|The Elvis Costello
Interview about When I Was Cruel
Costello gets back in touch with his inner angry young man
By Thor Christensen
Most stories about Elvis Costello in the last six years lamented the death of punk's angry young man and touted the arrival of Elvis the Mellow Old Crooner.
But in reality, the spit and snarl never vanished he was just stockpiling it for his latest album When I Was Cruel, which arrived in record stores in late April.
Cruel is being hailed as a rebirth of the rockin' Elvis of yore, coming in the wake of his records with easy-listening pop guru Burt Bacharach and Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Print ads are playfully touting the new CD as his "First Loud Album Since 1996."
But the 47-year-old singer insists When I Was Cruel isn't a retreat just the latest step on a long, zigzagging career path.
"This isn't the record where I say 'OK, people Now we're back to good ol' rock 'n' roll,' like rock 'n' roll is some predictable brand," he says, calling from his home in Dublin.
"I'm just trying to find new ways to make music, just as I've always done. I've written, like, 300 songs (in my career), so I'm never going to stay fixed in one place and time."
Recorded with former Attractions drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve, among others, Cruel boasts several fast, jagged rockers in the vein of late-'70s classics like "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio." But the disc also features more experimental pieces: The brooding "When I Was Cruel No. 2," for example, tips its hat to the trip-hop band Portishead.
"We squeezed and crushed and distorted the rhythms in all sorts of ways on this album," Costello says. "That was attractive to me after the work I'd been doing with Burt Bacharach, which was gentler music that was more about melody and harmony."
When I Was Cruel also finds Costello thrashing and throttling his electric guitar as never before. He chalks up the dissonant textures and guitar riffs to this "poor, funny little amplifier that I found in a junk shop."
"It was the strangest thing, like a rare orchid or a butterfly. . . . It lived until the last day of recording, and just keeled over and died," he says. "And then, three months later, it literally drowned in my storage space when there was this huge flood in Dublin. So I don't know if I'll ever be able to play like that again."
As pleased as he is with the new album, he's also eager to defend his work with Bacharach, including Painted From Memory (1998) and a cameo in the second "Austin Powers" movie in which the duo performed the soft-rock staple, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."
Some critics lambasted the Burt-and-Elvis Show, saying Costello's blunt voice simply isn't suited to delicate ballads. But the singer calls those assessments "ignorant."
"I think I'm underestimated, technically, as a singer. These are very, very difficult songs, and the fact that I can get 'round them at all is fairly . . . (expletive) amazing," he says.
"And I think you should try to reach beyond your capabilities, to try to get a tension going, to try to rub some grit against the elegance of the melodies. If everything is easy, then what are you presenting to people? You're presenting somebody lying back on a chair."
That eagerness to continually climb out on a limb sets him apart in the mostly tried-and-true world of rock. In the early '80s, as his punk and new-wave peers were fast turning into self-parodies, Costello set off to explore country music on Almost Blue.
In the early '90s he switched directions again, recording an entire album of classical music, The Juliet Letters, with the Brodsky Quartet.
"He's an important figure in music, not just rock music, because he challenges himself so much," says Tom Waits, a longtime admirer.
"Most people are limited. I'm all clang, boom and steam. But he's a real musicologist, and he went back and learned all this stuff in the middle of life that most rock 'n' roll people don't know, like how to arrange, how to write a score."
Costello says learning new tricks has opened up "a new range of possibilities. . . . Now I'm able to communicate with musicians I couldn't have begun to communicate with before, because I was either too selfish and obsessed with my own ideas, or because I didn't know how to write music down."
Aside from producing and performing on von Otter's 2001 collection of art songs, For the Stars, he's also written a 200-page score titled "Il Sogno" for the Italian dance company Aterballetto. He recently oversaw the London Symphony Orchestra's recording of the piece a process he says wasn't the least bit daunting.
"Ultimately, it's just reaching an agreement between 60 musicians about how to play, as opposed to the four I'm used to," he says. "I take advice now and again from more experienced colleagues, but, in main, I'm working on intuition."
For all the attention given to his ever-evolving music, Costello is also one of rock's greatest lyricists, penning spectacular riddles about society, politics and the human psyche. While he's always been famous for his caustic wit, several tunes on When I Was Cruel find his acid tongue mellowing.
In "Tart" he confronts a terminally bitter friend and asks, "Would it kill you to show us a little sweetness?" And the epic "When I Was Cruel No. 2" describes a high-society wedding sans the venom and ridicule Costello would have spewed on the story in years past.
"It's a true song, a true telling of the tension between your disdain for people who wield and abuse power, and your instinct to forgive people," he says. "When you're young, you tend to distance yourself from the responsibility to consider the humanity in people you despise. Just making them demons is too easy, is what I'm saying."
Yet, perhaps the boldest tale on the album is "Dust 2 . . .," which finds the former Catholic schoolboy confronting his thoughts about the afterlife. The tune ends with the line "I believe we just/Become a speck of dust."
"That's exactly what I believe, but when I say that, I don't think that's a bad thing," he says.
"I didn't say I believe we become nothing. I'm saying we become the smallest part of everything, and that's pretty great. That's much better than what we all think we are: The most important thing in the world."
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