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Interview about When I Was Cruel and Rhino re-releases
CDnow, 2002-05-01
- John Bitzer


Cruelty, Thy Name Is Elvis

Elvis Costello has returned from his musical adventures to find that he's just as cruel as he ever was.

By John Bitzer
CDNOW Editorial Director

Elvis Costello has returned home. Clearly, it was time to pick up the electric guitar again. After forays into all manner of sophisticated musical adventure -- recent collaborations with, among others, Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet, Anne Sofie von Otter, and the Mingus Big Band -- he felt an urge to plug in, again.

After all, this is how it all started. 'Round about 1977, rock was in bad shape, and Costello was considered a key member of the punk-rock vanguard breathing fire into the beast to revive it. That he did, matching an attitude of vengeance with a spitfire sound and a dazzling command of lyrics, becoming one of rock's master songwriters and most enduring artists.

Although his current album, When I Was Cruel, bears the occasional oblique reference to his angry young self (not to mention help from two of his three Attractions mates, Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas), it's not just a back-to-basics record; it's also a creative step forward -- a curious experiment with such studio sonic trickery as tape loops and samples.

Meanwhile, every three months, the Rhino label is releasing the majority of Costello's back catalog in sets of three -- a sorely needed development for those fans still waiting to replace their old copies of, say, Armed Forces and Imperial Bedroom. CDNOW caught up with Costello in a hotel suite during a recent visit to New York to discuss all this.

CDNOW: So what prompted you to return to the rock-band format, after several years of musical exploration?

Elvis Costello: Well, I've had so many fantastic adventures the last few years, and obviously, you can't expect them all to appeal to people. But when you return -- when you rediscover that mood again, to let the rhythm be the dominant thing -- it all seems brand new again.

We went out of our way not to make a record I have made before. I made a joke about that in the [album liner] notes. But it's true. The one thing I didn't do was assemble a four-piece band and bring them in and say, "OK, let's make it real, like when we were young." That's a deadly way to go. I think I was able to do it with the Attractions in the early '90s for a couple of songs, but overall, I was trying to write the song that I was feeling and hope that they were the right ones to play it. It wasn't about looking backwards. With this record there's really no connection with those records, except, of course, that I'm on it, Pete Thomas is on it, and Steve Nieve is on it.

Was this album a result of songs you've written over the past few years as you've been doing other things, or was it something you did all at once?

I don't really think, "Now, is the time." I just get in the mood, and they come out or not. And a couple songs did exist. "45" and "Alibi" I was playing in '99 -- although I kind of worked on "Alibi" a bit more.

"My Aim Is True … I never could understand the fuss about that record. There's a couple of good songs on it, but I don't understand its reputation at all."

You experimented a bit in the studio this time around with drum machines, tape loops, and such. Did that process change your songwriting approach?

Yeah, it might have. I don't say, "This is really changing my …" I'm just aware that the songs are coming out the way I want. Obviously, the most pronounced change would be the title track, because it's founded on this two-bar sample from an Italian pop record, you know, which I haven't done before. "Pills and Soap" [from Punch the Clock] was done that way, too, based on this two-bar loop, but it was one of our devising.

It's not like I've never done this before. People are very literal-minded about their influences. You've got someone like Noel Gallagher, who has had a lot of success making very obvious and blatant imitative songwriting choices. It's not to say they're bad -- they're a bit dull -- but they please a lot of people. I'm not criticizing him, but there is another way to go with that same kind of idea, whether you call it inspiration or stealing. You can be a lot less literal-minded about it, and that's what attracted me. You hear something that inspires you, and you try to find a way to play off it that doesn't have anything to do with the source idea. The idea of using repetition to create tension is hardly new in music.

Let's touch on lyric writing. Leonard Cohen once said he'd spend years and years finding just the right word. Do you find yourself doing that?

No, I think his process is different. I'm almost reluctant to go into it because it's all about not being aware of how it happens. It just sort of happens. Different groups of songs require different techniques as well -- that's the other side of it.

The songs I wrote with Burt Bacharach [on Painted from Memory], for instance -- because we co-composed the music, we spent a lot of time arriving at a definitive melodic shape, and once that was there, the task of finding the exact sentence to reflect the feeling that was coming off the music was quite an exacting task. Sometimes I wish I could bend the music a little more toward the lyricist's will, but inevitably Burt didn't want to do that. And he was right. For that kind of song, it was already quite complicated. To have the melodic shape subtly shifting as the song progressed would have been very confusing to the ear. So he was, of course, completely right.

