|The Elvis Costello
Interview about When I Was Cruel and Rhino re-releases
He's not an angry young man any more but, six years after his last
solo album, Elvis Costello is more acid than ever on When I Was Cruel.
And with a superb series of reissues under way, his stock has never
Is it me that's changing, am I more compassionate, or am I compromising? Which is it?' Sitting beside a picture window, looking out on to Kensington Gardens a yellow winter sun illuminating the bare trees and grey pond Elvis Costello tips back in his chair, way back, and knocks into the dresser behind him, causing a faux-brass hotel side lamp to rock on its base, wobble, then fall to the floor in a messy tangle of wire and cocked shade. Costello twists around, buttons straining on the leather jacket fastened tight across a surprisingly barrel chest. He retrieves the bedraggled lamp, gives a wry, sheepish grin, and continues. 'Where was I? Oh yes, I think I used to be a bit of an idiot.'
Costello is looking back. It's a good time for reflection. He's just made one of the best albums of his career, and he knows it. It's called When I Was Cruel, a title that alludes to his past when he was younger, more cocksure. Arrogant. He's come a long way in the last 25 years, and stands now as Britain's only representative of worth among a world elite of singer/songwriters: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison.
Anyway, after working with the likes of The Mingus Orchestra, Burt Bacharach and classical diva Anne Sofie Von Otter, exploring some of the more challenging and eclectic aspects of his oeuvre, Costello is back with what you might call his first proper Elvis Costello record in six years since, All This Useless Beauty being the last.
'Well, I've always been me,' he says, 'but yes, I guess this record will appeal to people who perhaps didn't really accept my move to more experimental sounds and collaborations. I mean, it's good to have two or more threads of music, but people who might have thought the pop side of my career was over are wrong. It isn't. It really isn't. '
When I Was Cruel is a great album. A big thumping sprawl of cool songs, hypnotic rhythms, twisted beats and stubborn sounds. It comes on like classic Costello, yet is also notably different from anything he has previously recorded. 'It certainly feels like a bolder step,' he says. 'And it came out sounding exactly as I hoped it would. There's no one album of mine that it sounds like, but there is a sort of thread that stems from Watching The Detectives and runs through Chelsea, New Lace Sleeves, Pills And Soap, Clubland, My Dark Life and In The Darkest Place from the Burt record. They all have the potential to be in this particular bag. They're more rhythmic, swinging, rooted in bass, and not so heavily dominated by harmony. It's darker-hued music. You wouldn't want to stay there the whole time, but I definitely have that bag, and this is the epiphany of it.'
Costello's last two pop records, Brutal Youth and All This Useless Beauty were well-received but kind of backward-glancing. The new one with its skewed beats and subtle samples is a thing of prescience and now. 'Making that last record with the Attractions was torture,' he confesses. 'But this feels really forward moving. There is that thread, that continuum, but it's a brand new take on it, which I happily credit is not all my doing. I had the notion about what I wanted to do, but the realisation of it was heavily influenced by the young team of guys who co-produced and who were able to move at the same sort of speed that I enjoyed with The Attractions at their best, which was up to 1986.
'Living in Dublin, there are loads of great musicians, but a lot of them are from the traditional scene, and I wanted somebody who could do electronic things in a way that was going to be very spontaneous. I ended up ringing up Larry Mullen because U2 have worked a lot with loops and things and asked if he could recommend anyone with an open-minded attitude to come in and sort of design what I'm up to, and he said, 'Leo Pearson's your man.''
With the help of a production team that included Pearson (noted not just for his work with U2, but also for a string of post-techno, chill-out and electronica releases), Costello neatly avoids the trap of sounding like some old fart playing at being young. 'It's certainly not trying to be dance music or anything,' he asserts. As well as members of the Jazz Passengers, Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas of the Attractions also figure, though former Attractions bass player Bruce Thomas is once again conspicuous by his absence. The pair fell out after Thomas's rather odd book The Big Wheel back in 1990, which in part detailed his life on the road with Elvis. 'Bruce is not involved in this record,' Costello states firmly, 'and that's the way we wanted it. There was no thought of calling him. I don't have his phone number, and I don't want it.'
