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SPECTACLE REPORT: ELVIS COSTELLO WITH…Elvis Costello, Musical Historian


Elvis Costello takes center stage.

With two seasons of SPECTACLE now in the can, it’s worth taking a longer look at just how Elvis Costello is able to pull off such a series. In the course of these episodes, Elvis has hosted musicians young and old, male and female, representing genres from jazz to country to soul and beyond. And not only does he need to lead a conversation with each artist, he also took it upon himself to perform with everybody.

But this range is truly representative of the diversity that has characterized Costello’s career. In a way, SPECTACLE is the culmination of three-plus decades devoted to an exploration of music in all of its forms. From the beginning, when he covered a Burt Bacharach song on the Live Stiffs compilation album and sang a duet with George Jones, it was obvious that his interests and influences covered a lot of ground. But it was the soul-drenched 1980 Get Happy!! album, complete with a Sam and Dave song as the first single, that indicated Elvis was prepared to commit to real work as a pop historian.

The old-school country covers on 1981’s Almost Blue (which came emblazoned with a sticker that read “WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause a radical reaction in narrow minded listeners”) was an even bigger statement. Since then, Elvis has experimented with rockabilly (King of America), Southern blues and R&B (The Delivery Man and The River in Reverse), and even classical music (The Juliet Letters and Il Sogno).

Country music has always remained close to his heart, as he has worked with artists from Rosanne Cash to Alison Krauss. The tradition of pop standards has infused Costello’s recordings from the glorious Imperial Bedroom to his more recent collaborations with Bacharach, Tony Bennett, and others. And jazz, which he has approached in various ways over the years, presumably took on new meaning when he married pianist/vocalist Diana Krall.

In truth, Costello’s chameleon-like musical interests have sometimes been criticized. When I spoke to him a few months ago, he said, “I’m often told that my work isn’t emotional—that it’s an intellectual exercise, jumping from style to style for its own sake. But of course it’s all governed by emotion.

“It really isn’t some big jigsaw puzzle that needs to be explained,” he continued. “One thing leads to another, but they don’t necessarily connect. It’s too much effort to just do something like this for effect.”