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
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
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
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
"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
When I Was Cruel is released on Universal,