You try to be loyal, you really do. But sometimes you stray, and it leaves you feeling hollow and guilty. For me, it happened during Elvis Costello’s Extreme Honey: The Very Best of the Warner Bros. Years.
An album like this deserved serious study, so I made myself comfortable and hit the play button. Out came a survey of Costello’s last eight years of musical voyages: art pieces, torch croons, cranky thrashings, forced-fun exercises like ”The Other Side of Summer.” Slowly, my attention began to wander. I scoured the coffee table for something to read. I considered turning on the TV with the volume muted. Halfway through the 18 tracks, I realized something horrifying: I was bored.
I shouldn’t have been shocked. Spike (1989), Costello’s first album on Warner Bros. after a decade-plus of effervescent creative bile on Columbia, felt like a rock-vaudeville revue, but it was still sprinkled with box-cutter-sharp performances. After Spike, though, came the deluge: bloated studio albums, a rigid chamber-music work, a superfluous covers album, a spotty Attractions reunion. His 1996 cameo on The Larry Sanders Show was a hoot, but somewhere down the road the music grew stale. When last year’s All This Useless Beauty arrived, I listened once and filed it away. I’ve heard that his recordings of Shakespeare sonnets are now available. I’ve also heard that spiked scalp implants are in.
What’s even more depressing is that Costello isn’t the only hero in this crumbling pantheon. At an alarming rate, musicians whose albums I once anticipated, analyzed, and played to death — even when I didn’t like them but was convinced I would after a dozen spins — are joining him. Prince, John Mellencamp, Paul Westerberg, Public Enemy’s Chuck D — their albums keep coming, and with each one, my interest ebbs a little more. The records are spun a few times, either out of lingering fandom or professional obligation, before being relegated to the archives.
The specifics of each fade-out vary. Prince has been releasing far too much mediocre lite funk for far too many years; Westerberg is, in essence, rewriting his old songs; Mellencamp began taking himself too seriously and lost his endearing pop sensibility; Chuck D forgot that oratory goes down easier with crisp tracks. Whatever the reasons, my bond with each musician snapped, and I wonder if it’ll ever reconnect — or if it’s time to throw in the towel and stick with their old records. Aside from hearing about the death of a beloved musician or the breakup of a favorite band, there isn’t a more heartbreaking experience in pop.
The failing is partly my fault — we want these people to be heroes, and for more than one day. But the artists must share the blame too. By singing about what’s in their hearts and minds, musicians articulate feelings or points of view we may not be able to express ourselves, and in doing so tell us about our own lives and empower us. Eventually, some writers tire of such solipsism and branch out. But the results — Costello’s convoluted character studies, say, or Mellencamp’s muddled story-songs — aren’t as direct or insightful as their earlier work; ask any old fan (like me) of Joni Mitchell or Jackson Browne. Other times, the musician or band simply peaks early, and the music worsens.