|The Elvis Costello
Interview about The Delivery Man
The delivery man
"I just think it’s very dishonest," he says when asked if the bad reviews bugged him. To his mind, people didn’t ‘get’ North - which in part documented his emotional turmoil as he ended one relationship and began another - because they hadn’t listened to it. Or hadn’t listened to it properly.
"And dishonesty does bug me like anybody," he continues. "And when it’s something that’s very heartfelt, yes, I would say that it probably gets to you more than it should. Simply because it prejudices other people’s ears. You know it’s just a chorus of criticism and it shouldn’t influence people.
"But the whole point of reviews is, they’re some sort of filter through which people make judgments on a vast array of choices. Which things are they gonna spend time with? It takes them a little while to get to it."
He’s just as dogmatic when considering a longer overview of his career. "The element of surprise is lost after three or four records," he notes.
Costello sprinted out of the traps in 1977 with debut album My Aim Is True and roared on with a brace of classic singles ‘Watching the Detectives’ and ‘Alison’ and a rapid succession of critically-approved hit albums: This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy, Punch the Clock, Trust.
"But then, just as soon as the momentum of success in England had slowed, it suddenly arrived in America. If you ask most people what period I’m associated with in England, they’ll say late-Seventies. In America, it’s early to mid-Eighties, through to the late-Eighties - the big successes between ‘Everyday I Write the Book’ and ‘Veronica’, in terms of pop profile. In England it’s ‘Watching the Detectives’ through ‘Good Year for the Roses’, then popping up occasionally in the charts.
"Obviously I was known for other records after that, but in terms of mass pop success, a period of about six years was relentless. It’s unbelievable to think of it, but I was the most consistent chart act - every single record - since the Sixties."
Costello’s greying, chunky, suited and booted, 50-year-old body is at present squished into a deep armchair, one leg swinging out, an arm occasionally gesticulating in the air. The pose seems to suit his professorial, lecturing air.
If he likes a question - about, usually, the minutiae of his music - he will answer at length. If he’s less keen - when asked about personal stuff - he will either cut you off or answer a completely different query. It’s an interview, for sure. But more like a job interview.
This should not suggest that an hour or so in Costello’s company is a grim war of attrition. He’s lucid, enthusiastic and engaged. He might like the sound of his own voice but when you have done what he’s done, written the songs he has, knows the legends he does, others are happy to listen.
And while his thorny relations with the press are well documented, it’s a fitter, happier and, even by his Stakhanovite standards, more productive Costello who, this autumn, re-enters the musical mainstream with not one but two new albums.
It seems reasonable to surmise that much of his good cheer is down to his happy personal life. He and Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall were married late last year, and now divide their time between New York and her native British Columbia. Things are clearly going swimmingly, not least for Krall professionally - her latest album The Girl in the Other Room, which features contributions from hubbie, is the best-selling of her career. Do they ever share a stage together?
"We try to keep it really occasional," he says, unable to keep something approaching a dreamy smile off his face. "We’ve done a couple of benefit concerts together. ’Cause it gives it some value then, you know? The first public guest appearance I made with her was recently, the Montreal Jazz Festival asked me to go up - it was the 25th anniversary so it was a special event."
Tomorrow, Costello releases those two new albums. The Delivery Man is a freewheeling, Southern-flavoured rock album. Il Sogno is a classical piece performed by the London Symphony Orchestra which Costello had originally written for an Italian ballet company.
The former is stonkingly good, Costello’s most straight-ahead entertaining record in what feels like ages. As for the latter, it sounds decent and interesting, but I don’t have the vocabulary or classical chops to give it a fair listen.
I’m not alone. At a Manhattan performance of Il Sogno the night before our rendezvous, the audience, largely comprising 30- and 40-something bloke fanatics with only a smattering of bona fide jewellery-rattlers, hadn’t known when or if to clap, stand and sit. Was it OK to go to the toilet during a violin solo? Even Costello, who sat in the gods intently watching the 70 musicians and their hardworking conductor, admitted to being unsure of protocol. And of the limits of his fans’ tolerance.
