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Do Artists Get Better After They Get Boring?
The mostly hung jury in the trial of former Democratic Veep nominee John Edwards over funneling cash to his mistress reminds me that I read a novel about the woman in question over 20 years ago. Jay McInerney's Story of My Life is the first person memoir of a party girl named Alison. If the phrases "party girl" and "Alison" sound like they go together, they do. McInerney used lyrics in his novel from Elvis Costello's 1977 song "Alison" and 1980 song "Party Girl."
They say you're nothing but a party girl,
Just like a million more all over this world
Alison, I know this world is killing you,
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.
That got me that thinking that it's quite possible that many artists get objectively better after public boredom with them sets in. To take one small example to help explain the phenomenon that the fate of all artists, whether Elvis Presley or Tom Stoppard or Tim Burton/Johnny Depp, is to have people tell you they liked your early stuff best, I noticed in the 1990s that Elvis Costello had made himself a better singer now than in his 1977-1983 heyday. He likely has taken a lot of singing lessons since then and worked hard at his craft.
For all I know, he might be a better songwriter now than he was when he wrote the songs the eventually made him (mildly) famous.
It's possible that fifty years from now, the handful of people interested in Costello's career will judge that, objectively, he was at his peak as a singer-songwriter long after the spotlight had faded from him. I don't know, though. In truth, I'm not interested enough in music any more to find out, and I doubt if I could be objective because his early songs are tied to a lot of memories.
With Costello, it's pretty easy to track the course of his early years, which follows a typical pattern. He'd been performing with little success since 1970, and by the time he recorded his first album on the cheap in 1976, had a lot of good songs ready to go. His debut "My Aim Is True" album was finally released in Britain in mid-1977, by which point his "angry young man" persona could be conveniently plugged into the punk rock narrative dominating the British music press, even if, stylistically, it was an odd fit.
I bought "My Aim Is True" in import as a Christmas present for myself in 1977, then in January 1978 I paid $3 to see him in a Houston beer hall with his new band, the Attractions. They played all the songs on their first album, such as Alison, Mystery Dance, Less than Zero, Watching the Detectives (a single), and The Angels Want to Wear My Read Shoes. Then, Costello brought out his producer Nick Lowe, who played three of his own songs, including I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll. Good show. But instead of leaving, they announced an intermission, which seemed strange because they'd already delivered a fine show and played all their songs.
When Costello came back, however, they played everything from their as of yet wholly unknown upcoming album This Year's Model (which went on to win lots of critics' awards as the best album of 1978), such as Radio Radio, I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea, This Year's Girl, finishing with a barn-burning encore of a new song entitled Pump It Up that left the audience banging beer mugs on the stage for 15 minutes, demanding more, until the bouncers managed to shove everybody out the door. (Pump It Up's similarity to Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues made it the perfect song to hear for the first time in concert: the verses resemble Dylan's, but the chorus slams home harder.)
Costello enjoyed much success d'estime over the next few years, although not having a Top 40 hit in the U.S. until Everyday I Write the Book in 1983. But by that point the quality of his output started to wane, whether due to fighting with his bass player or creative exhaustion or physical exhaustion (which can't be overlooked) or whatever.
He's made various comebacks since then. For example, in 1988 he had a hit with "Veronica," a fine song he cowrote with Paul McCartney. (My theory is that in the best of all possible worlds, McCartney and Costello would have started collaborating a decade earlier when McCartney's ability to write hooks was still strong, but his overall output was being dragged down by McCartney's poor lyrics and weakness for kitsch. Costello's astringent, rather John Lennon-like personality would have been the best fit for what was lacking in McCartney's solo work.)
But, by then, Costello's early loyalists like myself were getting older and less obsessed with music. Teens weren't that interested in this old geezer with the complicated lyrics (which reached a peak of brilliance on 1982's Imperial Bedroom album, but he seem to be starting to lose his gift for catchy melodic hooks). So, I really have no idea whether Costello's later stuff compares to his early stuff.
Moreover, a huge amount of cultural capital has built up over time focused on Costello's early songs. For instance, when I see The Avengers, I am reminded that the first movie I ever saw Robert Downey Jr. in was 1987's "Less than Zero," which was based on Brett Easton Ellis's novel with the titled lifted from Costello's 1977 song. Ellis named a later novel Imperial Bedrooms, but by then the "I liked your early stuff best" phenomenon was setting in for Ellis and McInerney, too.
So, that explains a fair amount about why artists, if they are lucky, mostly just get one short window of relevance.