Elvis Costello’s My Flame Burns Blue (Deutsche Grammophon) disappoints me. I don’t mean critically as much as personally.
You see, my college, which had the distinction of being bought by the Moonies after I graduated, had a folk club. It was fine, but its usual menu of traditional folkies didn’t excite me. I wanted more punch and adventure. I was listening mostly to art-, prog-, avant-, and what’s now considered classic rock, which back in the late ’70s was pretty much basic FM radio.
A friend insisted I accompany him to that club to hear a new guy from England named Elvis Costello who’d just released an album called My Aim Is True (Columbia). It was an amazing concert. Costello had a nasty rock band and was ball lightning. He crooned and spat lyrics, circling the microphone like a moth near a bulb until he’d fall off stage into our laps. He accidentally unplugged his guitar, but unlike my friends in garage bands, he did it in the throes of passion, not of ineptitude. And he was a hell of a player, with a vocabulary of smart, jazzy chords.
Suddenly I understood that music could have a purer means of expression than that of the schooled, practiced musicians I loved. I’d seen Yes at least six times. At once long compositions like “Siberian Kahtru,” with its web of proficiency, seemed deceitful. They served the brain, not the heart. Thanks to Costello, I never heard prog-rock the same way again. By the time I graduated, I didn’t care about it anymore, with a handful of exceptions; I’d leapt headlong into the world that Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch, the Ramones, the Feelies, and others were creating a short train ride away, in Manhattan and Hoboken.
What disappoints me about Elvis these days is that he’s become Yes. The second, “bonus,” disc of My Flame Burns Blue, which comes out this Tuesday, February 28, is his “Siberian Kahtru” — a 45-minute suite from Il Sogno, the bland orchestral work he peddled in 2004. The performance has all the charm of a John Williams soundtrack, and if you like that stuff, you have my pity.
The first disc may be worse. It’s a public neutering of tunes from his catalogue including “Watching the Detectives” and “Clubland.” They’re rearranged for the Netherlands’ 52-piece Metropole Orkest, a jazz orchestra who’d sound fantastic if they were tackling Henry Mancini. But these songs demand the flexibility, nuance, and muscle Costello originally gave them. (He’s mounting a 13-date tour with local orchestras that’ll bring him to Symphony Hall and the Pops on May 10.)
Okay, maybe calling Elvis “Yes” is tarring with too broad a brush. On occasion he still makes passionate music. In 2004 there was also The Delivery Man (Lost Highway), an appealingly ragged bit of cultural tourism cut in a bearskins-and-flints Mississippi studio. And when he tours solo, his ability to touch nerves with his lyrics, voice, and playing is undiminished. He even rocks most of the times he reassembles his ’70s band the Attractions.