The songs are as good as ever, but Elvis Costello's hard-edged cynicism has gone, replaced by a quirky sense of powerlessness and a long flowing beard. Someone's even been telling him jokes. Is living in Ireland turning Costello soft?
'YOU CAN TELL the real guitarist on the tour,' Elvis Costello confides. 'He only needs two guitars.' He apologises, nodding proudly towards his nine or ten beautiful guitars all ready to leave the Dublin rehearsal studios for the start of his world tour.
Even if the wailing Costello voice drives you to distraction, if you think the knock-kneed punk poses circa 1977 looked ridiculous or you ever felt appalled that a young Buddy Holly look-alike dared call himself Elvis, you could not ignore his pop writing triumphs. No one has come along since to rival his consistent ability turn out a good song. If the preciousness and seemingly studied putting together of Costello's product these days puts you off your breakfast, then you'll probably think it's a good job his like are few and far between.
But take a decent record collection that comprises anything more substantial than a Wings album and 'Hotel California' and you'll find at least one Elvis Costello work - such is his position at the top of the musical pile. For his dedicated fans, Costello's albums serve as greetings cards, keeping them up to date with their favourite genius.
'Mighty Like A Rose' is the first album Costello has written since moving to Dublin with his second wife, ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan. 'I wanted to move somewhere I could make lots of noise or have peace when I chose. I've lived long enough in suburbia to know the further out you get, the worse it gets. If I moved out of London the same distance as I've moved out of Dublin, the place'd still be full of English people...'
Living beside an old quarry where the outskirts of Dublin are beginning to consider themselves 'the country', Costello is happy to be away from the cosmopolitan stimuli of Notting Hill life.
'I'm one of those awful people who puts music on my answering machine. I used to have this unbelievably fluid piece of Bach on there with me saying "leave a message, I have to get back to the piano", 'cos everybody knew I couldn't play the piano for shit. I came back from Europe once and this guy had got a wrong number and waited 'til the end of the message, said "pretentious" and hung up. When we moved to Ireland it was like a confirmation of everything I'd suspected: I had this message where I was playing a bit of Spanish guitar and the first message I got was this guy laughing, saying "well that was very nice, I've obviously got the wrong number, but have a nice day anyway." '
Elvis Costello leans back, laying down his case for moving to the Emerald Isle where he has learned to drive (although not too brilliantly) and from where his band, 'The Rude 5' are about to set off for America on tour. Perhaps he has grown the bushy beard to protect his ruddy features from the winds on walks across the Wicklow Mountains, but it's as Celtic as Costello, the product of an Irish Catholic upbringing, is getting for now. 'I'm not entirely certain I want to be human, let alone English, Irish, belonging to one generation or another.'
Although the album has a traditional folk element, there are no leprechauns sitting on his shoulder and few signs that he is contemplating retiring to farm peat. The album was not recorded in a romantic backstreet Dublin pub but at the Ocean Way studio, Hollywood which Costello first used for his 1986 'King Of America' album. Much as he loved the acoustics, which have also done favours for Sinatra and The Beach Boys, the adopted country boy found the city took its toll.
'It might be the last I make there, because of the bloody air in LA. We had to record some of the vocals in London because I got this throat infection. They have air reports after the news: people just accept that there are certain months of the year when they can't go outside.
It's like the water on the north-west coast of England now is poisonous. All the beaches I played on as a child are polluted and people just accept it. They still let their kids play on it. They glow in the dark, mind...
'You see, people try very hard to think of earnest things to say about the world in music, but to my mind it's a sort of macabre comedy. I hope that comes over in the record. There's no point to be made because there's no solution. We are apparently powerless. We don't have to forget it, but we have to laugh - otherwise we'd go mad.'
'Mighty Like A Rose' opens with the lines, 'The sun struggles up another beautiful day/ And I felt glad in my own suspicious way,' typically bleak humour from a man who has gradually softened the angry sentiments which would once reach out from the speaker and make for your throat. Now he plays the philosophical pop writer who offers world-weary sayings for contemplation.
'I got some German fellow interviewing me. He claimed to really like my stuff but he had taken everything on the record literally - no irony, no third person! You get a song like "All Grown Up" with the line "You hate all the people that you used to adore" and he was going: "You are so negative!" ' Elvis blasts in his best "Allo 'Allo' German voice: ' "Forget Beethoven? How can you forget Beethoven? You are like Richard Wagner! You are destroying pop music as he destroyed symphonic music!" And I was like, "Calm down, baby!" I managed to talk him through it eventually and he was big enough to laugh about it. He thought it was so cynical you see, and I don't think there's any cynicism on this record. I'm sceptical, but there's a really big difference.'
The polite and jovial Costello seems quite bemused at his bitter image. Still, the vivid stories of Costello's songs do have a knack of ringing true.
'The critics (who think too much for their own good), and some of the listeners, take everything literally. They see the negativity of the characters in the songs and assume I'm living that life, that I'm somehow a prisoner of all these horrendous desires and miserable, unfulfilled lusts. In fact none of this is true, there's more wit to it than that. I'm actually a better songwriter than that.
'From the outward-looking, macabre comedic stuff at the beginning of the album through the smallest intimate story, "After The Fall", the record actually ends fairly optimistically, with more tenderness. Without wanting to make a big deal of it, the last few lines of the album are a simple testimony, my little personal moment. "Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain/ I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again." I'm not saying I'll have it inscribed on my gravestone but at this moment, it's the thought I wanted to leave the room with.'