"You don’t know what’s the proper thing to do, and whether it’s to their taste. Obviously you’re asking a lot, asking people to trust me when I’ve written something that’s so utterly different to everything I’ve ever been know for."
This from a man famed for the eclecticism of his musical adventures, from collaborating with The Brodksy Quartet to Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney via Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. As he puts it: "The last 10 or so years have been about getting to grips with the physical capabilities to communicate to different groups of musicians."
The week of our New York meeting, the range of Costello’s interests were on full display. The classical performance was the last of three wildly different concerts taking place as part of the Lincoln Center’s annual arts festival. The first was with Holland’s Metropole Orkest, a 52-piece jazz orchestra with whom he had played a week previously at The Hague’s North Sea Jazz Festival. Then came a normal rock gig, with his regular three-piece band The Imposters. Finally, the classical soirée: the Brooklyn Philharmonic playing his ballet-oriented adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (And in between The Hague and New York, Costello and his long-standing pianist Steve Nieve had popped down to Bruges in Belgium to headline the 9,000-capacity Cactus Festival. A day off is just a missed musical opportunity.)
Costello is positively away-with-the-fairies giddy when discussing the detail of Il Sogno. In print, his discourse sounds bumptious. In the flesh, his unfettered joy at being able to explore a whole new musical world is infectious. Mind you, I don’t think I’ll be teaching myself, as Costello did, to annotate musical manuscript and write out 200 pages of orchestral score in pencil any time soon. It’s clear that he also got stuck into the original Shakespeare.
"When I was asked to write Midsummer Night’s Dream, my idea about breaking it down was quite simple: the people from the court, the lovers, at least when the story begins and there’s the whole disagreement about allegiance, it would all have this mock grandeur, so it would all be orchestral gestures. So the first act is mostly that.
"Then at the end the workers come in and they’ve got this folk dance stuff with the Cimbalin - that’s a hammer dulcimer. It’s eastern European, heard a lot in Hungarian and Romanian music, it’s like a zither that you hit with little hammers and creates that lovely trilling sound.
"And also, when Bottom is bullying everybody and trying to take over the proceedings when they’re trying to put on the play, he is represented by those marches - dud dud dud dud."
Got that? Happily, The Delivery Man is considerably more straightforward and, to these ears, more enjoyable. Whereas Il Sogno was recorded in rock institution Abbey Road, The Delivery Man came to life in backwoods Mississippi.
Costello had the idea of recording in the South on his last tour with The Imposters. Playing places he hadn’t visited in years, such as Florida, he was energised by the passion of the crowds. His original plan was to combine a Southern tour with quick, one-song sojourns in venerable studios such as Muscle Shoals along the way. When that proved prohibitively expensive, he opted for one Mississippi venue, Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, where two of The Imposters had played on a Buddy Guy album Costello had loved.
In part The Delivery Man tells the story of the titular anti-hero who, "in a certain light" looked like Elvis, in a certain way "feels like Jesus". Songs such as ‘Heart Shaped Bruise’, a simple country ballad that he sings with Emmylou Harris, and ‘There’s A Story In Your Voice’, a rabble-rousing duet with Lucinda Williams, continue the narrative. But aware of the dubious status accorded concept albums or song-cycle sets, and forever with his eyes on the next project, Costello plans to thread the Delivery Man narrative through his next two albums.
Plus, being an assiduous multi-tasker, he had other things he needed to accomplish on this record. On the first line of the opening track, the clanging hoedown ‘Button My Lip’, Costello hollers dismissively "don’t wanna talk about the government". And there’s another of the album’s themes: these are highly charged, politically volatile times we live in, and it’s important to stand up and be counted.
And the author of ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, that vitriolic song that wished Thatcher in her grave, doesn’t disappoint. ‘She’s Pulling Out the Pin’ draws analogies between the desperation of the lap-dancer and of the female suicide bomber. The boiling blues of ‘Bedlam’ is a scathing look at the war in Iraq which references the capture and heroic "rescue" of Private Jessica Lynch early in the conflict.
