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Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello

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Elvis Costello is undoubtedly one of the most important and challenging musicians of the last thirty years. Complicated Shadows paints a detailed portrait of an intensely private, complex, and creatively restless individual. It draws on a wealth of new research, including exclusive interviews with people from all stages of Costello's life and career: classmates, friends, m Elvis Costello is undoubtedly one of the most important and challenging musicians of the last thirty years. Complicated Shadows paints a detailed portrait of an intensely private, complex, and creatively restless individual. It draws on a wealth of new research, including exclusive interviews with people from all stages of Costello's life and career: classmates, friends, members of his early bands, former lovers, members of the Attractions, producers, and various collaborators. Complicated Shadows unearths many previously unknown details about Costello's childhood in London and Liverpool and his early years as a struggling musician, as well as his turbulent personal life. It also reveals the circumstances surrounding his marriages to ex-Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan and jazz singer Diana Krall, and the bitter breakup of his longtime backing band, the Attractions. Complicated Shadows contains a full examination and analysis of the entirety of Costello's vast and varied musical output, both in the studio and on the stage.


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Elvis Costello is undoubtedly one of the most important and challenging musicians of the last thirty years. Complicated Shadows paints a detailed portrait of an intensely private, complex, and creatively restless individual. It draws on a wealth of new research, including exclusive interviews with people from all stages of Costello's life and career: classmates, friends, m Elvis Costello is undoubtedly one of the most important and challenging musicians of the last thirty years. Complicated Shadows paints a detailed portrait of an intensely private, complex, and creatively restless individual. It draws on a wealth of new research, including exclusive interviews with people from all stages of Costello's life and career: classmates, friends, members of his early bands, former lovers, members of the Attractions, producers, and various collaborators. Complicated Shadows unearths many previously unknown details about Costello's childhood in London and Liverpool and his early years as a struggling musician, as well as his turbulent personal life. It also reveals the circumstances surrounding his marriages to ex-Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan and jazz singer Diana Krall, and the bitter breakup of his longtime backing band, the Attractions. Complicated Shadows contains a full examination and analysis of the entirety of Costello's vast and varied musical output, both in the studio and on the stage.

30 review for Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello

  1. 4 out of 5

    Julie H.

    After finishing Graeme Thomson's Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello I needed to essentially sit with it for a week or two to process the thus-far arc of the musician I'd long enjoyed for his incisive--and often cutting--honesty and subject matter in which he successfully juxtaposed happy pop instrumentation against biting social commentary in his lyrics in such gems as "Oliver's Army." The young and angry Elvis as he emerges from his musical crysalis that he entered as Dec After finishing Graeme Thomson's Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello I needed to essentially sit with it for a week or two to process the thus-far arc of the musician I'd long enjoyed for his incisive--and often cutting--honesty and subject matter in which he successfully juxtaposed happy pop instrumentation against biting social commentary in his lyrics in such gems as "Oliver's Army." The young and angry Elvis as he emerges from his musical crysalis that he entered as Declan MacManus, played some gigs as D.P. Costello, and from which he sometime later emerged christened Elvis Costello, is a frustrated, angry, incredibly talented, sometimes arrogant young man who seemingly--and with great frequency--cannot get out of his own way. This perpetrator of the fight with Stephen Stills' backup singer Bonnie Bramlett which is still only referred to as the "Cleveland incident" is an a-number one, phenomenal asshole. (The late Ray Charles' reaction, however, simply reconfirms Mr. Charles to have been a genuine class act and generous human being.) I recall reading a good ways through the book and my husband would check in on my progress each evening. "Still an asshole," I'd report. Thankfully, by the time I was done--which I must note only takes the reader up through 2004--Elvis had worked beyond the phenomenal levels of arrogance, frustration, and asshattery expressed in his younger days to status as an incredibly talented seeker who regrets, but isn't altogether apologetic for, both actions and words for which a better man might still be apologizing. All told, I'm quite happy to have read this book. I discovered Mr. Costello (which, incidentally, he wanted pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable--Cos-TELLO, rhyming with Manilow--but has apparently given up on) relatively late in life (i.e., in graduate school), so was thrilled to learn of the influence on his career of such artists as Nick Lowe and T-Bone Burnett, whose work I'd long enjoyed. Best yet, I hadn't known that he didn't read and write music until around the time of his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet on the Juliet Letters in the early 1990s. This book is written by a British music critic and reads as such. Thus, I can now more clearly place Elvis' work in the trajectory of post-punk, new wave music. His interactions with some of my favorite musicians from Squeeze and the Pogues places his work in an infinitely more familiar (to me) context. The British slang is definitely present, and there were only a few instances that required turning to a British slang dictionary (e.g., the reference to the Pogues as "tyros in the recording process" on p. 73). While distracting, this was hardly a fatal flaw, and one of which I'm sure American English speakers are equally guilty. My only potential criticism is that there seemed to be an ungodly emphasis on reciting the playlist from every performance. All told, however, those same playlists were revealing of both Mr. Costello's musical coming of age as well as his own emotional well-being and stability (or lack thereof) at the time of that particular performance. If one were ever teaching a class in biography, I'd definitely include this one. Among our discussion topics would be (1) placing an artist with an incredible breadth of performance styles in a particular genre or school of music, (2) writing about someone you probably really don't like as a person, and (3) how/where does the biographer insert him/herself in the writing. I think Thomson's book would be great grist for those and other conversations when considering biography as a genre. Glad to have read it, and happy to see what comes next from this prolific artist. If the past is any indication, it will definitely be interesting.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Chris Ingalls

