Stereophile , Nov. 2004
by Jim Bessman
FROM NEW WAVE ROCKER TO NEW MADE BALLET COMPOSER, ELVIS COSTELLO REMAINS THE DEFINITION OF RESTLESS CREATIVITY
When Elvis Costello was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, he was accompanied by his bandmates the Attractions, whose debut in 1978 on Costello’s classic second album, This Year’s Model, at the height of the punk rock/new wave era, established a ferocious rock intensity that remains Costello’s trademark. But even at this early stage of his now renowned career Costello displayed artistic aspirations that seemed downright reckless, at least from a pop music standpoint. For example, owners of the first rush of import versions of This Year’s Model still prize the bonus single that came with it and included “Stranger in the House,” the country gem that Costello re-recorded the following year with George Jones prior to the making of his own full-fledged, 1981 Nashville country album, Almost Blue, which was produced by Billy Sherrill.
Country music, as Costello fans have long since learned, was merely his first divergence from rock constraints, though the 1978 live compilation Live Stiffs which also starred Nick Lowe and Ian Dury (members of the Stiff stable), also hinted at Costello’s creative ambitions and foretold his sure-handed grasp. On that compilation a cover of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” demonstrated Costello’s affinity for the pop of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and his mastery of its vocal mechanics. Twenty years later he would deftly collaborate with Burt Bacharach on Painted from Memory, having already co-written songs with Paul McCartney.
Indeed, by l982’s Imperial Bedroom - his seventh album in his prodigious first five years as a recording artist—Costello was being hailed by rock critics as his generations answer to George Gershwin and the other great popular songwriters of the first half of the 20th century. This came three years after he’d released a sparse version of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” and 22 years before he jovially performed Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave” in the Porter biopic De-Lovely. In between he had performed with Tony Bennett on the pop-jazz giant’s landmark Unplugged album (1994), and enlisted legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker for his 1983 album Punch the Clock. He would soon collaborate with contemporary New York jazz group the Jazz Passengers, and earlier this year he co-wrote material for jazz vocalist Diana Krall, who is Costello’s new bride.
Most ambitious, though, are Costello’s efforts in classical music, which commenced with his 1993 recording and touring affiliation with English chamber group the Brodsky Quartet, and a lesser-known 2001 collaboration with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. But these projects now pale next to II Sogno (The Dream), his first full-length orchestral work, which was released on the prestigious classical label Deutsche Grammophon the same day (September21) his latest rock album, The Delivery Man, was released by Nashville’s Lost Highway Americana label. Both were effectively premiered in three extraordinary concerts in July during the annual Lincoln Center Festival in New York, Costello’s new home town.
“That was unprecedented, really, having just arrived in the city and suddenly being given the opportunity to perform at Lincoln Center —its central performing place,” reflects Costello, midway between the Lincoln Center Festival and his new albums’ release date. For the first concert, Costello employed Holland’s famed jazz big band, the Metropole Orkest, in a wide-ranging program that gave his songs a modified punch and swing. The second night offered a more standard Costello rock show with his band, the Imposters: former Attractions Pete Thomas on drums and keyboard virtuoso Steve Nieve (who accompanied Costello all London Symphony three nights), and bassist Davey Faragher. This group highlighted new blues-inflected songs from The Delivery Man. The grand finale was the North American premiere of II Sogno, performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic and conducted by Brad Lubman. The piece is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, commissioned by Italy’s Aterballeto ballet company in 2000. The hour-long score was then recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.
“The chances of repeating those first and third concerts are remote compared with the ease of doing concerts with the Imposters,” Costello continues. “This doesn’t mean that the music won’t be heard in concert again — or on record. I’d love to make an album with a lineup like the Metropole, because it’s such an exciting sound.” Costello had previously played with the Metropole at the North Sea Jazz Festival. “I had a lot of material that had appeared in different guises going back to the mid-‘90s with the Brodskys, and I’d worked with the Mingus Big Band,” he says, citing his collaborations with the late Charles Mingus’s surviving band. “So I’d had the opportunity to explore different groopings of musicians, and at the same time develop the necessary skills to clearly communicate the arrangements.”
