Sure, David Bowie and Neil Young have kept their fans fascinated by their various shifts in style and persona, challenging listeners to anticipate where their muse would carry them next, but no one's been more unpredictable than the former Declan Patrick MacManus. Better-known as Elvis Costello, the artist has managed to change direction at regular intervals throughout his career. And given the sheer volume of the man's output, keeping up with Costello has become a far greater challenge than any offered by his contemporaries.
Costello entered the public consciousness as a radical insurgent who helped spearhead British punk and new wave. In his first major shift in stance, he recorded an album called Almost Blue that was devoted entirely to American country music covers. It even contained a warning: "This album contains country & western music and may cause a radical reaction in narrow minded listeners."
In later years, Costello dabbled freely in Americana, working with Lucinda Williams, Allison Krauss, producer T-Bone Burnett, and, on occasion, some of Elvis Presley's fabled sidemen, James Burton and Jerry Scheff. The song "Scarlet Tide," which he and Burnett cowrote, was included in the best-selling soundtrack of traditional American music for the film Cold Mountain and was nominated for a 2004 Academy Award.
As an outspoken, enduring symbol of the antiestablishment, one change in MO that was particularly striking was his partnership with Burt Bacharach, the composer of countless easy-listening standards. The two cowrote the song "God Give Me Strength" for the film Grace of My Heart. This led the two to record the album Painted From Memory and, of course, a cover of Bacharach's classic "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Still, Costello's most surprising turnaround may have been his venture into classical music. He's completed a number of projects in that arena, among them The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet and an orchestral work, Il Sogno, a ballet based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
These jumps from classical to easy listening all come from the punk pontificator who once warned, "You better watch your step," the snotty cynic who snarled sarcastically, "I hope you're happy now," the radical young rebel who mocked one of his songs by declaring, "You tripped at every step."
Given his own daring and disregard, Costello clearly doesn't worry about any missteps of his own.Steely Dan, w/ Elvis Costello and the Imposters. 7 p.m. Wednesday, August 12 at Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre at the S. Florida Fairgrounds 601-7 Sansburys Way, West Palm Beach. Tickets are $30 to $275