    There’s certainly a lot for the serious Costello fan to chew on here, and overall, I enjoyed this biography, with a few reservations. First of all, there are various instances where the author voices his distaste for a particular Elvis song without really elaborating. Even if there was some elaboration, I feel that this type of criticism is inappropriate for a biography. If you’re going to offer a critique of Elvis’ work, then do that. If you’re writing a biography, do that. It seems uneven and There’s certainly a lot for the serious Costello fan to chew on here, and overall, I enjoyed this biography, with a few reservations. First of all, there are various instances where the author voices his distaste for a particular Elvis song without really elaborating. Even if there was some elaboration, I feel that this type of criticism is inappropriate for a biography. If you’re going to offer a critique of Elvis’ work, then do that. If you’re writing a biography, do that. It seems uneven and sloppy for the biographer to randomly throw these observations into his book. Like a lot of the other Goodreads reviews I’ve seen, I found it somewhat redundant to encounter the various sections of the book that are basically “This album came out. Here’s what the critics said. Here’s how it did on the charts.” After a while, it becomes a rather predictable template. Also – and I suppose this is more of an observation than a complaint – if you’re not British, you definitely need some sort of British/American translator handy. A-Levels? Tea boys? Taking the piss? Sticking plaster? I did a lot of Google searching for various words and phrases while reading this book. Some topics seemed to get a lot more attention than they deserved, which I suppose is simply a matter of opinion. For instance, while I understand the significance of Elvis curating the 1995 Meltdown Festival, do we really need FIFTEEN pages covering every single aspect of this event? Overall, a solid biography with some great new facts and trivia that will likely be new for even the most diehard fan.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nick Escobar

    What starts off as an interesting biography of one of music's most interesting musicians quickly devolves into a little more than an extravagant chronicling of Costello's discography with few gems uncovered. What starts off as an interesting biography of one of music's most interesting musicians quickly devolves into a little more than an extravagant chronicling of Costello's discography with few gems uncovered.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Becca

    I found this book to be somewhat tedious. I really had to force myself to finish it. There are some interesting stories but overall this was not enjoyable for me. With an artist like Elvis Costello, there is A LOT to unpack lyrically but Graeme Thomson focuses more on when the album came out, what the critics said, what chart position it reached, did it spawn any hit singles, etc. It's extremely boring to me. I had this same problem with his Kate Bush book, Under the Ivy, although I enjoyed that b I found this book to be somewhat tedious. I really had to force myself to finish it. There are some interesting stories but overall this was not enjoyable for me. With an artist like Elvis Costello, there is A LOT to unpack lyrically but Graeme Thomson focuses more on when the album came out, what the critics said, what chart position it reached, did it spawn any hit singles, etc. It's extremely boring to me. I had this same problem with his Kate Bush book, Under the Ivy, although I enjoyed that book a lot more than this one. I guess I just don't enjoy this man's style of writing which is a shame. I do appreciate Mr. Thomson's ability to criticize Elvis' attitude and behavior at certain points in his career but overall I was disappointed with this book.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kent Hayden

