21st Century Elvis Costello

“I’m very glad to be doing the job I’m doing, which is playing music in front of people,” Elvis Costello recently said. “Making records—it used to be the thing that made the motor go round. Now I just sort of make a record and let it go.”

In the New World Order of the music business, artists need to be open to new opportunities and different configurations for their work. All of this week’s guests on SPECTACLE, while fitting squarely within the conventional singer-songwriter tradition, have experimented with multiple outlets that fit their music. Jenny Lewis has spent the last few years alternating between her solo work and her band, Rilo Kiley; Jakob Dylan is taking time away from his platinum-selling group, the Wallflowers, to release his first solo project; and She & Him is a collaboration between actress Zooey Deschanel and acclaimed songwriter M. Ward.

Elvis, too, has taken advantage of the radical shifts of the last decade to present his music in a wide variety of arrangements and styles. Since the year 2000, he has released five studio albums—each one wildly different from the others. When I Was Cruel, from 2002, was his first album recorded with the Imposters, and was perceived as his return to rock & roll; it reached Number 20 on the charts, his most recent visit to that rarefied level. The following year, North was a piano-centered, ballad-heavy collection, its unprecedented intimacy generally considered to be inspired by his relationship to his new wife, Diana Krall.

The Delivery Man, released in 2004, was Elvis’s most raw and bluesy effort ever. Recorded in Oxford, Mississippi, and featuring guest appearances from Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, it was released on the Americana label Lost Highway Records. In 2006, The River in Reverse was a collaboration with New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint, and drew on the disaster of Hurricane Katrina for much of its emotional power; it made it to Number Two on Billboard’s jazz charts. Last year’s Momofuku is the newest addition to the Costello library: it put him back in the studio with the Imposters, but yet again mixed up any kind of formula by featuring Jenny Lewis on a number of songs.

In the meantime, though, Elvis has produced and sung with numerous other artists, and toured in too many different line-ups to count. “Just last year,” he said in late 2008, “I played MerleFest with bluegrass musicians, then I’m touring with the Police, then I’m playing in Europe with an orchestra, then I’m playing a solo show.” As we have explored in previous weeks of SPECTACLE, just in the last decade, he has also worked in classical, jazz, opera, and country music; appeared in various films and television shows; and overseen the extensive reissue program for his catalogue. And, oh, yeah—he and Krall had twin sons in 2006.

Elvis is supposed to have a new album out in the next few months. Anyone want to guess what it will sound like?

– 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.