Look-back-in-anger Costello is not a man to be trifled with. Never has been. There are stories from the early days in the late Seventies when he was the bitter, biting, savage young man, loaded with talent but armed with grudges. There are stories about him keeping a little black book filled with names of those who had crossed him. Or carrying a bent six-inch nail in his pocket, just in case. Plenty of stories from that time. But if he went along with punk, he also emerged from it with a rare dignity. And his albums just kept getting better, reaching a conclusion of sorts with the richly crafted Imperial Bedroom in 1982, after which he branched out and opened up. There was the country album, Almost Blue recorded in Nashville. The overt political charge of Pills And Soap and Shipbuilding in 1983. By 1986, and King Of America, he was working with different musicians (including guitarist James Burton, who had played with Elvis Presley). He went on to work with Paul McCartney and The Brodsky Quartet, sang with Bob Dylan and perhaps most significantly wrote, recorded and toured with Burt Bacharach. 'You know the Bacharach record sold half a million copies,' he enthuses. 'That's fantastic, I'm really proud of that. It didn't get any radio play anywhere in the world and yet half a million went out and bought it. And a quarter of a million people bought the Anne Sofie record. Do you know how many copies a classical record sells, unless it has the words Luciano and Pavarotti on it? They sell 10,000 copies. We sold a quarter of a million. That's extraordinary.'
When a curator for the South Bank Meltdown Festival in 1995 was required, Costello was the perfect choice. No other musician in recent years has proved themselves as widely versed or informed about music in all its aspects and forms. Demonstrating this breadth of scope and vision, in 1998 he negotiated a new, possibly unique, recording contract with Phonogram that allowed him to release records on a variety of labels that each fell under the broad Phonogram umbrella -- pop records on Mercury, classical releases on Universal Classics, jazz-oriented stuff on Verve. He winces slightly at mention of it now. 'The corporation has restructured since then,' he says stiffly. 'And I've actually ended up on Def Jam.' There is a pause. 'Though I kind of dig that. They've come out of the hip hop thing and for me it's like being Rare Earth on Motown.' He chuckles. The irony of having tailored a deal that allowed him to release music on a number of imprints only to end up by default on what might seem to be a ludicrously inappropriate dance label is very much in keeping with the complexity of his ever-shifting and searching muse.
He is currently overseeing a reissue programme of his old albums. Each comes with an extra CD of rare or unreleased material. Superbly packaged and conceived, they set the benchmark by which all such reissues should be measured. 'It's interesting to reconsider the old albums,' he says. 'I think that two out of the three just coming out are pretty great, This Year's Model and Blood And Chocolate. But I can't listen to My Aim Is True. At the time I thought it was pretty good, but I don't understand why people like it so much. Watching The Detectives was the first really great record I made. Imperial Bedroom is good, too, although there are probably not more good songs on it than on Mighty Like A Rose. In fact, they must be bugging my phone or something,' he smiles, 'because they're finding stuff I didn't even know existed. They sent me an out-take from Mighty Like A Rose which I have no idea why it didn't go on the record. And a song called The New Rhythm Method which I wrote in '77 but didn't record till later. It sounds like I don't know what the words are, like I'm bluffing. But it's great to find these things.
'I have a real strong feeling for Mighty Like A Rose. I think it had a lot of good compositions on it. I don't think I worked them all out, though. And I didn't sing very well on that record. I had a very harsh way of singing that I don't think flattered the melody, and I think some of the melodies are really beautiful.' He pauses. 'And of course I had the beard at that time,' he adds with a smirk, 'which made me look like I'd gone mad. I hadn't really gone mad, y'know. I was actually a lot saner making that record than some of the others. Okay, I was acting a bit nuts, maybe. But you can't always be nice. Not all the time. It was actually quite fun being nice for those two years with Burt. He's such a gentleman, you know. But it isn't really me. It was just something I did for a while.'
Diverse things first, Costello's next release will be Il Sogno on Deutsche Grammophon, an orchestral score he has written for Mauro Bigonzetti's adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. After that, there will probably be another pop album. 'I have got these songs that are a story. I haven't finished them yet. They're kind of blue ballads, heartbreak ballads. One is written for Emmylou Harris, and another for Lucinda Williams. Lucinda's really one of the great singers. She's like Elvis Presley and Hank Williams, but with a brain. Anyway, there were those fantastic records in the Eighties, like Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger, that kind of told a story, but where each song also had its own life, and I'd kind of like to do something like that.
'It feels in some ways like I'm just starting out on some new adventure, y'know. Of course, it won't have the same surprises in it, and we can't all grow up together again, that's impossible, and I'm not trying to be young again, either, but it does all feel kind of new and exciting.' As if realising this is probably a bit of a glib way to end the interview, he invites me out to the park, where we walk around (curiously attracting a bevy of squirrels and swans and dogs whenever he stops still). He tells me a tale about a time in 1982 when The Clash, the very epitome of iconic rock'n'roll cool, were hanging out backstage in New York with Allen Ginsberg, and somehow managed to glue their hats to their heads by mistake. 'We're all capable of being idiots,' he laughs