    A good represention of Costello's recorded performances and thankfully spares us the complicated trivia of his relationship except how they influence his music. A good read because it focuses on the man's music and how complex he can be. A good represention of Costello's recorded performances and thankfully spares us the complicated trivia of his relationship except how they influence his music. A good read because it focuses on the man's music and how complex he can be.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Roger

    Unless you are huge Elvis Costello fan, don't even start this book. You'll be lost from the start. But if you have an interest in Elvis and a passing knowledge of his music, you might give it a shot. I found it the best of his bios or autobios. Very detailed information on his music, how it developed and how it was recorded. Good info on his business relationships with Stiff Records, Jake Rivera and Nick Lowe and his subsequent labels. His relationships and marriages are all documented although Unless you are huge Elvis Costello fan, don't even start this book. You'll be lost from the start. But if you have an interest in Elvis and a passing knowledge of his music, you might give it a shot. I found it the best of his bios or autobios. Very detailed information on his music, how it developed and how it was recorded. Good info on his business relationships with Stiff Records, Jake Rivera and Nick Lowe and his subsequent labels. His relationships and marriages are all documented although not in much detail, which is somewhat fitting since Elvis keeps his private life private. One problem with the book is it ends in 2004, thereby missing 15 years of some of his best work. And the book kind of peters outI was hoping the author would make some overall impressions of Elvis as a person, a musician and a cultural force. He did not of that. 3.5 stars

  7. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    Now Costello has written his own autobiography you have to wonder ....is this book now needed?...I'm unsure as I haven't read Costello's take on things but I suspect this may act as a decent companion piece being as although biography is unable to get into the rationale of a protagonist being as the author isn't in the person's head biography can look at the wider issues and avoid the whitewashing of episodes that a biographer may chose to do. Anyhow an enjoyable book which looks at the breadth o Now Costello has written his own autobiography you have to wonder ....is this book now needed?...I'm unsure as I haven't read Costello's take on things but I suspect this may act as a decent companion piece being as although biography is unable to get into the rationale of a protagonist being as the author isn't in the person's head biography can look at the wider issues and avoid the whitewashing of episodes that a biographer may chose to do. Anyhow an enjoyable book which looks at the breadth of Costellos work..at times he comes forward as a complicated character but you do get a feeling he has enjoyed emotional as well as artistic growth.....informative and fun.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    A decent biography but as others have pointed out, a bit too much of the “this happened, then this happened” narrative. I would have loved more insight on the songwriting and production than the recounting of each night’s set list for 30 years of shows. I did enjoy learning about how he and Paul McCartney worked together, but would have loved much more depth there, for example. It only lasted for about 5 pages. Most telling is how the book ends. It doesn’t pull everything together, or wrap thing A decent biography but as others have pointed out, a bit too much of the “this happened, then this happened” narrative. I would have loved more insight on the songwriting and production than the recounting of each night’s set list for 30 years of shows. I did enjoy learning about how he and Paul McCartney worked together, but would have loved much more depth there, for example. It only lasted for about 5 pages. Most telling is how the book ends. It doesn’t pull everything together, or wrap things up. It just stops.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Donald

    A good read A look at a personal favorites of mine A great songwriter always trying to do something fresh.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Stuart Hill

    This was quite compelling to begin with as the author has unearthed much interesting material about the early career of the subject, a period which was pretty much buried once MacManus took on the Elvis Costello moniker. Later chapters became less involving however, as the narrative got bogged down in lists of tour venues and setlists. It was all a little too detailed for all but the most obsessive fan. In this respect I found the book less enjoyable to read than Thomson's biography of Kate Bush This was quite compelling to begin with as the author has unearthed much interesting material about the early career of the subject, a period which was pretty much buried once MacManus took on the Elvis Costello moniker. Later chapters became less involving however, as the narrative got bogged down in lists of tour venues and setlists. It was all a little too detailed for all but the most obsessive fan. In this respect I found the book less enjoyable to read than Thomson's biography of Kate Bush. As Bush only toured once the book focused on her personal life and the making of her albums, which was much more satisfying. To give the author his dues it was a diligently researched and thorough account of the subject's career up to 2004. Despite the title though there was a lack of complexity and depth, as this was a pretty straightforward telling of the story. It lacked in terms of being able to really capture the style and impact of particular records. A difficult task to pull off certainly, but it seems odd that Thomson failed to mention such obvious features as the song Party Girl's clear lift of a chord sequence from Abbey Road, although he does allude vaguely to a late period Beatles influence on the Armed Forces album as a whole. Neither does he refer to Tramp The Dirt Down's ironic borrowing of the melody of Isn't She Lovely. There isn't a great deal on Costello's personal life; he has been married a few times and involved in a few other relationships but it seems that with the exception of Bebe Buell no one is talking about any of it. The book ends up being pretty much the musical career of the subject. This was the first Elvis Costello biography that I have read and whilst it was a decent enough effort I can't help but feel that the essence of the man eludes the author. It was far from hackwork but failed to achieve true classic status.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tommy

