In the mid-'80s, I had a dream in which I called Elvis Costello "the new Dylan" during a lull in our chat. Of course, during the many spirited conversations I've had in waking moments with the much-lauded singer/songwriter over the years, there's never been a real reason to mention it -- though plenty of people have.
The dreaded "New Dylan" term has been bestowed on a number of often undeserving artists since Bob Dylan's original rise more than 40 years ago. Of all the possible candidates, including Neil Young, Steve Forbert and Willie Nile, among many others, Costello is perhaps the most worthy of the burden. Yet comparing the two is like those morbid Lincoln/Kennedy composites from the '60s.
But now with Costello, the hero of the late '70s/early '80s new wave movement, on a unique, limited solo tour with the sainted Dylan, prophet of the '60s, the comparisons will surely fly again. And all the supposition will likely be met with a good-natured shrug from the affable, gregarious Costello.
The current tour certainly isn't the first time Costello has gone solo, or taken a new direction. Longtime fans will remember his mid-'80s solo shows, often opened by his old friend and collaborator Nick Lowe. "There's a hierarchy in music, as I'm sure you well know," Costello says by phone. "In a rock 'n' roll band, it's all set up. There's a singer and a rhythm section. But, if the rhythm section brings undue attention to themselves in every moment, away from the singer, the song won't come across; the story just won't work."
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, currently celebrating 30 years of recording, has two undeniable facets in common with Dylan. Both have considerable, widely varied catalogs of material in constant states of reissues; and both have delved into rock, folk and often unclassifiable genres with legendary results. Columbia continually repackages Dylan's work, with a new, three-disc set due in October. Costello's canon has had three major reissues, with Universal currently revisiting his releases in order, beginning with 1977's My Aim Is True, aided by an Internet link to an evolving selection of bonus tracks.
Like the title of D.A. Pennebaker's acclaimed Dylan documentary, Don't Look Back, Costello isn't in a nostalgic mood nor does he feel the need to release any new music at the moment. "There's no time to look back," he agrees. "I have a family now [wife Diana Krall and young twins]. I do like to take a break sometimes, and I can get disenchanted with playing songs the same way, the same sort of conviction. That's why I do the odd solo show. I like to be forced out of convenient patterns."
Often those patterns take the form of new musical "adventures," as he calls them. "How many people follow along, I don't know. But I find such a comfort in that strangely unsettling prospect." He knows that factions want him to return to his punky/clever/irritated persona of the early '80s. "Oh, yes," he laughs, "'Will he just get on with it and do another Armed Forces,'" he says mockingly, adopting the voice of a nasally critic.
While he will probably never log as many road miles as the perpetual Dylan tours, Costello will add a substantial number of in-person performances before his myriad of followers hears any new music.
"I haven't really written in a couple of years now," he confides. "I don't have much interest or burning need, if you will, to record."
The act of playing music in the live setting, with or without a band, or even a symphony as he did earlier this summer, is his current Dylanesque challenge. "It has little to do with the recent past. It's been this way since the advent of music, really – playing and getting that immediate reaction," he says. "If I had to choose between recording and concerts, I'll take the live adventure."
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