LONDON — Welcome back to the only new-wave hero whose last record was with a mezzo-soprano and whose next project is "a 200-page score written with a pencil." Between these projects, Elvis Costello is rockin' again.
Not that he cares to use the word "rock" to describe When I Was Cruel, due April 23 on Island in the U.S. and a day earlier in the U.K. on Mercury. "Rowdy rhythm" is the phrase Costello uses to capture the mood of the collection that follows For the Stars, his recent collaboration with Anne Sofie von Otter released last year, and 1998's project with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory.
Costello says, "Some people might think that because this record has two [members of his former band, the] Attractions on it [keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas], it must naturally be the successor to [1986's] Blood & Chocolate. But it's not in any way rooted in the past."
While the new album is full of forceful motifs reminiscent of Costello's earlier work with the Attractions — supporters at triple-A and college formats are already embracing the lead track, "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" — When I Was Cruel is a Costello recording full of present-tense energy.
Island president Julie Greenwald is unequivocal in her view of the project. "I totally think of it as a rock record. But it's very contemporary. He has an amazing past, but he really wanted us to make sure we were focusing on today."
When I Was Cruel introduces strident basslines by new band member Davey Farragher, the effective use of a one-word sample (a device Costello had previously eschewed) by 1960s Italian singer Mina on "When I Was Cruel No. 2," and some distinctively devilish word games. The latter track quotes from Abba's "Dancing Queen," while on "Episode of Blonde," in a line credited to his wife Cait O'Riordan, he sings: "Every Elvis has his Army, every rattlesnake his charm."
"There was a great liberty offered by this record," says Costello, now happily living in Dublin. "I recorded much of it at home, with an idiot box of rhythm. I already knew how it should go, because I planned to make the record in 2000. But the company never seemed stable enough to risk it. In the end, it gave me more time to write it."
His frank assessment of the reorganization that was going on within the Universal Music Group has a happy punchline: "There have been so many changes there. I've ended up being one of the longer-term people, but I have to say I like this gang better."
In marketing the project, Greenwald believes that there are two different types of fans to go after: "College kids and people like 35-year-old males who grew up with him and need to be reminded of him."
Costello is "working his ass off," Greenwald says, on promotion, including major TV chat shows, MTV2, Internet activity with Amazon and MSN, countless press outlets, and a showpiece April 18 date in New York (two days after one at London's Astoria) in the lead-up to a U.S. tour beginning in May.
Costello, who now manages himself, is booked by Marsha Vlasic at MVO in New York for North America and by Barrie Marshall at Marshall Arts in the U.K. for the rest of the world. His songs are published by Sideways Songs and administered worldwide by BMG Music (ASCAP).
James McGuigan, manager of Retro Blue, a retailer in Aberdeen, Scotland, says When I Was Cruel "is probably not a major first-week seller, but it'll do well slowly, on mail order and in the shop. New albums by older artists tend to do well for us — for example, the new Neil Young. Even Elvis' last one with Anne Sofie von Otter did OK. The recent reissues [Rhino's remastered This Year's Model, Blood & Chocolate and Brutal Youth, among others] have been quite popular."
James Lonten, manager of a Borders Books & Music in New York, concurs, adding that Costello is a "cachet artist who's not really part of the pop fray. He's reached the point where he doesn't have to scratch and fight for listeners. He has them. There are a lot of people waiting for him to make a contemporary rock record. This is a great record. It's going to do extremely well."
Of his frequent ventures outside the rock mainstream, Costello says, "I never thought of it like a conversion to a new religion. I think, you know, I put myself wholeheartedly into everything, I don't consider anything as a side project, and I'm not usually one to worry about sales, but the audiences for Painted From Memory, The Juliet Letters [his 1993 album with the Brodsky Quartet], and even the Anne Sofie record have not been inconsiderable."
The week before the U.S. tour, in a juxtaposition that he says epitomizes the two-tier nature of his Universal deal, Costello will be in the studio with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra for the Deutsche Grammophon recording of his first full orchestral score, II Sogno. Written, as he says, across 200 pages "in pencil," it was commissioned by Italian dance company Aterballetto, which will perform II Sogno at Royce Hall in Los Angeles in July as part of Costello's UCLA Artist in Residence season.
Happy to chat about any aspect of music, from the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? — a live performance of which he recently hosted at New York's Carnegie Hall — to Brian Wilson's live shows in London in January, Costello expresses a sense of carpe diem.
"I'm not going to repeat the past, but I can run most people ragged in terms of volume of work — I don't fall down very easily. I just want to take full advantage while I'm feeling as alive as this."