Interview with Elvis Costello
Detroit News, 1999-06-11
- Kevin Ransom


Elvis Costello cranks out love songs as his music takes on a brooding edge

By Kevin Ransom/ Special to The Detroit News

    In the late ’70s, when Elvis Costello first hit these shores, his music was a whirligig of catchy melodies and quirky big-beat rhythms — usually with a roller-rink organ or carnival calliope.

“I definitely haven’t turned my back on rhythmic music, and I still enjoy making noise,” says Costello, “but I wrote plenty of songs in the ’70s that were also quite tender.”

     He spat out his snappy wordplay and hilariously overripe metaphors at a breathless pace.

     In recent years, however, as Costello has dug deeper into the complexities of the human heart, his music has used more subtle shadings.

     Take his current album, a seemingly odd-couple collaboration with ’60s pop icon Burt Bacharach titled Painted From Memory. A collection of brooding, opulent tunes that Costello calls “twisted lost-love songs,” the album details a kind of heartache that’s every bit as harrowing as the snide screeds of his youth.

     And when Costello takes the stage Tuesday at the Meadow Brook Music Festival in Rochester Hills, he’ll be accompanied only by his longtime keyboard player, Steve Nieve.

     “It’s quite a rich combination,” says Costello, who’s calling from his home in Dublin. “I mostly play acoustic guitar and Steve mostly plays piano, but we go electric here and there. We play a lot of rhythmic, rock ’n’ roll songs to break things up, but the prevailing mood has more to do with ballads.”

     So, can we expect “Pump It Up,” “The Imposter” or “Radio Radio” — some of the blitzkrieg-bop rave-ups that earned Costello his righteous rep as rock’s most literate, and most scathing, social critic?

     “You never know,” says Costello with a laugh. “We like to keep ’em guessing. We’ve worked up about 70 songs, many of which go back to my first few albums. The set list changes every night.”

     Diane Teregan of Clarkston has been a Costello fan since the early days.

     “When he first came out, he was ahead of his time, almost like an alternative Buddy Holly,” says Teregan, who’ll be at Tuesday’s show. “But his music has carried with every generation. I actually like his newer stuff better.”

     In the ’90s, having already proven that he could conjure clever pop-punk in his sleep, Costello has unleashed his wildly eclectic musical interests, ranging from the chamber-music verve of the Juliet Letters (’93) to the swooning orchestral-pop elegance of the Bacharach album. But he knows about the millions of Elvis fans out there who want him to pull out the stops, jack up the beat and revive his caustic-young-man mode — essentially, to be who he was when he was 25.

     “Yes, well, are they still who they were when they were 25?,” inquires Costello, now 45. “That’s kind of an unfair deal, isn’t it? But, to those people, whatever it is I do now that may alarm them, all I can say is this: It doesn’t erase or invalidate those other records.

     “I definitely haven’t turned my back on rhythmic music, and I still enjoy making noise, but I wrote plenty of songs in the ’70s that were also quite tender,” objects Costello. “So to identify me with just one level of emotional expression, or to be purely defined as caustic or angry, is kind of dumb and a little demeaning.

     “I think it’s just that a certain aspect of my personality got exaggerated by something I might have said in an interview that made good copy,” offers Costello.

     “Then it got repeated, over and over again, and twisted out of shape, until this character had been created. It was mostly a construction of good PR and bad journalism.”

Copyright 1999, The Detroit News