And another type of song [on the new album], "Dust," was basically one chord all the time. So both things are right. There's no definitive way to write. And that's the answer really, isn't it? Some songs come in sheets of image, and others have a very precise meaning and very precise placement of words.

And sometimes you're trying to speak in the plainest language imaginable. If you compare Bob Dylan's last two records … He would still probably be the greatest lyricist in the world today. He just doesn't feel he has to demonstrate it in every song, which I suppose is a consequence of getting older. Maybe there's a little bit of pride in the writing of the earlier songs, the completely dazzling nature of some of those mid-'60s songs. Compare Time Out of Mind, where there's no images really to speak of, no extraneous images, to the new record that's full of lovely details. The imagination -- "I left my hopes and dreams on the tobacco leaves …" Wonderful.

So there's an example. There are different times and different events and different feelings in your life that inspire a different use of words. Obviously what you require is sufficient command of words -- sufficient vocabulary -- that you have a choice. Some people don't have a choice. They have difficulty just forming a few words to explain any feelings, and sometimes, there's something very moving about that, about a simply expressed idea.

2002 marks the 25th anniversary of My Aim Is True. Are you celebrating that in any way?

I don't really go in much for those types of anniversary things. That's stuff people make up so that they can have a party. The records, as you know, are being reissued. Obviously, I wouldn't be doing them if I didn't think they were worth hearing. I tried to make them as interesting to people as possible, put as much into them as you can in terms of finding tracks that illuminate what might have been going on in the original record, and also keeping it separate from the original record, so that you can listen to what was intended.

Was it your idea to release them in sets of three, so that they have some sort of thematic pattern?

It was something I discussed with Rhino. I think by releasing them in groups, you might throw one of them into relief. I don't think with any of them their reputation has suddenly been transformed, but there's much more chance for people to be unprejudiced to them by proximity.

But just because they're in an advert together, that doesn't mean you're not going to go out and buy the most popular one anyway. I'm sure that This Year's Model is still probably outselling Brutal Youth, and that's probably right. It is a better record. But that doesn't mean that there isn't stuff in the latter records ...

Mighty Like a Rose, the time it came out a lot of things were happening that didn't really allow people to see it straight because America's press did such a good job of telling them they shouldn't like it. For whatever reason, it's just your turn to get attacked like that. And when you're around a long time, it comes around a couple of times. Somebody just doesn't like the record for not exactly arbitrary reasons, but extraneous reasons. Like, I grew a beard, wow. So it just becomes a season of malice. And I think when you listen to the records away from that stuff, you wonder what people were heated about. Because it's just stuff in papers. Individuals have got their own ideas about them anyway.

"What you require is sufficient command of words that you have a choice. Some people don't have a choice. They have difficulty just forming a few words to explain any feelings, and sometimes there's something very moving about that."

Are there any records you look back on and say, "Oh, this was a really good one. I didn't realize how good this one was." Can you have a new perspective?

Well, things surprise you each time you hear them. A few years go by, and you're surprised to hear them, how different they might sound. When they sent me to listen to the remastered This Year's Model, I thought it sounded great. My Aim Is True … I never could understand the fuss about that record. It was always tentative to me, because it was my first record. And, of course, there's a couple of good songs on it, but I don't understand its reputation at all.

It's got great songs on it.

There's great songs on it, yeah, but inevitably, it was like finding your way to where you wanted to go. And I think I arrived at it, not even with This Year's Model, but with "Watching the Detectives." I think of that as my first record, where it's vividly realized to the degree that I had imagined in my head. It's not to say … you can hear how I was singing; I was totally possessed on My Aim Is True. The band was great, and I was completely delighted to work with those guys, but inevitably it takes a while to learn how to do it.

I think the individual tracks judge, rather than whole albums. Obviously you go, "Well, why did we program that song there?" But it seemed right at the time. There's no use in going back and raking it over now. Except in the second album of extras -- there are some tracks that the absence of them is a bewilderment to me. Every one of the records has a track that you're like, "Now, how the hell did that get left off?"

In 1978, you earned a Grammy® nomination for Best New Artist, but lost to A Taste of Honey -- of "Boogie Oogie Oogie" fame. Any comment?

Well, I have to say, it wasn't just us they beat that year, it was Chic as well. So that really says something about the Grammy® [Awards] in those days, now doesn't it? I didn't get involved with them at all after that. They told us, "You know, you really should go." And I was like, "You've got to be kidding." I thought it was really fake. [This year], I went along with it, and I don't really have any opinion of whether they should exist or not. It was like a big trip to the fun fair. You're there for a while, then you start to feel a little sick from the momentum of it all.

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