Sunday Herald, 1999-04-11
- Pat Kane
Elvis: return to splendour
Publication Date: Apr 11 1999
From angry young punk to romantic balladeer in a Grammy-winning collaboration with Burt Bacharach, left, one thing's for sure about Elvis Costello ... and that is that you can never be sure what he'll do next. Pat Kane talks to the latest incarnation of Declan MacManus
ELVIS Costello is pondering a life after music. Perhaps an academic posting: "I could be a Professor of Applied Narcotics. Or a Professor of Difficult Sums. But you know, if somebody made me the Professor of Songwriting at Bologna University, I'd probably take itÉ" Then he checks himself. "Nah. People ask me for music advice, and I always say, just do it yourself. Just try everything."
Just try everything: a reasonable motto for the man whose professorial voice comes smoothly down the line from his Dublin home. In his quarter-century career, what hasn't Elvis Costello tried? From cartoon punk to orchestral composer; from Nashville balladeer to crooner with Tony Bennett and Count Basie; collaborating both with the sublime (Chet Baker, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Cash, Robert Wyatt) and the ridiculous (remember Wendy James from Transvision Vamp?).
Whether it's all worked - "there's been good and bad stuff over the last decade" - is something he will readily concede. But with the prospect of his 45th birthday in August looming, Elvis Costello is looking at his production rate - 17 albums, over 300 songs - and thinking about slowing down. "What age means to me is that now I worry about spending two years on something, and it might not be worth it in the end. So much is just about making sure that the next choice is the right one," he says.
Costello's last few choices would seem to have been on the money. His forthcoming acoustic gig at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall (with long-standing Attractions pianist Steve Nieve) will work through his vast catalogue. But the focus will be on the songs he wrote with lounge-core legend Burt Bacharach for their 1998 album, Painted From Memory. And Costello is quietly basking in the glow of his first Grammy award, picked up last month in the category of Best Pop Collaboration with Vocal, for I Still Have That Other Girl, the standout co-write with Bacharach.
"But I am sceptical about these things. The first time I was nominated was in 1977, and the Attractions were up against Chic for Best New Artist of the Year. So fair enough - we thought we might be in with a distant chance of second. What won? A Taste of Honey with Boogie Oogie Oogie! So I can't take it too seriously. This time, we were up against Celine Dion and R.Kelly, also Stevie Wonder and Babyface. So Burt and me were convinced it had gotta be one of those."
Do you regard it as a validation? "Well, it's a vote by the business, from the business. We're doing the thing that a lot of record company people tell themselves they wish they could do. We're making the record that they'd like to tell themselves they support making. But you also have to have the will to make it in the first place. And the fact that the record sold well helps."
Yet there's been much to artistically question, as well as to enjoy, about this latest Costello collaboration (as there was about his work with Paul McCartney a few years ago). Listen to the single released next week from the album, Toledo: it's beautifully crafted, but it's almost a total nostalgia trip. Elvis gets his chance to sing lustily over his own version of Do You Know The Way To San Jose, Burt flexes some arranger's muscles he hasn't used since about 1969. But how do we evade the charge of sheer pastiche here? And how do we address this historical fact - that when Costello was writing Shipbuilding in 1982, Bacharach was writing Arthur's Song, and appalling fillers for Neil Diamond?
"There are some true things in that paragraph you just said there," he replies, with the merest condescension. "First, I wouldn't have inflicted a Pump It Up style on him, as he wouldn't have inflicted Arthur's Song on me. We went to where we thought the strengths were - which was songs of lost love."
"But it depends on what you imagine when you say the name Burt Bacharach. I immediately think of songs like Don't Make Me Over, Are You There With Another Girl, Anyone Who Had a Heart. I hear Dusty, Aretha, DionneÉBut somebody else might see, you know, the polo neck sweater, The Carpenters, think about raindrops falling on your head, etcetera. What I love are his intense passionate ballads - and the thing is, they probably as much come from the European art song tradition, all the work that Burt did with Marlene Dietrich. Remember Burt had a classical training, with avant-garde composers. His pop music was be-bop."
NEVER try to get the later, scholarly Elvis Costello on a point of musical history - he'll blast you out of the water as if you were the Belgrano itself. And don't make even the faintest suggestion that Burt might have written most of the music, and Costello just wrote the words.
"That is absolutely not the case. I've resisted the temptation to go around saying, that's mine, that's hisÉBut you could hear the early demo of Toledo, and recognise it as my composition."
We go through about 10 minutes of detailed track-by-track analysis, until the point is made: Costello enjoys working with titans like McCartney and Bacharach, but he isn't overawed by them. "No, as a kid you couldn't have imagined working with these people - but you find yourself in that position because you have skills that they value, they need you as inspiration. And I never seek out these collaborations, they're always just happy accidents of scheduling."
The old punk may now be as polite as a Radio Three announcer - but you still don't mess with his reputation. His telephone-sell for the Glasgow gig has all the urgency of a seasoned pro. "There'll be quite a few surprisesÉIt won't be just two hours of balladsÉI might well jump into the audience, turn all the amplification off, sing right amongst you...Don't forget that the piano is a percussion instrument as well - this will be a rock'n'roll evening too..."