Regarding Il Sogno , Costello notes his involvement in orchestrating his last album, North, the 2003 classical/jazz art-song cycle that evoked his work with the Brodskys after he’d temporarily laid off the Imposters. “Il Sogno was bigger-scale in terms of writing on a page in order to motivate a group of musicians who don’t necessarily share your musical knowledge. I couldn’t just go, ‘Play it like that Garnet Mimms song that we all know and love,’ which I did all the time with the Attractions and Imposters.” Rather, classical musicians “work off the page,” Costello learned, and respond live to “hand signals and threats and creative bowing.” At Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, where all three Costello Festival concerts took place, he listened to Il Sogno from the balcony, much as he had at the premiere in Bologna, where it propelled the ballet dancers. With input from Tilson Thomas, Costello made revisions before the score was recorded, the goal being to achieve an album that could be appreciated on its own, since the visual cues of the dancers would no longer pertain.
“He asked me a lot of proper, creatively critical questions of what my intentions were with the score, so he could then proceed instinctively based on his own scholarship [concerning] the many other ballet versions [of A Midsummer Night’s Dream],” says Costello. (Mendelssohn’s music, for instance, has been choreographed by the likes of George Balanchine and Sir Frederick Ashton.) “He made me rethink some of the sections, and I was grateful for the revisions. Some were as simple as [marking them with] others needed rewrites. But that’s what creative criticism should be: It should inspire and not discourage.” Costello contrasts the constructive suggestions of Tilson Thomas with the opinions of music critics, his relationship with whom has long been, at best, tenuous. “It’s different because he’s a musician, for one, and I don’t know competent musicians who are critics,” he says, not without lingering irritation, perhaps — and prideful defiance. “There’s the sense of a jaded palate among some writers, who seem incapable of finding joy in music any more — and a cultural suspicion as well. That can be really discouraging for some groups, but I actually don’t give a damn what anybody says — other than, being human, I’m bound to be exasperated by boneheadedness or flat-out lies. But certainly I’ve never changed anything motivated by what anybody thought — least of all critics. I write solely for myself, and shape my music in some way to open it up to an audience, and the amount of thought given to critics — or, for that matter, record companies — I could write on the back of a postage stamp! Maybe I’m the poorer for that financially, because I’m ruthless in that regard. But it’s never bothered me that much.” Warming to the subject, Costello credits his audience’s ability to “make up their own minds” when it comes to supporting the many tangents his career has taken since This Years Model. “They’re not easily swayed by fashion and my idiotic commentary,” he jokes, then turns at least semi-serious again in confronting Il Sogno’s potential, perhaps inevitable, dismissal by classical purists.
“To attach a classical label [Deutsche Grammophon] to it says more about the label people that Il Sogno is on their label than it says about me, I think. It shows a desire to expand their range and embrace new pieces written for orchestra rather than just existing repertoire. But I don’t think of Il Sogno as a classical piece: It just happens to be on a classical label. It’s more an orchestral piece commissioned by a ballet company — or, more accurately, a dance company. Now it has a life of its own as a piece of orchestral music.” In fact, Tilson Thomas has said that Il Sogno contains elements of pop and jazz, as well as classical.
“It’s very similar to working with a rock’n’roll band,” continues Costello. “It’s all about writing songs and then arranging them with a band —whatever it is —by making reference to a shared knowledge of music.”
He illustrates with a hypothetical surmountable challenge for his own rock bands: “Take an Al Green record, for instance, and join it to a George Jones song. I know I can’t do something like that with quite the same spontaneity with orchestras because the music has to be written down, but there are still references to a shared knowledge of musical history in order to make a recognizable point with the audience.”
But the nature of Costello’s piece must not be overlooked, as he hastens to explain. “The point is being lost that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy, and that the music was originally composed to support dancing — but now it tries to express a narrative and give an aural picture of the characters. Every composer’s take on this conundrum is how to represent the narrative and the characters in a different way. I made certain choices: Some music borrows from known orchestral idioms, like fanfares and rather grandiose flourishes, but my conceit was to make the fairies swinging fairies, accompanied by a big band. But obviously there are moments of tenderness in the story allegiances that are transformed and the bewilderment that that brings — and a celebratory resolution. So there are huge possibilities for a writer, and none of them begin and end as I would have done in a song.”