    The quintessential book on Elvis has yet to be written, I guess. While "God's Comic" was one man's attempt to explain every song lyric - too much so, in fact - this book skims the songs in favor of a journey through Elvis' life with The Attractions, his various periods of musical exploration, and his personal demons (and angels). You leave the book pretty much like you came in - assuming he was a boisterous, drunken lout in his early days, mellowed and matured as he got older, and pretty much bl The quintessential book on Elvis has yet to be written, I guess. While "God's Comic" was one man's attempt to explain every song lyric - too much so, in fact - this book skims the songs in favor of a journey through Elvis' life with The Attractions, his various periods of musical exploration, and his personal demons (and angels). You leave the book pretty much like you came in - assuming he was a boisterous, drunken lout in his early days, mellowed and matured as he got older, and pretty much blamed the industry for any slow sales or commercial failures. Yet, he always comes across as a likable bloke you'd love to have a pint with. Just stop at a pint...

  12. 5 out of 5

    Joe Eidson

    Knowing only the bare details of Elvis Costello's career outside of "This Year's Model" (one of my top 5 favorite albums), this was a great biography to learn more about the long and storied career of a unique artist. I enjoyed the details about the tours and show recaps, although the sheer level of historical detail in the book tends to get a bit dry. It was very interesting to me to learn that Elvis crossed over into so many other musical genres and I am looking forward to picking up some of h Knowing only the bare details of Elvis Costello's career outside of "This Year's Model" (one of my top 5 favorite albums), this was a great biography to learn more about the long and storied career of a unique artist. I enjoyed the details about the tours and show recaps, although the sheer level of historical detail in the book tends to get a bit dry. It was very interesting to me to learn that Elvis crossed over into so many other musical genres and I am looking forward to picking up some of his other releases after reading about their creation.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jen

    Very well-written and researched but as someone who's not an Elvis Costello superfan I could have stopped reading around when I mostly stopped listening ("Spike," for what it's worth). Some really good tidbits for the more casual fan though. I didn't know about his connection to the Pogues, or how much Nick Lowe had to do with it in the beginning. Nor did I know about the "Columbus incident," yikes. Easy to hear his first few albums in a new light knowing more about his first wife. Very well-written and researched but as someone who's not an Elvis Costello superfan I could have stopped reading around when I mostly stopped listening ("Spike," for what it's worth). Some really good tidbits for the more casual fan though. I didn't know about his connection to the Pogues, or how much Nick Lowe had to do with it in the beginning. Nor did I know about the "Columbus incident," yikes. Easy to hear his first few albums in a new light knowing more about his first wife.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Bradley

    Fact-starved fans of the life and art of Mr. Declan MacManus will enjoy this slight, glorified fanzine volume, but there's not a heckuva lot more than the nuts and bolts to recommend it--no depth, no erudite criticism, no style. If you're looking for that, read Elvis' own liner notes of all the Rhino reissues of his records instead. Fact-starved fans of the life and art of Mr. Declan MacManus will enjoy this slight, glorified fanzine volume, but there's not a heckuva lot more than the nuts and bolts to recommend it--no depth, no erudite criticism, no style. If you're looking for that, read Elvis' own liner notes of all the Rhino reissues of his records instead.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    Right now I'm at the point where Costello's first album just came out. I can't remember which pages the bookmark is stuck between, but I can remember that those pages were pretty boring. I do plan on finishing this book one day. Maybe it'll be in a year when nothing interesting comes out and I finished all of the other books I have bookmarks in. Right now I'm at the point where Costello's first album just came out. I can't remember which pages the bookmark is stuck between, but I can remember that those pages were pretty boring. I do plan on finishing this book one day. Maybe it'll be in a year when nothing interesting comes out and I finished all of the other books I have bookmarks in.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Matthew L.

