SPECTACLE REPORT: ELVIS COSTELLO WITH…Elvis Costello and Collaboration

Elvis Costello in the hot seat with Mary Louise Parker on SPECTACLE

When I spoke to Elvis Costello just before the launch of this season of SPECTACLE, he said that by the final tapings, he knew that he wasn’t sounding his best. “My voice wasn’t in the greatest shape by then,” he said. “There’s a lot of talking, a lot of rehearsing, and I just had to accept the fact that I’m the host, so my musical contribution is less important than my guests. I’ve got to be able to hold my own in the collaborations, but it’s really about their performances.”

His comments revealed an undercurrent to the very premise of SPECTACLE, which is the importance of collaboration throughout his career. Though Elvis’s work has always been marked by both his singular vision and his expansive tastes, his music would never have achieved its range and depth without the contributions of others.

In this week’s episode, Elvis demonstrates his solidarity with his guests by switching seats and allowing himself to be the interview subject; actress and writer Mary-Louise Parker handles the questions. They talk about some of Costello’s highest-profile collaborations: his work with such legends as Paul McCartney (their songs turned up on five separate albums over almost a decade), Burt Bacharach, and Chet Baker. Over the years, numerous other performers have joined Elvis as singing and writing partners—Lucinda Williams, Rosanne Cash, Fall Out Boy, Aimee Mann, Tony Bennett, and many more.

These, however, are only one facet of his creative partnerships. Consider the impact that different producers have had on his sound. Elvis and Parker discuss the role that T-Bone Burnett has played in his music, especially on the 1986 King of America album. Geoff Emerick had an equally crucial role in the remarkable arrangements on Imperial Bedroom, and, of course, Nick Lowe (who appeared on last week’s SPECTACLE) was central to the formation of the Attractions’ attack on such albums as This Year’s Model and Armed Forces. (Along the way, Elvis has also produced great records for bands including the Specials and the Pogues.)

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention the musicians who have shared stages and studios with Costello. From the country session players of Almost Blue to the Elvis Presley associates and other American all-stars on King of America, the great players who have helped bring his ideas to life colored much of his finest work. And, as Elvis points out, above all else, there is his band, the Imposters. Keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas first played with him in the Attractions more than thirty years ago. Elvis may be the guy out front, but never overlooks the significance that kind of relationship has on the music.