song cycle based on the Romeo and Juliet story, titled The Juliet Letters.

The following year, Brutal Youth reunited him with the Attractions (for the last time) for some full-on rock & roll, but he quickly veered off into other directions. Kojak Variety—released in 1995, but recorded several years earlier—was a collection of covers, while the next year’s follow-up, All This Useless Beauty, was a ballad-heavy set of songs originally intended for other artists.

Elvis’s newfound sense of sonic restlessness was perhaps best displayed when he curated the 1995 Meltdown Festival, presenting a slate of artists ranging from Jeff Buckley to the London Philharmonic to legendary street musician Moondog. (The festival initiated a friendship with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, which later resulted in the album The Sweetest Punch). The ‘90s ended on a high note, the acclaimed, Grammy-winning 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted from Memory.

– Alan Light

Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys” and a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence in music writing.

Unpredictably, the 1990s also saw Elvis involved with film on a consistent basis. He began the decade co-composing the mostly orchestral score for the British mini-series G.B.H., which starred Michael Palin from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Elvis and Bacharach first worked together on the song “God Give Me Strength,” from the 1996 movie Grace of My Heart; the unlikely duo also showed up in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, singing “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

Even sillier, Elvis appeared as himself in Spice World and the ‘80s nostalgia film 200 Cigarettes. He also wrote “I Throw My Toys Around” for The Rugrats Movie, performing it with No Doubt, and contributed a version of the standard “She” to the 1999 soundtrack of Notting Hill. By now, it was clear that Elvis Costello could no longer be defined as a rocker, or even exclusively as a musician. It was the end of the century, and all bets were off.

– Alan Light

Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys” and a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence in music writing.