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Interview, The French like John Halliday
List, 2005-02-09
Craig McLean

The French like John Halliday

Elvis Costello is talking about how he toured Portugal recently. After the first night's show, a Portugese chap from the record label gave him a bunch oF Portugese records. On the drive from Porto to Lisbon, he listened to the stuff, all intense balladry.

A smitten Costello promptly programmed a new set list, comprising 17 minor key songs, 'and went down to Lisbon and absolutely killed it. The Portugese are into that melancholia, and I've got a lot of those songs. We just made them more intense - and the more intense it got, the more dark ir got, and the more we enjoyed it. It wasn't a miserable concert. It had power. But only because we were all in it together. And it's that all-in-it-together thing that's sometimes missing in some cultures.

What Costello is really talking about here is critical orthodoxy, and how hateful and restrictive he finds it. Why does guitar-based rock have to be the only worthy outlet for a popular musician?

He has an axe to grind here: the last decade or so has seen the former 'New Wave' hero criticised and often mocked for his more outre musical projects, whether his albums with the Brodsky Quartet, mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter or, last autumn, his first orchestral
work, Il Sogno, written for an Itlian ballet company.

'Critical orthodoxy is not real' says Costello. 'It's like gold - it's only valuable because we all think it's valuable. It's just silly. It's so far from the reality. The French like John Halliday. Can you explain it? I can't. They also like Jerry Lewis. It's different everywhere, and if you've travelled the world as I have, and had the fortune to play and make friends in lots of different places, you learn a different outlook. I can go and play regional theatres in Italy and Spain, playing the most obscure repertoire, and hold the stage for two-and-a-half hours. If I tried to do the same thing in England, I'd get booed off.

Fair point. Happily for the less culturally cosmopolitan types in Blighty, on his upcoming tour Costello has another set of songs to perform. The Delivery Man was released on the same day as Il Sogno, and couldn't come from a more distant point on the cultural spectrum than a classical piece inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream. Recorded in Mississippi with appropriate rootsy vibes, it's the most invigorated that Costello has sounded in years.

Typically, he intially had grander plans than an album of pleasingly thumping country-rock and soulful porch ballads. His original idea was to write a set of songs from the point of view of a cast of characters. Then he decided storytelling albums 'have a limited appeal'. Rather than yoke every composition together, he wants people to enjoy them 'just as a song'.

Now don't go thinking that Costello is entering a new populist phase in his middle-age. He has a new project on the go for 2005, an opera commissioned by the guardians of Denmark's high culture to mark the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth. His current rock album clearly floats his boat; it wouldn't sound so good otherwise. But Costello positively shivers with relish when discussing such - you might say more lofty - artistic excursions.

'When you have 70 people playing together it's a wonderful thing. There's so much danger in it.