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Interview with Elvis Costello; The Importance Of Being Elvis
hmv.com, 2002-05-01
- Barry Walsh


The Importance Of Being Elvis

The Bespectacled Bard Is Back, But Don't Call It A Comeback - By Barry Walsh

In times when the greatest cultural figures have shelf-lives equal to that of milk left on the counter, it must be difficult to be what's called 'a career artist.' It's probably even harder to deal with when, over the course of said 'career,' numerous detours are taken in the interest of keeping it fresh, detours that could leave those assembled in the peanut gallery scratching their heads. For the artist who refuses to be pigeonholed, the perceptions of the public can be frustrating.

Take the case of Elvis Costello, one of the greatest singer/songwriters to have emerged from the New Wave era with reputation and talent intact. Ever since his first blast of caustic pop rattled the airwaves (My Aim Is True, released - gasp - some twenty-five years ago), Costello has been honing his songwriting to a point beyond most of his contemporaries - indeed, to the point where his collaborators include veritable living legends like Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney. He's written classical scores and country songs. His is a talent that refuses to sit still long enough to dry up. Still, with his latest album, the wonderful When I Was Cruel, echoing the raucous rock and roll he spat out splendidly back in the day, fans and critics alike have been guilty of using that back-handed compliment to describe the new disc - it's a "return to form," apparently.

"I don't know what they mean by 'form,'" he laughs over the phone, a week or so after the album's release. "If they mean a return to human form after my life as a mermaid... There's a veiled insult in the remark, and I don't know quite know how to take it. There's really no 'form' to return to - you just move on to the next thing and try to enjoy the music you're playing as it occurs to you. And it's also about the company you keep."

Indeed, the company Costello had been keeping over the last few years was pretty far removed from the world of Fender Jaguars and Silvertone amps that he had presided over in the past. Consider that this new album is being called the 'first Elvis Costello record in seven years,' even though he'd recently released two album projects with collaborators Burt Bacharach (Painted From Memory) and opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter (For The Stars). While those records showcased his uncanny knack for arranging, his increasingly skilled vocals and his ever-evolving approach to songwriting, some critics and fans had a hard time following the thread between this mature artist and, well, the angry young man who danced on the sides of his feet in the 'Pump It Up' video. Regardless of public perception, Costello maintains that revisiting his rock and roll roots just seemed like the right thing to do.

"I had written an orchestral piece, which was quite a big undertaking, to write a 200-page score with a pencil," he says. "It was such a surprise to be able to do something like that, but it also required me to learn a lot of things. It required a lot of intense concentration. So naturally picking up the guitar and letting loose is bound to feel attractive after that. But there are freedoms available - there's a liberty in this sort of music. And I think I went looking for it even more in the writing, focusing on the rhythm of the compositions, and encouraging the players (among them, former Attractions Pete Thomas on drums and Steve Nieve on keyboards, and new bassist Davey Faragher) to have more freedom to play off the rhythms I predetermined. They react off things, something exciting happens, I react off that and there's some spark happening. I think you hear that on the record.

"That's why I don't really hear the point of comparison with records of the past, because no records of the past sound anything like this. There are obviously some timbres in my voice - the fact that I'm singin' out might remind people of some of the qualities of past records, whether it's Blood and Chocolate or This Year's Model, but in truth I don't think there's very much of a shared language in the music."

Fair enough. But while 'Cruel' does stake out some new territory rhythmically (especially on the title track, with its trip-hop, noir-ish ambiance), rockers like lead single 'Tear Off Your Own Head' could sit comfortably next to 'Tokyo Storm Warning,' and the seven-minute 'Alibi,' one of the album's best tracks, evokes memories of Blood and Chocolate's chilling centerpiece 'I Want You.' That's not to say that 'Cruel' is in any way a retread of past glories - perhaps it's best described as Pure Elvis For Now People. With Thomas and Nieve on board (now as the Impostors - the Attractions have been put out to pasture with the ongoing rift between Costello and former bassist Bruce Thomas), it's to be expected that these tunes might bounce, bob and weave in a familiar fashion.

And of course, Costello's razor-sharp wit is in full force, whether he's skewering the machinations of the music industry or indulging in character studies of ruthless businessmen. In fact, some have commented on what seems to be a fascination with the unsavoury types this time around. Given that Costello has been in the trenches of the music industry for close to 30 years, chances are he's seen enough to make him wish he'd stayed in the computer programming field. Has he ever come close to throwing up his hands and saying 'Enough?'

"About every twenty-five minutes," he says with a chuckle. "There were different times I've had the feeling that enough was enough, that perhaps there was no longer a place for me. I had that feeling quite strongly in the mid-Nineties and then various opportunities came my way. Sometimes it was doing other people's music that restored my faith in performing (like) a lot of the people I'd worked with around the Meltdown Festival of '95, which coincided with some of the dark misfortunes in terms of record releases. It was a time when I was really quite low. It wasn't my confidence necessarily, it was more about the viability of it (his recording career) as a commercial endeavor.

"But there was always something around the corner that kept me renewed and stopped me from feeling desperate. Obviously when I had the band we had more control, and we made our own mistakes. You're bound to see some of them when you look back, but at the time those were probably the things you meant to do. I can't honestly say that the business ever became more important than the matter of making music - writing and performing. When it comes down to it, I can always just go out and sing. That's what I started out with, and that's probably what I'll end up with when I'm no longer allowed to record."

Ah, but surely Costello doesn't see such a day coming. After all, public response to the new album has been uniformally enthusiastic, sales may not rival N-Sync but they're strong, and the band is about to embark on a world tour that will doubtlessly advance the cause. Still, Costello is nothing if not realistic about the current state of the union.

"You make records, they cost money to make and therefore they have to at least make some money back," he says. "They don't even really want to do that anymore. I caught the tail end of that period at Warner Brothers, where you could sort of do that, make a record that made money back. And that made the company look good because they were doing artistic things. But they don't make records on that basis anymore, they only make records on the basis of selling. Or you have to be with the small independent labels that have more modest objectives, like Anti, the label with the new Solomon Burke and the two great new records by Tom Waits. The major corporations have good people working in them that are trying to work within this giant design, and there are people who are passionate about music, but it's sometimes very difficult for them, as much as it is for the musician, to juggle those things. You've got to treasure the way you feel the way about music."

Judging from his latest foray into 'beat music,' Costello seems to have no trouble treasuring, or tapping into, that feeling. Looking back over a quarter-century in rock and roll, that's something to be proud of, isn't it?

"Pride isn't a good thing to have," he says before signing off. "Pride comes before a fall. I'm happy enough that I've written some songs that I can play."


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