    Whereas I hated the cat that wrote the Spectre bio, this guy was on it, useful, clever enough to be present but not in the way of the info and the book went up to 2006. If you're a fan of the Imposter, I would highly recommend a read. In fact, it has whetted my appetite for more bios. Interesting. Whereas I hated the cat that wrote the Spectre bio, this guy was on it, useful, clever enough to be present but not in the way of the info and the book went up to 2006. If you're a fan of the Imposter, I would highly recommend a read. In fact, it has whetted my appetite for more bios. Interesting.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sam

    Another one that's still on the "to finish" list. What I've read about his early beginnings didn't deter me or anything, I just got busy. When you find out that his nerdy glasses and skinny ties were just a record company implementation, it's a little bit of a let-down. Doesn't take away from his talent, but definitely makes you think more about what's behind the facade. Another one that's still on the "to finish" list. What I've read about his early beginnings didn't deter me or anything, I just got busy. When you find out that his nerdy glasses and skinny ties were just a record company implementation, it's a little bit of a let-down. Doesn't take away from his talent, but definitely makes you think more about what's behind the facade.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Tara Brabazon

    This is a rock biography, with all the strengths and weaknesses of the genre, but it is a great example of the form. There is an intensity of detail in this book and a match between personal information and record reviews. The book is a straight forward chronological narrative, concluding after his marriage to Diana Krall. Fact-heavy, the musical facts are still intriguing.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Robin

    After seeing him perform at the Wang Theater in Boston last night, I want to read something more about his life. It really surprised me that I didn't know much about his life although I've listened to his music since I was a teen. His dad was a musician too and when we saw him in Boston his half-brother came on stage with his band, Bible Code Sundays, to play with him. Interesting. After seeing him perform at the Wang Theater in Boston last night, I want to read something more about his life. It really surprised me that I didn't know much about his life although I've listened to his music since I was a teen. His dad was a musician too and when we saw him in Boston his half-brother came on stage with his band, Bible Code Sundays, to play with him. Interesting.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    I couldn't finish this book. I love Elvis Costello's music, and wanted to learn more about him. Two stars for learning about his early life, his temper, etc. The rest - ugh. It was poorly written, riddled with typos and mistakes, and less compelling than I had hoped. I abandoned this years ago, and finally decided to remove it from my "currently reading" list. I couldn't finish this book. I love Elvis Costello's music, and wanted to learn more about him. Two stars for learning about his early life, his temper, etc. The rest - ugh. It was poorly written, riddled with typos and mistakes, and less compelling than I had hoped. I abandoned this years ago, and finally decided to remove it from my "currently reading" list.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Don

    Elvis story as a young man and a struggling musician is as compelling as anybody's, and is well told here. His career through the 70s is fine, but then Elvis pretty much starts doing everything--and the latter third of the book is a chronicle of who he sings with and works with. Not his fault. Not the author's fault. Elvis story as a young man and a struggling musician is as compelling as anybody's, and is well told here. His career through the 70s is fine, but then Elvis pretty much starts doing everything--and the latter third of the book is a chronicle of who he sings with and works with. Not his fault. Not the author's fault.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    Interesting if you're an Elvis fan. Would have benefitted greatly from direct interviews with Elvis and his family. Relies a bit too much at times on going over what songs Elvis played at any given show. Interesting if you're an Elvis fan. Would have benefitted greatly from direct interviews with Elvis and his family. Relies a bit too much at times on going over what songs Elvis played at any given show.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    Fascinating biography about a complicated and brilliant musician.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Gena

    Very interesting. Spoiler alert. . .Elvis is a vegan!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Heather Marie

    A thorough and captivating look at the life and career of Elvis Costello....until then.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Amber

    Really, really excellent biography of one of my favorite musicians. It comes of as pretty honest and reliable so I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in Elvis Costello.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    Pretty good book on the life of Elvis Costello. It talks about how disfunctional of a relationship he had with the Attractions. It's definitely worth reading if you are a really big fan of his. Pretty good book on the life of Elvis Costello. It talks about how disfunctional of a relationship he had with the Attractions. It's definitely worth reading if you are a really big fan of his.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jenn

    The first section was somewhat interesting, and then it lost me. And even the first section seemed like an endless list of dates and facts.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Howard

    One of the most well-written books on the genius himself.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kiof

    at least he puts all the press clippings in the proper order..

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