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Interview with Costello about When I Was Cruel and other things
Sunday Times, 2002-03-24
- Mick Heaney

Ireland: Cover story: Elvis Costello

He's spent most of his career changing musical direction and inventing new names for himself, but Elvis Costello has now found another identity - as an Irishman, writes Mick Heaney


Elvis Costello has never been easy to pin down. He has called himself The Imposter, DP Costello, Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus and Spike, the Beloved Entertainer. He has been an acerbic new wave star, a lush balladeer, a country crooner and a classical composer. He has been hailed as the greatest songwriter of his generation and dismissed as a sneering misanthrope. And now, apparently, he is Irish.

"When English people come over I talk about 'we Irish'," he says. "I realise this isn't acceptable for many Irish people, but my father's from the north, so I'm entitled to say 'we'; maybe more so because he's from there.

"I love to tease by virtue of my mixed nationality. I say that the problem with you English is that we're younger, smarter, better educated and eventually will be richer than you, because we're not insular like you are. Your football team is no good and we kick your a--- in almost every field. You can have a lot of fun along those lines."

As he sits grinning in a Killiney hotel, Costello is clearly enjoying himself. Relaxed and resplendent in suit and candy-striped shirt, with a dapper homburg hat beside him, he seems a long way from the jerky, adversarial figure who emerged 25 years ago to inject his cool acidity into the post-punk world.

But while his jocular adoption of Irishness may add another twist to Costello's mercurial public persona, it counts for little in terms of his music: "I'm not looking for a theme of Ireland." Instead, as he prepares to release his latest album, When I Was Cruel, Costello seems more preoccupied with his own multi-faceted past.

The new album, Costello's 20th to date, appears to be dotted with oblique references to his previous experiences, from the title down, which seems to echo his early reputation for wilful callousness. More significantly, the album sees Costello again working with his old backing band, the Attractions, or at least, two thirds of them. Keyboard player Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas return, but Costello's seemingly irrevocable falling out with original bassist Bruce Thomas — who published an account of his time in the Attractions in which he referred to Costello throughout as the Pod — means that Davey Farragher takes over.

The end result is that When I Was Cruel is punchier and poppier than any Costello record since 1994's Brutal Youth, which perhaps not coincidentally was also made with the Attractions. It certainly stands in stark contrast to his recent collaborations with pop composer Burt Bacharach and mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, which bordered on the opulent. But far from being a throwback to the glory days of the Attractions, Costello sees his new "rowdy rhythm record" as a step forward.

"I don't think I'm going back because I'd never done this before. I've long had the idea of making a record where rhythm was the dominant consideration, and this felt like the right moment. The last few records have been ballads and have had a gentle mood, a gentle tone, a world that you had to invite people into. So I just decided to make a record that went the other way. But that's good, I think — if we stayed the same all the time it would be a dull world."

Things have rarely stayed still for the man born Declan Patrick MacManus in London back in 1954. (He jokily added the name "Aloysius" in the mid-1980s.) After cutting his teeth on the pub-rock circuit, he changed his name, quit his job as computer operator in a cosmetics plant and in 1977 released his first album, My Aim is True. Even then, Costello's ability to move from barbed observation (Less Than Zero) to affecting ballads (Alison) marked him out from the anarchic punk crowd, as did his spectacles and skinny suits.

Costello's sharp lyrics became perhaps his best-known trademark. Whether he was skewering the music industry (Radio Radio) or right-wing politics (Oliver's Army) he tackled his subjects from unusual angles, mixing vicious wit with an often overlooked empathy, never more so on his poignant take on the Falklands war, Shipbuilding. But while there seems to be an entire industry devoted to dissecting Costello's lyrics, he is wary of ascribing too much wider significance to his work.

"I don't write manifestos, I write songs," he says. "There are some people who pick over me, but they're just the people you read. An awful lot of people are getting along fine not knowing a word about me."

In the past, Costello's relationship with the music press has been fractious — his original manager, Jake Riviera, was notorious for his bullying tactics. These days Costello seems to prefer an air of bemused indifference, answering questions that don't interest him by steering the conversation back to the preferred topic of his new album.

But if he has mellowed in manner — his marriage to former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan seems to have been a particularly settling influence — Costello still likes to upset people's preconceptions about him, something he has been doing since 1981, when he took a sharp stylistic turn to record Almost Blue, an album of country and western songs, then a painfully unfashionable genre. His musical unpredictability became endemic in the 1990s: the critical and popular mainstream's increasingly confused perception of Costello was fanned by eclectic projects such as his collaborations with contemporary classical ensemble the Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters) as well as his albums with Bacharach (Painted From Memory) and von Otter (For the Stars).

His more recent solo output has also seemed slightly unfulfilling, be it his cover-version collection, Kojak Variety, his forays into classical composition (the London Symphony Orchestra is about to record one of his pieces), or his 1996 album All this Useless Beauty, much of which was written for other singers. This grab-bag of odd projects might be seen by some as Costello frittering away his talents, and indeed his audience. He disagrees.

"A lot of people got very hung up on this idea that Useless Beauty was some sort of compilation, but they were still my songs, they were still personal. But if you're talking about the last album of songs written specifically for that record, it was Brutal Youth, which was long ago. But I don't care, because I feel that there's quite a lot of things invested in For the Stars and Painted from Memory.

"I have quite a big enough potential audience and from time to time they all gang up on me and buy my records. Then even odder things will happen, like people who have never even heard of me before, by virtue of being too young, will go and buy my records — they bought She and made that a hit. How weird was that: singing a Charles Aznavour song for a Julia Roberts film (Notting Hill)."

Although his audience may well regroup to buy what is his most cohesive and accessible record for years, Costello's taste for upsetting the apple cart is still detectable in When I Was Cruel. While songs such as Tear Off Your Own Head or the storming opener, 45, have a familiar direct approach, other numbers, such as the brooding, ambient title track, reflect Costello's original intention to make a purely solo record built around loops, samples and his guitar.

"Really, you have Bob Dylan to thank for the fact that there's a band on this record at all. I got an invitation to play at the Kilkenny show with Dylan; if he hadn't come to Ireland last year maybe I wouldn't have called Pete and Davey up to play. When we were rehearsing, I thought, well, they're here in town, let's put them into the mix and see whether it adds something more. We tried to keep it spontaneous and in seven days we cut the whole record."

Tellingly, Costello no longer seems moved to constantly change his name as he did in the past. The record is produced under his old pseudonym, The Imposter, but it is now a collective alias for the team of Irish studio engineers who helped him achieve the record's balance between samples and live performance, not some reinvented persona. "I just think at different times in your life you put more store by what names and stuff mean."

Costello seems less difficult to pin down these days, content with his role as an Irishman. "I've been living here for 12 years now without anyone noticing, which is great. The reason I came here was to not be in the thick of London, that had worn itself out for me."

But the barbed observations haven't completely gone. "I thought Bertie's day of mourning was unbelievable. What was that about, compromising neutrality by having a state-sponsored day of mourning? Did the people of Ireland really need to be told to reflect on this day? That was insulting." We need more cruel Irishmen like Costello.

When I Was Cruel is released on Universal, April 15


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