Interview with Elvis Costello, Mighty Like A Rose era
- Andrew Watt
Elvis Costello has never been known for his predictability. A post-punk troubadour, personifying the 'angry young man' he has taken on many guises and pursued many styles of music. He's dabbled in country, with his Almost Blue album, he's conquered charts, whilst remaining somewhat left of centre, he's written classics that will forever mark his place in the history of rock and yet he's released albums that have left the critics scratching their heads.
Costello's willfulness hence makes it no real surprise when totally unannounced he rang the InPress office on the eve of his latest Australian tour. ANDREW WATT was there to take the call.
Elvis Costello can't even actually remember the number of times he's been in Australia, but the frequency of his visits has done little to dimish the enthusiasm of the audience that awaits him. Part of the reason is that you never quite know what to expect from this chameleon-like artist. He's been here in power-pop mode with The Attractions, in quirky country mode with T-Bone Burnett and in roots rock mode with players like James Burton and Jim Keltner, known, if I remember correctly, as The Confederates.
Costello doesn't really attempt to describe the nature of his current band, other than to say the show covers a broad area of his recorded work, with an original 'band sound' having been developed in the course of the current tour. This tendency towards changefulness is what maintains Costello's enthusiasm for playing live.
"That's my way of keeping it going and keeping it fresh, rather than doing the same thing over and over again. That would be boring for myself, so I can't imagine why anyone in the audience would want to hear it. I much prefer coming out each time with something different."
The great artists all through the ages have had their lifes body of work analysed, often retrospectively, in terms of 'periods'. Whether it be Van Gogh or Bach, the artist of longevity and substance is more than likely to have identifiable stages to the work and Costello's creative lifespan and unwillingness to stay in one spot seems to make him a candidate for such analysis. Is this the way he looks at his own career progress.
"Yeah, but some of the stuff is kind of personal and it's not really relevant to anyone but yourself. It may not be really pertinent to the listener unless your own state of mind comes through on the material on the record which of course it does in some cases. But most of the time they are just records, and the songs are songs and they can be taken out of the context of the original records to see how well they might work in a concert. That's where working with different bands can be interesting. There can be any number of variables, all of which makes it an exciting challenge to play each song.
"You can draw together songs from different albums that lead on one from another. You can play a song from the new record, and then a re-arrangement of a very old song so that people have to listen to it with fresh ears. That draws people into it. All of that helps create a bit of drama. There is an element of creating a bit of drama on stage, even if it's only for the duration of that song, and then you can move on to another mood entirely, even if it's something really light hearted."
'Light-hearted' isn't really a description closely or frequently associated with Elvis Costello. Yet throughout his work there is undeniably a sense of humour, albiet one that goes through stages of bitterness, sarcasm, absurdity and tongue in cheek. The perception of Costello though remains that of a 'serious' artist, which whilst a compliment does tend to pigeon hole him a bit too much.
"There is a sense of humour in there and it has been kind of missed in some cases. But there's nothing much I can do about it. You can't go around with a big sign, saying 'this is funny'. But people do try to limit me by portraying me as this incredibly serious sort of earnest character. But I think there's more to life than taht and I always felt that way early on. On the first records where you had this angry character, there was tenderness in some of the songs, and some humour. Maybe it was a little macabre or something. I think the humour on the new record Mighty As A Rose (sic) is particularly macabre and maybe that's why it doesn't strike people as humour at all. A black comic moment to somebody may be so tragic to other people who don't see any humour at all, or at least the humour doesn't relieve them in any way."
The analysis that automatically attaches itself to Costello's work has inevitably meant that his relationship with critics has been a love/hate one. Once you achieve critical acclaim the music press immediately has a measuring stick against which to compare new work. Each new record is rated according to each critic's view of what Costello's best work is. And with so much variation in his approach such a premise becomes even less objective. True to form Mighty Like A Rose has received a mixed reaction, but the bottom line is that Costello doesn't write for critics, or even for his tans but for himself, as an expression of where his interests lie at any particular time.
"My experience is that the people who are trying to praise this record are as likely to be wrong as the ones who say it's the worst thing on the face of the earth. Most have been wrong in a lot of things. But the reason for that is that it is a difficult task to be perfect in your opinion about something, to be definitive and absolute. Music isn't absolute in that sense.
"People who are paid to write reviews often lose sight of the fact that people's response to music is so varied. Everybody listens to songs in a different way. So I find the relentless cynicism of particularly the British press really boring and terribly destructive to young people coming up in the business because they start to think that's how they have got to act. I only can hope that people are a little bit more intelligent than to follow that kind of absolutism in music writing. "Unfortunately some people tend to be glib rather than wise. But the same argument holds true even when people are praising you. Quite a lot of the time they miss the point.
"A lot of people's fixation is whether I've maintained the level of emotional commitment or the intensity that's perceived to be on the early records. Sometimes if the songs appear aggresive that's enough for them. It's never really considered why they should be aggresive, or if they are what they are aggresive about."
Costello's attitude carries over into his complete lack of interest in the marketing side of his music.
"It's just not what I'm on about and never have been. I just want to be different from everybody else. Musically if they don't like that then fuck 'em, there's nothing I can do about it, it's the way I feel. Nobody else can sing for me. I sing my songs the way I choose to write them. I'm absolutely not interested in trying to conform to somebody else's idea of me, even if it's somebody who thinks they like me. I just don't see anything creative or inspiring about repeating myself. They have to accept if they can't get anything out of a particular album of mine then it's not a disaster."