Elvis Grows Up
At 50, rock's most eloquent nerd isn't getting older, he's getting bolder. Just check out his two new albums.
By Carla Power
Newsweek InternationalNov. 1 issue - Plenty of stars grow old with rock and roll. A rare few continue to experiment beyond its borders, pushing the limits of their range. Elvis Costello may not be a global celebrity like aging rockers David Bowie and Mick Jagger, but he's had the gall to keep going on the strength of musical exploration. The skinny youth of the nerdy horn rims and livid eloquence turned 50 this year. The teens who grew up listening to him assail everything from romantic love to colonial armies to Margaret Thatcher are graying now. On a recent fall morning, Costello sat amid the businessmen and well-preserved blondes at Claridge's Hotel in London. He politely thanked the waiter who brought him his English breakfast tea and cakes. And when his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall, called on his mobile, his voice gained the unmistakable timbre of a man in love. "Hi darling, how you doing?... OK, my darling... I'd love to do that, that'd be perfect... I love you." You'd be forgiven for thinking he'd grown soft with age.
You'd be wrong. True, Costello is writing for ballet and opera. And, yes, he's done cameos in a Cole Porter biopic and an "Austin Powers" sequel, of all things. But these are less signs of his selling out than of his branching out—something he's done regularly since he first released "My Aim Is True" in 1977. His 24 albums have included forays into jazz, classical, country and blues; his collaborators have ranged from Burt Bacharach to jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz to mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter. And this fall, he released two dazzlingly disparate albums on the same day: "Il Sogno," his orchestration for a ballet based on "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and "The Delivery Man," a rock-and-roll album with its roots in the American South. In the past critics have mocked his musical curiosity. But for Costello it's as essential as breathing. "When someone from my world moves into collaborating with jazz or orchestral musicians, it's seen as something that happens when their hits run out," he says. "But having hits isn't that satisfying to the writer. It's satisfying to your bank manager."
Releasing two albums at once is a showy move. Still, Costello's a man who stuck words like "quisling" into songs while his peers were busy screaming single syllables into mosh pits. He wrote the 200-page orchestration for "Il Sogno" after the Italian dance company Aterballetto approached him. Though he'd never been a dance fan and had little experience composing for orchestras, his fondness for Italian audiences—whom he credits with a rare musical sophistication—and his admiration for the company's performance of Dante's "Paradiso" convinced him to do it. First he created a score, based on the dancers' interpretations of Shakespeare's characters, drawing on everything from baroque to jazz to country folk tunes. Then last year he reworked the ballet score so it could stand alone without dancers.
"Il Sogno" was a multilingual, multicontinental collaboration with dancers, designers and conductors. "The Delivery Man" was recorded in a studio with his seasoned band, the Imposters. The album began life as a short story Costello wrote about two friends—"a floozy and a pious war widow"—and the insane convict who obsesses them both. It's steeped in Americana: Costello and the Imposters create a rockabilly sound with Wurlitzers, ukeleles and a Hammond organ. Lucinda Williams does a mad, slurry turn as the floozy on "There's a Story in Your Voice"; Emmylou Harris sings backup on a couple of tracks, including the dark album's sole ray of hope, "The Scarlet Tide," an Oscar-nominated number from the movie "Cold Mountain."
Costello talks as he often sings: quickly, urgently, as though a second's pause between full paragraphs might defuse the tension in his words. "I'm a better writer than most people who write for a living about music," he says. "I know better than a lot of the people that are commenting on me. It sounds arrogant to say it, but I just do."
Though Costello's never been worried about sounding too smart, he's clearly defensive about the arc of his career. "People think I'm doing random, dilettantish things," he says. "There's a plan. Not one I made up in advance, but there's a connection between all these things." Before deciding to release "Il Sogno," he and his producer had planned an album that would showcase his development since his first foray into classical music, a 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet called "The Juliet Letters." It never happened—partly because Costello's 15-year marriage to Pogues bassist Caitlin O'Riordan broke up and his relationship with Krall began. "A different kind of inspiration intervened," he explains. He found himself on tour, writing quiet, sentimental songs in hotel rooms at 3 a.m. on a cheap electric keyboard; they were released last year on the album "North" to mixed reviews.
For all his musical adventuring, Costello still circles back to the incisive rage that made him famous. "Bedlam," the song that fixes "The Delivery Man" in the present, squints at the mess in the Middle East, "where traitors hang and stars still spangle/They dangled flags and other rags... And then they dragged that bruised and purple heart along the road to Palestine." At a concert in Glasgow recently, Costello introduced a song called "Monkey to Man," with a dig at George W. Bush, counseling the crowd never "to vote for anyone who's a disgrace to the theory of evolution."
Unlike other European artists, Costello knows far too much about America to fall into the fashionable trap of dismissing it as a cultural wasteland. He's made albums in Hollywood, Nashville and, most recently, in Oxford, Mississippi. He and Krall live in New York, a city he serenades, gorgeously, in "North": "Hail to the taxis/They go where I go/Farewell the newspapers that know more than I know..." He chooses to live outside his native England because he finds the London cultural scene cramped and snarky: "There's too little room at the bar, and [people's] elbows are too sharp."
Though he made his name railing against the little England of the late ' 70s, he's now less a British artist than a transcontinental one. This fall he's touring Australia and Japan before heading to Europe in the new year. He's also working on a three-person opera commissioned by the Royal Danish Opera about author Hans Christian Andersen and his unrequited love for Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. Reaching out beyond pop—and England—seems to have turned the Angry Young Man into a happy one. As he leaves Claridge's to spend the afternoon with his wife, he walks through the gray suits and blue rinses taking tea, smiling slightly and jamming his porkpie hat at a tilt as he goes.
© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.