Costello was actually asked to write songs for the ballet — one conceit he rejected outright “not because there aren’t potential lyrics, but they wanted me to write my own lyrics — and I thought it would be ludicrous to add anything to Shakespeare! I’ll be happy for people just to listen with their own imaginations.” Few, however, will likely imagine the amount of work that went into Il Sogno. Costello, who has been writing using music notation for only 10 years, eschewed computer tools, writing out in pencil a 200-page score in approximately 10 weeks. In addition to the standard orchestral configuration, the score includes parts for vibraphone and a cimbalom (a Hungarian hammer dulcimer).
“I had in my head which instruments would achieve the best colors and effects, and the results surpassed my imagination,” says Costello. “So I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity — to sit in that theater and have that music that you only imagined emerge in the darkness before the dancers came out. You never have that perspective on your own material, hearing it played live by a group of musicians that are beyond your technical ability to play. It’s a magical experience that I highly recommend for anyone with the ambition to do [it]. The greatest fairground ride in the world.”
He is reminded, however, that he first recorded with an orchestra — the Royal Philharnonic — back in 1982, at the Royal Albert Hall, for a live UK single version of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “I’m Your Toy”— an Almost Blue album track.
“That was the first time I played the Albert Hall!” he marvels. “There was still a gap in the culture between rock’n’roll and so-called legitimate music, and we had to edit the contents of the album because the management had banned rock’n’roll after a Mothers of Invention concert! But an album of country ballads wasn’t that dangerous, and it was really an exercise in dressing the music modestly with a tiny string section in really grand clothes and a big pageant.”
Later that year came the heavily orchestrated Imperial Bedroom, with Steve Nieve arranging and Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick behind the board. “It was quite rich in instrumental detail,” Costello recalls. “We said, ‘Let’s beat the Beatles!’ in a charming, childish way, but part of the beauty of popular success is being able to go with a big pop folly. Fortunately, we carried it off, taking a lot of cues from the Beatles’ sense of ambition in bringing in classical people because of the colors involved.” The remainder of the l980s and ‘90s likewise involved, for Costello, “learning how to bring in colors with intricate arrangements —without writing them down,” he continues. “I consciously thought of [the eclectic 1989 album] Spike as being arranged by trial and error in the studio: I’d put things in and arrange them if it didn’t work, which is what I’d read how Brian Wilson did it — because he didn’t write stuff down, but made conflicting elements agree.” Costello learned basic music notation when he met the Brodsky Quartet. “Then, over the next 10 years, I commenced writing for one group or another. In between I also made rock’n’roll records: I wrote songs for Wendy James [Transvision Vamp singer’s entire 1993 album, Now Ain’t the Time for Your Years] in a really raw punk style that led to the reassembly of the Attractions with Brutal Youth . Then I had the idea of being able to make retrospective records in the time of life you’re in, and that’s what All This Useless Beauty  achieved: It couldn’t have been written when I was 22.”
By now, however, the Attractions were disintegrating for the last time. “We weren’t firing like an engine as we had done up to 1986,” concedes Costello, who then turned his attention to his Imposters. “The fortunate thing is that since I made When I Was Cruel , I’ve spent a lot of time on the road with the Imposters — which is a totally different band, even with two of the same people [as the Attractions], because we’re different people now, and life has taken us to different places. Three of us spend most of our time in North America, and Steve’s in Paris, and where you live affects how you experience music day to day, both as a listener and working musician.”
The “virtue of the Attractions,” Costello volunteers, “and the reason they didn’t mature as a band, was that it was all about youthful ego and soloing, much like the Who and other English rock bands, with people trying to grab the spotlight.” He then speaks of Davey Faragher, who performed in a sibling group and with John Hiatt before hooking up in Los Angeles with Pete Thomas in Vonda Shepard’s backup band (they’ve since formed a country trio, Jack Shit, which plays regularly in L.A.): “He’s locked in with Pete, but he also sings, which is great because the Attractions never had a reliable harmony singer.”
