|The Elvis Costello
Interview about When I Was Cruel
The aim is still true
There once was this geeky guy in too-short drainpipes and way-too-big black-rimmed glasses, who recorded a raw album of painful love songs called My Aim is True. The "psychotic bank clerk," the reviewers called him "Buddy Holly on acid".
Image, often so transient, is everything in the music business, but Stiff Records greatest marketing creation, Elvis Costello, has proved punk rocks greatest survivor. Twenty-five years on, his latest release, When I Was Cruel - his first solo album for seven years - is as edgy, lonely, bitter and political as his first.
It may take longer to walk round the man these days, and theres a fashionable notion, even among his fans, that hes mellowed (this punk rockers done Desert Island Discs), but in his own way, this years model is as awkward as the last.
I have no problem with ageing. All I want to do is get on with the job. Being lectured about it by people who dont understand what I do, isnt worth anything
Touring in the New Year, as part of a campaign against landmines, Costello was on stage in Glasgow and London. Typically, he alone among five performers - Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and John Prine were the others - provoked the hecklers, with his condemnations of the bombing in Afghanistan and of Tony Blair. They are incidents which rather prove that, as often as critics dismiss him, Costello retains his edge.
Its true there was a time when he wouldnt have done these charity gigs, but that, he admits, "would have been down to my prejudices". And once you might have sought him out amid the grime of the Hope & Anchor, rather than in a comfortable sitting room at an expensive London hotel. He no longer drinks, he doesnt smoke, but his present circumstances should not indicate a man, at 46, subsiding into comfortable but unproductive middle age.
"What are you supposed to do?" he complains. "Mike Leigh has made film after film about this, and Arnold Wesker wrote plays about it - are you supposed to sit in a dirty jumper with soup stains on it to prove your credentials for not having sold out?
"I have absolutely no problem with ageing. Ive earned the money. The only thing I need to do is get on with the job. Its all I want to do. Being lectured about it by people who have no understanding of what I do isnt worth anything. Who would they rather have been on stage? Chumbawamba? Imitation Marxists or whatever they are - would they have been more real? Thats just stupid."
Unlike his contemporaries, who, pot-bellied, only perform when penury pulls them out of retirement, Costellos output has been breathtaking in its range over the past few years. There have been collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet and mezzo-soprano Sofie van Otter, followed by his last album, recorded with Burt Bacharach. His next release, following When I Was Cruel, will be a recording of his orchestration of A Midsummer Nights Dream, a score he wrote for the Italian dance company, Aterballetto. It will be available on Deutsche Grammphon, and features Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
Of course, not everyone has been impressed, and a former acolyte, now Channel 4s leading 1980s revivalist, Stuart Maconie, has called him "self-obsessed and charmless".
"Maconie?" The name makes Costello spit. "That horrible little face? Maconie must be one of the most unpleasant presences in television. He really should think twice about putting himself on camera, its a deeply unpleasant sight.
"Who cares about nostalgia for the 1970s and 1980s? Its like an illness, this compulsion to comment on things all the time. These programmes, they drive me nuts."
But then, over the years, critics have rarely been to his taste. After his 1998 show at Londons Festival Hall with Bacharach, the two men reconvened in Costellos dressing room, because they had heard they would be reviewed live on a late-night arts programme.
"Burt had no experience of the pantomime brutality of the British media chatter. What they said didnt matter. He doesnt lack self-confidence any more than I do, but their hatchet job was just such bad manners and so badly informed. You had some mad poet and someone who had once daubed something on a canvas saying Burt cant orchestrate ... Its like Shut up, take some Prozac, get some HRT."
Costello has had his identity crises along the way. Towards the end of the 1980s, the Elvis image began to grate, the huge marketing effort that had gone into creating his identity was weighing him down.
"I thought I might do something about it, the expectations which came with the look, the glasses. I felt people were judging the record before I made it and then as soon as I did it, as soon as I said it out loud, it didnt matter. When youre younger, youre more self-important; the truth was nobody really cared that it was Elvis.
"There are choices Ive made along the way which have seemed totally off-the-wall to journalists - making a country record, growing a beard - all those things which are easy to ridicule. But Im just an ordinary person, with moods. I made a more conscious effort to frighten people in that period. When I grew the beard I was in a confrontational frame of mind. Very gloomy."
