Cool, that's Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello has survived because he delivers the unexpected, writes Kathleen Noonan.
PEOPLE get married to the tunes sung by Elvis Costello. Think She. People are buried to his songs. Think Good Year for the Roses. And people make love to his music.
It's just that he never quite imagined Il Sogno, his debut album of orchestral music for ballet, would be the one.
"Yeah, sure. In bed with a lover, that's exactly how I anticipated it be listened to when I wrote it. Perfect. Il Sogno . . . the shaggable album of 2004. Great." He chuckles.
Elvis Costello is taking the mickey. Out of this interviewer and himself and his music. And it suits him.
There's no evidence of the sneering young punker who music critics over the years have labelled prickly and combative and even a misogynist, while still grudgingly recognising his staggering library of daring work.
In Sydney this week, there is a heatwave outside. But Costello is relaxed, sucking on a Coke. And cool. Three decades in the music industry and he's stayed cool.
And he's still talking of love, as he has been since meeting and marrying jazz singer Diana Krall (his third wife) and writing the confessional North album.
"It was a force that overtook me," he says.
Yet this time the man comes to town with two stories to tell, two albums to sell.
The first is Il Sogno (The Dream), performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and originally written by Costello as a ballet score for Italy's Aterballetto dance company.
"It's for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream so it's a comedy and is about love and playfulness. There's the fun Puck character. So we should listen to it making love. When you think about it, we are quite ridiculous in love."
To the untrained ear, there are plenty of touches of popular music and jazz.
The second story is The Delivery Man a defiantly raw rock 'n' roll album with a Southern Gothic feel recorded at the Sweet Tea studio in Oxford, Mississippi.
It is this album he will tour Australia with next month with the Imposters. The character of The Delivery Man was imported from a song Costello wrote for the late Johnny Cash.
It is this story that is intriguing, a little complex, a little broader and messed up, fractured, more like life.
The songs on this album are slow-release pleasures. It draws from rhythm and blues and country but as Costello explains: "In rock 'n' roll, I've learnt to go for the roll rather than the rock. Songs have to have the roll, have to swing. I mean that's where rock 'n' roll came out of, the straight-out New Orleans swing of the late 1940s."
The Delivery Man album features the voices of Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, has a running storyline of a cryptic small-town romantic mystery with bruised characters. "There's a story there but it's not totally explained," he says.
At 50 Costello has lost none of the quirkiness – either musically or in dress sense – that he possessed when he hit the scene with the most original voice of the punk era and 1977 debut My Aim Is True.
His shoes resting on the coffee table are beautifully made. He wears an orange-and-white shirt, black leather jacket, pale green socks. On the coffee table is a hat. A snappy hat. It is black felt, Irish green band.
It's a Rod Keenan, whose work regularly appears in everything from Architectural Digest to Vogue and who has a millinery studio in the heart of Harlem, New York.
A lot of big-name stars own a Rod Keenan hat. And the hat wears them.
Costello, hair almost wild, sharp shoes, a touch of mischievous Puck about him, wears the hat. Always has. And he's a man of many hats.
To understand just how many, we need to back up several decades to a time when the dorky guys, the geeky guys, the nerds in glasses, and punks with narrow ties who couldn't get the girl could identify with Elvis Costello.
They could console themselves that although they weren't getting laid, they were smart like him. Angry with a brutal charisma like him.
The British born singer-songwriter, whose real name is Declan Patrick MacManus, sang about love as a war zone and emotional betrayal. He was tagged the champion of the anti-beauty. It was the new wave. It was like being in on a joke the rest of rock didn't get.
And Costello and his music grew up with his fans, matured with them. Over the years he has taken them on journeys they might not have gone on with anyone else. It has tested them.
He went to Nashville to make Almost Blue out of plain curiosity. Then there was the 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory. And they stuck with him. All because he was there when they needed him most.
Today, Costello is in a pretty good place. He rejects many more projects than he accepts.
He has aged well, owns a collection of rectangular glasses the funkiest architect would kill for, and a body of work that contains some of the most melodically and lyrically accomplished songs in rock.
But here's the biggie. Costello has pulled off two tricks. He's not become a parody of himself, a crooner beating out Rod Stewart-style Christmas albums.
Although he went through the bleak years of drugs and turbulent stardom, he didn't compromise and lose his way.
And he's got the girl. The prettiest girl. Krall is the jazz chanteuse who is smart enough to hate the term "jazz chanteuse" but realise it is part of the marketing business.
When I interviewed Krall last year she said it was "part of the job to get tagged. And it's not the worst tag in the world".
But don't go thinking all this has meant Costello has forgotten how to skewer something he is disdainful of.
He plans on writing a book in a couple of years. "I was asked to write an autobiography at 24. Can you imagine? My Life So Far. One page. I can't think of anything duller. That's for some other loser selling their heartbreak to do.
"You'll always find some character to take a buck for whoring themselves to do that job."
Costello's book will be a weaving of his stories and characters from his albums. Doesn't sound conventional. "Sure it'll be strange. But strange is good."
Nowadays, Costello proudly displays his musical restlessness. "I've gone in so many directions. It makes people nervous."
"People" meaning critics and music writers. "I do what I'm curious about – always have. This to some people is kind of antagonistic."
He grew up immersed in music. Born when rock started, literally. In August 1954 just weeks after the real Elvis made his first Sun single on the other side of the world.
His father, Ross MacManus, was a successful big-band singer. His granddad was a trumpet player, a ship's musician.
He has played on stage and collaborated with the world's best. His songs have been recorded by performers including Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield, Solomon Burke.
Treasured musical memories include the 1987 concert special A Black and White Night with Roy Orbison, filmed in black and white with a remarkable cast of A-list Big O fans as his accompanists.
Under the direction of T-Bone Burnett, the stage band included Jackson Browne, Burnett, Costello, kd lang, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Jennifer Warnes with the rhythm section from Elvis Presley's late 1960s-1970s touring band.
"What a privilege. And it was interesting to see people like Springsteen, huge at the time, so humble. A good lesson."
So when Costello mentions something worth listening to, you listen. What's he loving right now? The favourite tracks getting a workout on his iPod are those on Tom Wait's new album, Real Gone with the crazy Wait as the human beat box.
"It's tremendous. A lot of great songs. Trampled Rose is my favourite."
Also he's loving an outfit out of California called Rilo Kiley. "They've a great singer and writer called Jenny Lewis who has a beautiful voice and tells terrific stories."
Rilo Kiley's website says their latest album More Adventurous is an album full of uplifting songs of heartbreak, traditional pop from the future, country music from the city, and all other manner of oxymoronic perfection. And eclectic Costello likes it.
"And, of course, old stuff like Louis Armstrong, all over the place. You have to have the old and the new."
Costello plays QPAC Concert Hall in Brisbane, November 30, and Jupiters Theatre on the Gold Coast, December 1. Supporting will be Stephen Cummings.
Costello's new albums The Delivery Man and Il Sogno are out now.