This is the closest Costello reckons he gets to religion, which, considering the faithful fates of other great solo artists of our time, is probably a blessing. His ginger beard wouldn't suit orange clothes anyway. Instead Costello takes pleasure in reinventing himself on superficial levels on each of his albums. Though he does this for fun, such casual footnotes to his personality are often taken by observers to pinpoint major psychological changes. The ironic postscript of Costello as 'The Beloved Entertainer' on 1989's 'Spike' album, for example, was a wry comment on the music business and not a warm, friendly new image that Costello wished to put about. The cover featured The Beloved Entertainer's head as a trophy to illustrate the way the business treats the artist - like something to be shot and hung on the wall.
'I've been working under a pseudonym all along,' says Costello, né Declan MacManus, 'so to change it or alter it seems perfectly natural. It's other people who are timid, they make the same record over and over again, always being photographed exactly the same way. That's dull. Actors don't have any fear like that. They might have their hair shaved off one minute and be looking handsome the next year. They play different people but they're not the characters they portray (unless they are mad) and neither am I. There's no hidden psychological dimension behind the names I choose. I personally think psychology is bollocks.'
But Costello cannot distance himself completely from what he writes. There are subjects he still feels committed to; the outspoken anti- Thatcher song 'Tramp The Dirt Down' on the last album made that perfectly clear. But in collaborating with the likes of Paul McCartney on both the last album and this, he enjoys the craft of songwriting. He apologises, however, if his dissection of 'Spike' during a BBC2 'The Late Show' special seemed serious and self-indulgent. (He insists there were quite a few jokes in the original three-hour interview.) 'Having been asked to pick apart the songs, it all got a bit out of hand because it took longer to explain how we wrote a song like "Pads, Paws And Claws" than it actually took to do it. Rock 'n' roll songs just happen. You get the rhythm and the next thing you know it's there. You might do a bit of crafting afterwards but if you thought about it too much you'd probably lose the very thing you liked about it in the first place. The stories on this album are mostly very clear, they're not hard to grasp. And looking for deep meaning in the music wouldn't be very rewarding for anyone.'
'There's no point to be made because there's no solution. We are apparently powerless. We don't have to forget it, but we have to laugh - otherwise we'd go mad.'
On moving to Ireland, however, Costello was reunited with his piano and has spent more time writing ballads for the first time in years. He also wrote a great volume of instrumental music, some of which has found its way on to the score of Alan Bleasdale's new Channel 4 drama series 'GBH', featured elsewhere in this issue. Writing with arranger Richard Harvey, Costello has found this new outlet for his music a refreshing experience. 'To be able to write a melody which effectively conveys the emotion of a scene is just as satisfying as dramatising a lyric.
'I did this silly gig with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra once but that was just an expensive bit of fun. But to stand there and have 50 people play one of your tunes and it not accompany anything except pictures is about the most exciting experience I've had in the studio in a long while.' Despite acting appearances in both 'Scully' and 'No Surrender', he promises 'the world is safe from my acting' this time round and, though he wouldn't rule out offers, has no thwarted ambition to play 'Hamlet'.
Whether it is just a matter of being content at 37 years old or moving to the more civilised surroundings of outside Dublin, Costello is certainly mellowing out. Perhaps the press was only giving him the 'miserable git' role until someone like Morrissey came along, or maybe someone's been telling him some good jokes lately. But make no mistake, the wit he draws on when he's being critical is the cruellest of all. Even if he is unlikely to release a celebratory red vinyl single if the Tories lose the next election (as he promised for 'Pills And Soap'), he reserves the old hardened passion for certain matters.
'In London don't you find the people clinging on to the values of the '80s are the funniest thing now? They're still working the portable fax, with a 'phone in their hand, walking down the road. Haven't they realised it's over? Apparently there was an interview with Margaret Thatcher in America (that's the only place they'll still listen to her) and she was whining about how hard it was to lose the Premiership! Y'know, like all the lives she's ruined in the last ten years and she thinks her own redundancy is the most tragic of all!
'I saw something in when I was in London the other day that really sums it all up. There was this shop window display with this mannequin in an Italian suit but instead of a head he had a BMW hubcap! If I could have had a Polaroid of that it would have gone in the time capsule: "There's the '80s - fuck off!" '
Elvis is on a roll now, it seems a shame to stop him.
'You can see why people now see the '70s as this groovy decade. Compared to the '80s it was, though actually it was a miserable decade. I remember thinking when glam rock first hit in the early '70s that it was the end of everything. Bolan and Slade were on all the time and I was into folk music. Compared to what I had when I was 11, this seemed like completely soulless shit.'
While he has grown accustomed to some of that music since, Costello hopes that the matt-black '80s have not set the ground for the 'as as the '60s and '70s have previously. He has little confidence, however, in the present musical fashion leaders raising any of the enthusiasm the task requires.
'There's a studied boredom in a lot of records I hear. Particularly the Mancunians, but then they're a dull bunch anyway. I mean, they don't even have a good football team (although I watch Man City for Niall Quinn), I like some of the Happy Mondays stuff because it's thuggish, almost cartoon-like, but the others... Basically they know they're gonna be back with their mates in six months so they better not be too affected 'cos they'll get the shit kicked out of them when they go back. They don't wanna break a sweat in case they're made fun of.'
Looking back on his own 15 albums (not, counting the K- Tel and 'Girls, Girls, Girls' ' compilations), Costello is quite chuffed at the thought that he's never made a record he's ashamed of, puzzled by or disagrees with.The tour still features songs from his first album, 1977's 'My Aim Is True', and other old songs in the set have been completely rearranged. 'I actually recorded two albums last year. Before working on new stuff, I got together with the tour band and a couple of other guys and just, did a loose recording of covers. Maybe we'll put it out sometime if it stands up to scrutiny, When the time is right... or the plane goes down... whichever's first.'
'Mighty Like A Rose' is out on WEA. Elvis Costello plays Hammersmith Odeon on July 1-3 and 6-7.