In recent years, Elvis Costello has thought nothing of sliding from nouveau new wave on one album to neoclassical song cycle on another — and touching upon film scores, gospel, avant-cabaret, and Celtic balladry in between. What's boon to some can seem bane to others, though, and during his near-decade with Warner Bros., this polyglot ambition made Costello seem increasingly like a square peg in a round hole.
But now it seems as if Costello has found a home where he can make the most of his manifold aspirations. Last week he signed a bold new deal with PolyGram in the form of multi-album contracts with PolyGram Classics & Jazz and its pop sister, Mercury Records. The arrangement is designed to channel Costello's versatile output through whichever label seems best suited to market the music, under a single corporate umbrella.
Starting off in a low-key way, Costello makes his Mercury bow with the sly new rocker "My Mood Swings," the first single from the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski, due Feb. 24. But the first full-fledged Costello album will feature his much-touted collaboration with tunesmith Burt Bacharach and is due later this year on Mercury. Along with that release there may be a pendant project on PolyGram's Verve label that features jazz interpretations of those Costello/Bacharach compositions.
Next year may bring an encore of Costello's surprise '93 hit The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet, perhaps via Decca/London or a Philips Music Group imprint. Or, first perhaps, the song cycle he has been writing for mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter will see light on her label, Deutsche Grammophon.
In a way, it was von Otter who was the catalyst for Costello's PolyGram deal. He was in London to present Gramophone magazine's 1996 artist of the year award to the renowned Swedish singer — a longtime favorite of his — when he began a discussion with PolyGram Classics & Jan worldwide chief Chris Roberts. It was those initial, informal talks with Roberts — as well as a pleasant experience working with classical saxophonist John Harle on his Argo/Decca album Terror And Magnificence last year (Billboard, April 26, 1997) — that eventually yielded Costello's unique new arrangement.
"I'm not going to be flitting from label to label within PolyGram, flooding the market with all these different records," Costello says. "But this multifaceted deal does afford us an opportunity: to have the people who are the smartest about whatever kind of music that I may happen to make be the ones to help get the records across to the public that most wants to hear it."
One of the frustrating elements of Costello's Warner Bros. tenure, he says, was a dearth of cross-audience promotion. "Although the Brodskys and I reached a lot of people with The Juliet Letters, we didn't do it using the resources of Teldec, Warner's classical arm, at all," he says. 'That seems bizarre to me, because although it wasn't a classical record, strictly speaking, it obviously holds an appeal for those people who enjoy chamber music.
"Perhaps PolyGram is special in that there could be some real cooperation between arms of the company," Costello adds. "And there's diversity there, certainly. A company that has outlets to accommodate everything from Hanson to Cake, from Bryn Terfel to an Allen Ginsberg record, sounds like a place for me."
PolyGram has a relationship with composer John Barry for both soundtracks on Decca and jazz on Verve, and the company has done some joint Mercury/Verve marketing with Van Morrison. But Costello's deal with PolyGram is unprecedented in its scope and planning. To Roberts, the key to such a partnership is for the company to take its cues from the artist.
"A musician of the caliber of Elvis Costello isn't off base too often," Roberts says. "So our job is to follow his lead and give him the mechanism to best express himself, to make our corporate structure work for him, not against him."
Roberts adds that while there's a certain expectation of success for all of Costello's projects, the pop efforts aren't necessarily assumed to be the best bet. "It's often the things that seem left of center that are just what the market wants," he says. "Really, Elvis' attitude toward music is refreshing. Conservatism is not something this business needs."
Costello and Warner Bros. agreed to disagree last year, after a round of mounting, mutual recrimination over the commercial disappointment of his last album, All This Useless Beauty. The label released Costello from his commitment for one more new album, instead electing to compile the retrospective set Extreme Honey with his full participation (Billboard, Oct. 25, 1997). The disc was released last fall in conjunction with an intimate Attractions concert video, Live—A Case For Song.
Live—A Case For Song is probably the last you'll see of the Attractions, by the way: Costello promises that no matter what pleasures his PolyGram future may hold, an album with his old group won't be one of them. (The tour for All This Useless Beauty wasn't much of an interpersonal or musical success, he says.) But definitely ongoing is Costello's work with Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve, with whom he has been touring off and on as a duo for several years. Look for a Mercury album featuring Nieve's music and Costello's lyrics around the turn of the century.
Like Roberts, Danny Goldberg, CEO of Mercury Records Group (U.S.), expresses faith in Costello's legacy of quality. "After Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, or Paul Simon, who of the next generation has a similar stature? Elvis Costello is on the very short-list of people who do," Goldberg says. "Not every record he's made has been a hit, but they're all serious records, records of integrity. This project with Burt Bacharach is incredibly exciting — I can't wait to hear it."
Costello — an inveterate collaborator who's worked with everyone from McCartney to the Mingus Big Band over the years — plans to go into the studio with Bacharach this summer. Costello is contributing lyrics and teaming with Bacharach on the music; the arrangements will probably mix spare voice-and-piano duets with lush pop orchestrations. The pair have already produced "God Give Me Strength," which appeared on the MCA soundtrack to the film Grace Of My Heart in late '96.
"God Give Me Strength" is also featured on the recent Reprise set Live On Letterman, and the upcoming Costello/Bacharach album will include a version of the emotive ballad, which Costello says offers a clue as to the character of the rest of the material.
"'The grand, dramatic pop ballad is such an endangered species these days, at least in terms of sincerity," Costello says. "All these songs and their singers are so hollow. But I feel strongly that there's still a place for real feeling in the pop ballad. Let's just say that Burt and I are here to kick Celine Dion's ass."