He even, when prodded, brings up some solid-gold punk recall about Glasgow. "I remember doing Tiffany's, and it was just a cloud of broken glass. And once we had to play Paisley because the Glasgow councillors banned us in 1977. What Glasgow was like in 1977, though - imagine that city being scared of a punk band! I never understood it. Was it the idea that we would make things worse than they already were?"
Costello's partnership with Nieve is, as he puts it, "the creative remnant" of the break-up of the Attractions, which Elvis reformed in the mid-1990s to make two well-recieved albums.
He says: "However, as a live band, there wasn't enough concentration amongst the four of us, we didn't believe in it as much. But Steve and I developed an understanding. I had a band to break up, though."
That'll be the Attractions finished, then.
There is still a steeliness to Costello's personality: when he talks about how "contemptible" record companies are when they are trying to "get you back to the good old days", and how the point is to "trick them into believing that they want to sell what you're going to give them", you hear the low cunning of an industry survivor. But that necessary harshness has always come from another place, other than an intimate knowledge of record-business dodginess.
So Elvis, when are you going to stop writing lovelorn, melancholic ballads, with 40-piece orchestras moaning gently at your shoulder - and get angry again? "It's coming any moment now! I haven't written for myself for about four years. And all I need is today's news. What more can I say?"
YET from a man who wrote the best ever song about the military-industrial complex, Shipbuilding (worth another listen, I'd suggest, as Western hardware rains impressively down on the Balkans), Costello is demure about his reputation as a political troubador.
He explains: "I've never defined it as political. The role of a writer is to stand outside, to be completely like a civilian. I've never written about anything in the world of poltics unless it hits me, the individual - that's how I wrote Shipbuiding, or Tramp The Dirt Down."
But he does get off his ivory piano-stool a little: "I have to say, in terms of current British politics, it's much harder to write songs in response to a sponge. We've had these two amoeba-like administrations in the 1990s, Major and now this one. There are black comedies to be written about these governments. But satire isn't enough - it makes them easier to define, allow us to avoid thinking rigorously enough about what they're doing. OK, we have the grey underpants that was Major, or the trendy vicar parody of Blair. Neither of them are the full story, it's all much deeper than that. How that'll come out in a song, we'll see."
But he rallies to defend his personal borders again. "I do hate classism, the idea that politics has to be defined by your social position. I've always thought I was working class, because I work, I have a vocation. Some people say, how can you believe that? There's a lot talked up, about whether the Gallagher brothers are working class or not.
"See, I remember playing Clairbank School, John Lennon's old school in Liverpool, as a boy. And I found that it was a lot posher than my school. I believed the legend, John Lennon, working-class hero and all that. But he was middle class."
"There are people who believe, in an almost Jesuitical way, that it is your duty to write politically. 'Where's your political song on this record?' Like it's tattooed on my wrist that I must write in response to every poltical event. Life isn't like that. I always write from an emotional trigger." He laughs. "But the thing about a troubador, is that they see you coming. I don't like them to see me coming."
As for the personal life of Elvis Costello - well, it's the usual cosmopolitan rag, spending time in London, New York, but mostly in Dublin, where he essentially lives and writes. Does he feel connected to any place?
He says: "I have no real loyalty or identity to anywhere, really...I go back to visit my mother in Liverpool, I go to London to see my son."
"Even though my father's family was born in Dungannon, I can't say I feel all that Irish. But I've always preferred the tricolour to the Union Jack - it's a more beautiful flag. And I don't think the tricolour has ever been run up over any dead colonial bodies."
Nice to know you're not a political animal anymore then, Elvis.
But what Costello will alwaysbeismusically restless.Hisworkwith Bacharach,theBrodsky Quartet and other composers has left him with the makings of what he calls, with Classic FM preciseness, a "programme". Meaning that, armed with his manuscripts, he could "go to the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, and do a gig - just like that! No rock'n'roll band, no huge entourage. It's an amazing liberation."
But that isn't the next move. Elvis tells me he has been listening to his drum'n'bass - and as he goes off to "dream it all up again", he sounds like he'll be chained to his Apple Mac for the next little while.
"It has a lot of possibilities. They have a good grasp of rhythm, but no understanding of harmony. But I don't think the two should be mutually exclusive. I want to use the same computer technology, but balance the harmony with rhythm.
"I don't know whether that's achievable - but it would be interesting to try it. It might mean abandoning the accepted song structure a little bit, in order that it didn't just sound like a pop song, with this thing glued on to it. But I do think it's possible."
I suggest that with all these options, he's in a remarkably dignified position for an ex-punk rocker. But he is, as ever, the sceptic: "There are days that I doubt whether there is anything left. I can generate work, sure, but is it worth other people's time as well as my own? I can't say that every day goes by when I'm completely convinced of the worth of what I'm doing."
But then he snaps out of it, and goes into a mini-tirade about the "pointless bish-bash-bosh, the mindless traditionalism of rock".
AND I suppose if you could say anything about Costello at the moment, it's that he's a mindful traditionalist. Someone who chats to Burt Bacharach every other day, delights in talking about "chromatic polytonality", and checks for Blur's Graham Coxon as "my kind of guitarist - he clearly loves to make crazy noises".
He may yet become that Professor of Song at Bologna University. And there would be none better qualified.
The new single from Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, Toledo, is released on April 19 on Mercury Records. Elvis Costello plays with Steve Nieve at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, on April 23. Seats are £20 and £18.50, and are available from the following credit card hotline numbers: 0141 287 5511 and 0870 444 409.