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100 Greatest Artists

80

Elvis Costello

Liz Phair


Elvis Costello
Illustration by Roberto Parada
80/100

Elvis Costello writes novels in three minutes. He gets inside your head, and he doesn't let go. I'd pay a great amount of money to audit a course taught by him. If you love Elvis Costello, it's because you love what he's thinking — the depth and breadth of his notice is astounding. Sometimes I wonder if he watches people on the Strand in London and makes up entire histories for them. ("This person didn't pass the bar and has thyroid problems." "They're jogging because they just went through a breakup.")

When I was a teenager, it was a career aim for many of my friends to have a song written about them by Elvis Costello. His songs about women and girls are devastating, like arrows to the heart. There are very few artists who can depict a woman's life, her thoughts and desires and her failings, like he can. Most rock songs about women are from the outside looking in: They say, "Babe, you're so hot, come sleep with me." Elvis' songs say, "I see you, and I know what you're doing." He catches us at our tricks, and that's always thrilling.

He's a poet with a punk's heart. There's a Jerry Lee Lewis flavor to the way he just gets in there and lets it rip: His rocking stuff has a lot of raw power, a real physicality. Even when it's just him and a piano onstage, it's powerful. When I first heard him, I was blown away that someone could just spit those words out without even hitting the right notes, with no holding back and no shame. Of course, the Attractions were really important to his music — if you're going to cram a whole book into one song, it helps to have a steady groove.

Nobody sounds like him. People imitate Stevie Wonder or whomever, but how many people can do Elvis Costello? Not bloody many. His melodies weave in and out and all over the place, and you can tell they just spring out of him. Finally, Elvis is the definition of a career artist — he's always coming up with a different sound, always challenging himself. All of his music tells you: You could come along for the ride — but I'm not stopping.

 
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