Elvis Costello had a brilliant run in the Seventies through the Eighties, but started to take himself way too seriously . He strayed from his strong suits--subtle, hook-driven melodies, virtuoso word play and real passion--and became as an artist a humorless prig. What were interesting, compelling melodies became an amorphous eclecticism that often times ersatz Broadway blockbuster than music that was genuinely felt. The lyrics in turn became involuted , laden with serial heartache that traversed from song to song, obscurantism disguising his lack of a good idea to bring to the audience.
In contrast, Tom Waits has just gotten deeper, richer, stranger, more brilliant over the years--his music is a seamless mesh of styles--Brecht-Weil, delta blues , whore house jazz, world music, country, and the like--that consecutive listenings for me yield new surprises, things I didn't notice before, bits of interplay between elements that differ in origin but which come to compliment and command each other. His lyrics, as well, is the work of a man who has grown in his aging, someone for whom experience has turned into that frail thing called "wisdom", and yet also realizes he hasn't the power to prevent others from making their own mistakes and becoming embroiled in their own tragedies and celebrations. There is a resigned irony in Waits' world view.
There is only a resume and curriculum vitae in what remains of Costello's.The songwriter increasingly reminded of many genuinely talented students in college who lost sight of his own ideas by trying to please everyone of his professors and classmates: LOOK AT ME, I AM A MASTER OF ALL FORMS! At best this is mere professionalism; at worst it borders on nervous hackery. Waits had the benefit , I suppose, of having a small audience; he was allowed to go in directions he saw fit and seemed unconcerned with what others thought he should do. His instincts have proved sounder.Costello still writes solid songs when his best instincts are engaged, and he has done at least one album of superb songs and performances, 2002's "When I Was Cruel". This came out after he had released a series of indifferent albums, ie "The Juliet Letters", "Kojack Variety", " Mighty Like a Rose". But that was 11 years ago.
Waits had the gift of being a genuine witness to the experience of others; it was his deft skill at not making the people in his stories heroic , iconic or otherwise an embodiment of a hackneyed liberal conceit that made his lyrics so arresting. This is what's meant by negative capability, I guess, the ability , through imagination, to transcend your own context and experience the sensations of others. His accomplishment was a rare one for a songwriter who chose to write about poor people and eccentrics; he could empathize while maintaining an aesthetic distance. It's that "distance", so to speak, that brings into the milieu.