Costello the Renaissance Man

7 songs that capture this artist's versatility

Garth Brooks is selling out venue after venue nationwide, coaxing cities to book him for several nights in a row.

Yet when he tried to crack the rock scene with his “Chris Gaines” persona roughly 16 years ago, the results were unimpressive.

By contrast, Elvis Costello changes genres as frequently as any performer past or present  yet he rarely suffers any side effects. In fact, his impeccable taste and restless nature have helped keep him relevant since the late 1970s.

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Yes, Costello could have ridden that “angry young man” label for all it was worth. Instead, he made a habit of genre jumping, burnishing his credentials as a performer with few peers. Country. Jazz. Blues. Classical. No, Costello didn’t crowd out Billboard’s best sellers along the way. He merely sampled each musical style with curiosity and sophistication, letting each flavor his songwriting.

In honor of Costello’s 61st birthday, here’s a tally of seven songs that show the singer-songwriter’s ability to adapt to any musical backdrop he craves to call his own.

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“Radio Radio” — You want angry? How about Costello going against the NBC brass to play this rant against radio commercialization at the last minute on “Saturday Night Live”? The stunt embellished his angry bona fides, but he wouldn’t settle in that mode for long.

“Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)?” — The singer’s 1981 country covers album “Almost Blue” drew mixed reviews at first, but time has been kind to his selections and performance. His cover of this Hank Williams track married the song’s bristling tone with his singular voice.

“Let Them All Talk” — Costello’s “Punch the Clock” album let him soak in brass flourishes, and the results are both finger-snapping and timeless. The horn section wails on this upbeat number, a track that kicks off the album on a blistering note.

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“The Big Light” — The “King of America” album found Costello’s love for country music overwhelming his pop instincts, often to grand effect. This track, arguably the album’s highlight, convinced country legend Johnny Cash to not only record a faithful cover version but sing it himself on the music variety show “Solid Gold.”

“The Birds Will Still Be Singing” — Costello ditched both The Attractions and his rock sensibilities for this collaboration with The Brodsky String Quartet. The results are lush and lovely, but the album’s final track finds the perfect balance between the strings and Costello’s delivery.

“God Give Me Strength” — Talk about odd couples. Costello and Burt Bacharach, the king of smooth, jazzy delights (“Baby It’s You” and “Walk on By”), teamed up for an eclectic batch of pop melodies. “Toledo” is the album’s most conventionally appealing track, but “Strength” showcases Costello’s vocal range and knack for sonic drama.

“The River in Reverse” — Costello joined forces with Allen Toussaint in an album borne from the chaos and rage tied to Hurricane Katrina. It’s a genre soup of jazz, blues and rock, with that distinctive New Orleans sound coming out on top.

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