Coming out of this period of doubt was almost like growing up. Since then he has performed his most ambitious work, and won new audiences. For the performer himself, its plain that his experiences have brought a new level of maturity to his output.
Along with the Costello brand, other facets of his character have persisted, notably the political, social edge. While he would never describe himself as a political songwriter (the term, he says, implies an agenda) he recognises that his responses to the Falklands War and to Conservatism were important. Journalist and comedian Mark Steel called his 1989 album Spike "a haunting soliloquy of bile against Thatcher".
"Each of those songs - like, say, Shipbuilding - is an emotional reaction," he says, "just like a love song, only in the case of Tramp the Dirt Down its not about love." (Fair point: its about dancing on Mrs Ts grave.) "Some of them, like Pills and Soap, are reporting events. Thats an element which remains in my new work. On [the title track] When I Was Cruel its expressed in a slightly different way. Its about the social order of things and the power certain people wield in society. You might say that was a contemporary counterpart of those earlier songs.
"I havent written a song in the same way I wrote Tramp the Dirt Down, specifically in reaction to the feelings I have about the ruling regime." He pretends to consider matters for a moment and then laughs. "Frankly, I think its only a matter of time."
Like all fortysomethings of a leftist persuasion, he has witnessed the slow death of idealism over his lifetime, a change charted in his "autobiography by numbers", the song 45 that introduces his new album. In part, it chronicles the musical background in west London that nurtured him as Declan MacManus. His father, Ross MacManus, was a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra. His mother Lillian worked in a record shop. But part of the songs hinterland are the broken dreams of the post-war era.
"That feeling that anything was possible went away, didnt it?" he asks. And while together we cant find one thing to blame for this defeat, he itemises a few of the heavy blows: the hard winter of 1947 that damaged the Attlee government; the early death of Hugh Gaitskill, and later of John Smith; the defeat of Tony Benn for the position of deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1981.
"Im not making a big lament about it," he adds. "I just look around at the things, at todays culture and think: Is that really what were offering people, is that the best we can do? Is this what we dream of? Is this television programme the best we can provide, or is it just the easiest thing ?
"That doesnt mean we dont all enjoy some bone-headed brain-candy once in a while, but theres a difference between offering that as an alternative and it being the height of your ambition. Nobodys dreaming of a better place - but dreaming of how theyre going to clean up, or how to make people pay for things they already own. I could never accept the privatisation of the fundamental infrastructure of Britain. Thats when I left."
He denies that the attraction of his destination, Dublin, was its status, relative to London, as a tax haven. Its more the case that privatisation drove him out. "Water was the most bizarre. It comes out of the sky. Its inconceivable that one minute you own it, the next you dont."
Then there was the matter of his second wife, Cait ORiordan, a former Pogue. Fifteen years on, the marriage still works, as happy, awkward, infuriating as marriages are. If that sounds an imaginative leap, the relationship, like so many of Costellos, is aired in his music, on this occasion the difficult, brassy and rhythmic 15 Petals.
It is, he agrees, hardly a typical love song. "But thats the way I feel, like a real charge of love. Its almost upsetting, but its a love song written for someone whos been married for 15 years. That is the real power of love, not some sentimental syrup. It picks you up, lifts you up "
In the air, there is a question forming about these love songs of his
He cuts in with are laugh. "Theyre almost exclusively negative, arent they? Fifteen Petals is one of the very few positive ones, and even that wasnt written in a greetings card kind of way, with a trite sentiment."
He recognises though, from Alison in 1977 to Indoor Fireworks and on to his latest bittersweet creations, it is the simplicity and banality of his lyrics that make his love songs work.
"The ordinary stuff is often more fascinating. Like Tart is about kicking a piece of fruit into the gutter, a little detail, like a camera dancing around a scene all the time reminding yourself to look up from it, and not be down in the depths of the gloom.
"With love songs, if you are too personal there is an indulgence. Youre talking in a private language to your lover or to the experience of your life through your own sadness. They have to be informed with some sort of sense of experience, but it doesnt mean if youre married you cant write another sad love song."
But then with Costello, there have never been constraints. Thanks goodness the mans unchained again.
When I Was Cruel is released, on Mercury, on 15 April.