Elvis is alive and well.
A few months after canceling a European tour to recover from surgery, a tumor-free Elvis Costello is back on the road. This Thursday, he’ll be at the Northrop Auditorium to promote October’s release of Look Now, his first collection of new songs in five years.
The famously prolific British singer/songwriter also has a voluminous back catalog to fall back on, and he often does. On past tours, he’s revisited key albums, like last year’s trip celebrating 1982’s Imperial Bedroom, or even spun a giant wheel full of dozens of song titles to generate a random setlist. Even without such conceits, he usually manages to reach across his entire 40-year career in one night.
It’s hard to overstate just how audacious it was for Declan MacManus to take the stage name Elvis Costello in the summer of 1977. His debut album, My Aim Is True, its cover peppered with the phrase “Elvis is King,” was released less than a month before the most famous living rocker, Elvis Presley, became the most famous dead rocker. But Costello, with his Buddy Holly glasses, pub-rock background, and confrontational punk sneer, had a knack for merging the past and the present on 90-second bursts of anxiety like “Welcome to the Working Week” and “Mystery Dance.”
Once Costello formed the Attractions, his sound got sharper and meaner. On 1978’s This Year’s Model, a pummeling rhythm section and ominous synths drive the emotionally stunted fury of songs like “Lipstick Vogue.” Over the next 20 years, the Attractions would ably support Costello as he bounced all over the map, backing him on 1980’s soul music homageGet Happy!! as well as a collection of country covers, Almost Blue, a year later. Bassist Bruce Thomas parted company with Costello in 1996, but the other Attractions, drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve, have stayed on with his current band, the Imposters.
Drawing on 40 years of experience and chemistry, Costello and his backing musicians could throw just about any song at you. But you can probably expect “This Year’s Girl,” Costello’s recent concert opener of choice, perhaps spurred by the song’s recent selection as the theme song of the second season of the HBO series The Deuce. And recent setlist staples like “Green Shirt” and “Beyond Belief” demonstrate how there’s a buoyant bounce underpinning some of Costello’s darkest lyrics. But if you need a quick cheat sheet on his catalog beyond “Alison” and “Pump It Up,” here are 30 tracks spanning 15 albums from the productive first 20 years of his career.