Anger, is the obvious place to start.
Elvis Costello has been called an angry young man since he was a young man, which he no longer is. As an older man – we’ll refrain from saying he’s anything nowadays but far from young – he tells jokes about the other adjective in that well-worn appellation. Anyone who’s seen one of Costello’s recent solo dates has heard him serve up well-rehearsed comic spiels about his family, in which one of the better gags is a crack about his grandmother becoming embittered against Al Jolson, holding the popular 1920s actor personally responsible for putting her husband out of work when the advent of talkies ended the cornet player’s career as a silent-movie accompanist. Apparently Jolson was never forgiven: “People say I’m angry,” Costello jibes, “but that woman could really hold a grudge…” Stage personas in rock n’ roll have a way of clinging to you – ask Mick Jagger, forced in some sort of cosmic joke to remain a priapic lech well into his seventies – but how is it the man who went on to write “Almost Blue,” who put out King Of America and The Juliet Letters and North, whose biggest chart hit remains a lively little ditty co-written with Paul McCartney about a loveable but senile old woman, remains unshakably pegged as possessing this infinite reservoir of rage? And what does it mean to think of him so? How much was this reputation constructed, and how accurately does it reflect what we know of Costello himself through his music?