"‘Bedlam’ is a version of the nativity story crossed with a refugee story," he explains. Like many a Costello lyric, it’s ambitious and complicated but potent nonetheless. "Well, the nativity story is a refugee story," he clarifies. And there’s a lot of coincidences in history. It says: ‘My thoughts have turned to vengeance, I put up no resistance, though it seemed a long way from my home, it really was no distance.’
"I think the people we’re told we have to fear are just the same as us. That’s always repeated in history."
The image of a "bruised and purple heart dragged along the road to Palestine" is a good one. "Well, it’s coincidence that that girl Jessica Lynch, the town she’s from is Palestine, Kentucky! She got captured by blunder, there was nothing heroic in what they did. The Pentagon made up the total fantasy about her story because it was expedient. It was propaganda. And it does devalue genuine heroism, to give a medal to somebody who got captured through somebody’s blunder - admittedly a horrifying thing.
"I don’t have anything against her, because it’s a horrifying thing to be in combat. It’s a horrifying thing to join the army because you didn’t get an education and find yourself actually carrying a gun. You hear Lynndie England [Abu Ghraib prisoner abuser] speak and she can’t string three words together. They always get a working-class kid to do the killing."
Even some of the more seemingly straightforward songs on the album have resonance. ‘The Scarlet Tide’, co-written with T-Bone Burnett, was originally composed for Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain, and in the film was sung by Alison Krauss. The song was Oscar-nominated, another bauble for a man whose 21-album career is dotted with plaudits from musical institutions such as the Grammies, the Ivor Novellos and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And Costello’s own rendition of the song is just as emotive.
"When T-Bone and I sat down to write it, we talked openly about the fact that I wanted it to outlive the film. Cold Mountain seems to say in three hours something fundamental, which is: men f*** up the world and women put it together again. And The Scarlet Tide says that if we grow to be afraid we will never prevail.
"It’s more against fear than it is against war. ’Cause it’s the fear that allows the war to happen. And that idea is going through the record."
Having turned 50 last month, Elvis Costello shows no signs of letting up. Perhaps all this ceaseless, searching creativity is down to the fact that he has never really fitted in. He’s seen as the embodiment of a certain kind of English singer-songwriter - literate but snottily sarky, impassioned but prone to bile, melodic but challenging - yet the man christened Declan McManus is proud of his Irish roots, and happily lived near Dublin for most of the 17-year duration of his relationship with former Pogues bass-player Cait O’Riordan.
He understood punk inside out, but also appreciated the music of Joe Loss, with whom his dad, Ross, was band-leader. He made his name off the back of New Wave, but only because it was handy.
"I decided: ‘This kind of music is what’s gonna get over right now, I’m gonna make a record now, now’s the opportunity, now’s the time.’ And I was pissed off enough from knocking and getting shown the door by publishing companies and the self-satisfied music world of the Seventies to be pissed off.
"But I was pissed off about different things, you know? I didn’t subscribe to the idea that music before 1976 was bullshit. Because neither did punk. Punk was based on The Stooges and The Velvet Underground and New York Dolls. It just had a shorter memory than I did. And now I’ve got an even longer musical memory. ’Cause I kept listening. I listened as a child and I’ve listened all the way through my life. And there are lessons to be learnt. And if you don’t wanna learn then you’re a mug."
Does he never put his feet up? Does he fear inactivity?
"Well," he says with a grin and a rub of his bristly jowls, "I’m having a holiday in a few days and I’m very much looking forward to it."
Bet you write some songs during it.
"You never know. I hope so! That’d be good! But you know, that’s a pleasure. ’Cause my vocation is also my pleasure. And my vocation is also my livelihood. And that’s not very common. I am," decides chipper Elvis Costello, "very lucky."
Delivery Man and Il Sogno are released tomorrow. Elvis Costello plays Barrowland, Glasgow (0141-552 4601), October 6 (with The Imposters). The book Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello is published on October 7