|The Elvis Costello
Interview about When I Was Cruel
He's not an angry young man anymore-- but six years after his last rock album, Elvis Costello is more acid than ever on When I Was Cruel. And with a superb set of reissues underway, his stock has never been higher.
Interview Ross Fortune
Costello is looking back. Its a good time for reflection. Hes just made one of the best albums of his career, and he knows it. Its called When I Was Cruel, a title that alludes to his past when he was younger, more cocksure. Arrogant. Hes come a long way in the last 25 years, and stands now as Englands only representative of worth among a world elite of singers and songwriters: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison. (Sting? Do me a favour. Elton John? Youre confusing music with showbiz. David Bowie? No, hes more technician than musician these days.)
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, in fact. Well, Ive always been me, he says, but yes, I guess this record will appeal to people who perhaps didnt really accept my move to more experimental sounds and collaborations. I mean, its good to have two or more threads of music, but people who might have though the pop side of my career is over are wrong. It isnt. It really isnt.
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. Theres 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. Theyre more rhythmic,
swinging, rooted in bass, and not so heavily
Costellos 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 its 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 realization
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 cos 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 Im up to, and he said Leo Pearsons 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. Its 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 rather odd book The Big Wheel back
in 1990, which in part detailed his life on the road with
Look back in anger
Costello is not a man to be trifled with. Never has been. There are stories from the early days late 70s when he was the bitter, biting, savage young man, loaded with talent but armed with a grudge. 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. Thats fantastic. Im really proud of that.
It didnt get any radio play anywhere in the world and yet half
a million went out and
When asked to curate the South Bank Meltdown Festival in 1995, 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. Facilitating this breadth and scope and vision, in 1998 he negotiated a new, possibly unique recording contract with Polygram that allowed him to release records on a variety of labels that each fell under the broad Polygram 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 Ive actually ended up on Def Jam! There is a pause. though I kind of dig that. Theyve come out of the hip-hop thing and for me its 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.
Back for good
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. Its interesting to reconsider the old albums, he says, I think that two of the three just coming out are pretty great This Years Model and Blood and Chocolate. But I cant listen to My Aim Is True. At the time I thought it was pretty good, but I dont understand why people like it so much. Watching The Detectives was the first really great record that 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 theyre finding stuff I didnt even know existed. They sent me an outtake from Mighty Like A Rose which I have no idea why it didnt go on the record. And a song called New Rhythm Method which I wrote in 77 but didnt record till later. It sounds like I dont know what the words are like Im bluffing. But its 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 dont think I worked them all out, though. And I didnt sing very well on that record. I had a very harsh way of singing that I dont 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 Id gone mad. I hadnt really gone mad, yknow. I was actually a lot saner making that record than some of the others. Okay, I was acting a bit nuts, maybe But you cant always be nice Not all the time It was actually quite fun being nice for those two years with Burt. Hes such a gentleman, you know. But it isnt really me It was just something I did for a while.
Diverse things first
Costellos next release will be Il Sogno on Deutsche Grammophon an orchestral score he has written for Mauro Bigonzettis adaptation of A Midsummer Nights Dream. After that, there will probably be another pop album. I have got these songs that are a story. I havent finished them yet. Theyre kind of blue ballads, heartbreak ballads. One is written for Emmylou Harris, and another for Lucinda Williams. Lucindas really one of the great singers. Shes like Elvis Presley and Hank Williams, but with a brain. Anyway, there were those fantastic records in the 80s, like Willie Nelsons Red Headed Stranger, that kind of told a story, but where each song also had its own life, and Id kind of like to do something like that.
It feels in some ways like Im just starting out on some new adventure, yknow. Of course, it wont have the same surprises in it, and we cant all grow up together again, thats impossible, and Im not trying to be young again, either, but it does all feel kind of new and exciting.
As if realizing this is probably a bit of a glib way to end the interview, he invites me out to the park, where we walk around some, and he pretends not to look cold as he is photographed (curiously attracting a bevy of squirrels and swans and dogs whenever he stops still.) At one point, 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. Were all capable of being idiots, he laughs.
When I Was Cruel is released by Mercury on April 15. Costello plays the Astoria on April 16.