It was Faragher’s and Thomas’s participation on Buddy Guy’s 2001 album, Sweet Tea, that led to the recording of The Delivery Man at Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, Mississippi. “They came back and said what a great studio it was, and I had a lot of songs that seemed to need a musical world outside New York or L.A. or London or Dublin. It really made them sound more authentic.” Costello had been “looking for a framework” to lay out the loose story of The Delivery Man, whose title track concerns a vaguely defined character and his effect on the lives of three disparate women.
“I decided not to make it into a strict narrative form, and instead start out with the most dramatic song [“Button My Lip”] and then go back, so that in the process of listening to the album as a whole, if it doesn’t make literal sense, it hopefully makes imaginable sense,” he says. “In the end, it’s just about life and things that I felt moved to write about.”
He singles out “Monkey to Man,” which he has called a sequel to pivotal New Orleans rock‘n’roller Dave Bartholomew’s 1954 single “The Monkey.” The song likewise lambastes Homo sapiens, this time from a zoo monkey’s imprisoned perspective. He also cites “Bedlam,” “a sort of Nativity story about refugees” that has contemporary implications relating to Middle Eastern affairs. “We’re all in the same boat or town as people,” he says.
“Ordinary people, not politicians or figureheads or prophets or bogeymen, but people dealing with life and death —though we have a few more trinkets and luxuries. And we have the huge privilege of saying things out loud without getting our heads chopped off—but by no means should we be happy with our state of affairs. [“Bedlam”] has no moral point of view as such to offer, but just reports what comes on everybody’s television —including the characters in the story.”
The observation begs a question regarding Costello’s feelings for his new hometown, particularly in light of the current political climate.
“It’s lovely to wake up to the sound of whirling razor blades overhead,” he says, referring to the omnipresent helicopter noise accompanying the Republican National Convention. “But I think of the realities of countries that are being liberated or occupied I can’t remember which! and realized that this is day-to-day Belfast, the West Bank, Warsaw 50 years ago, Soviet Russia, Chechnya. These things go on all the time manipulations and deceptions and suspension of civil rights — and it makes me really wary and despairing of people’s lack of suspicion of how much they’re giving up in order to fight a contrived and unwinnable war. “But we can’t resolve it in the length of an interview. That’s why a song like ‘Bedlam’ isn’t a simplistic chorus: We’re really in desperate straits and need things to be laid out in a lot of different ways by a lot of different artists and responsible commentators for sentient beings to experience and draw their own conclusions.”
Costello’s settling in New York was a major life change. So was his marriage to Diana Krall. “To share life with somebody of this caliber and an artist of this level is obviously a great influence,” he says. ‘While he discounts the common assumption that North was stylistically influenced by Krall — “It may sound like a jazz album, but it’s a composed and arranged record that owes as much to lieder” — he acknowledges that North, which documented the failure of a love affair followed by the hope of a new one, marked “a transition in my life that I’m not always comfortable about expressing.”
But courage, he adds, “is an overused word in describing art. ‘Courage’ is an innocent man facing a firing squad! But you’re emboldened to do things that you feel are the best you’ve done in your life, and that comes from having the love I do in my life — and I’m not bashful about saying that, and I hope she feels the same.”
The famously knowledgeable singer-songwriter credits Krall with encouraging him to explore new territories as an artist, and feels fortunate to be afforded such options in his own career.
“I began in rock’n’roll and have stayed —though it may seem that I detour because of my interests and curiosity. But I’ve been given opportunities that I never dreamed of that just came upon me while keeping my mind open to other possibilties of music than what I started with. But I always knew there was more — I just didn’t find a way of incorporating it into my first album” (the instant classic My Aim Is True, in 1977).
“I feel pretty lucky,” he concludes. “I just caught the tail end of when you could be an artist in this business and be immediately recognized. Now the industry is too impatient: It’s taken several records for Rufus Wainwright to establish himself. The days of [an artist such as] Randy Newman’s first record being recognized are probably gone."