With the 18-track compilation Extreme Honey - The Very Best Of The Warner Bros. Years, Elvis Costello's bittersweet tenure at the label comes to a close.
The new album, due Tuesday (21) (the same day as Warner Reprise Video's concert home video Elvis Costello Live - A Case For Song), marks the end of a highly creative and productive period in the complex and prolific artist's career, encompassing six albums and a five-disc box set released from 1989 and 1996.
"I reached a place where I needed to be somewhere fresh," says Costello, who expects his next label affiliation to announce itself when he returns home to the UK on Thursday (23), following a round of appearances in the US with the Fairfield Four and the Mingus Big Band Jazz — with whom he also performed in Brazil.
The title for the new album, meanwhile, came out of a trip to Spain and effectively crystallizes Costello's conflicting feelings at the current juncture in his career.
"I was getting told off in a write-up for not playing enough of my ballads — and I think I misread the translation!" Costello says. "'This is extreme honey.' I thought it was a great phrase, connoting the sweet and the tart which often exist even inside the same song. And it's appropriate for this time, which has not been without difficult moments for both my audience and myself: I acknowledge that there have been challenges for the listeners to the point sometimes where they don't want to come with me, like [the 1993 classical-influenced collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet] The Juliet Letters. Every record can't appeal to everyone in the world."
Indeed, Costello notes that his WB years were characterized by his being "pretty far estranged from pop music and the continuum of pop success which I never had in America." During this time, "I just followed my own head and feelings," he says, and "can't think of a convenient word" to summarize his output for the label.
"I know some of the music I made was a difficult sell," continues Costello, who has nevertheless been critical of his handling at Warner Bros., thinly veiling his objections in Extreme Honey's detailed, self-penned liner notes. "But I want to make music which invites you into its world, like Juliet Letters or [his last Warner Bros. studio album] All This Useless Beauty, and I feel that with this compilation I can make my case for the time I've been at Warner Bros."
Costello was "totally involved" in compiling the new set, he adds. "I didn't want it to just be end-to-end everything that was thrown at radio, though "Veronica" was a big hit in America and "Sulky Girl" in England, and "The Other Side Of Summer" and "13 Steps Lead Down" had a certain life at radio. But beyond that, the other songs are my very personal selection: Only three are from the most successful album, Spike [his WB debut], and five are from [1994's less successful] Brutal Youth, which seems perverse, but I wanted to choose songs that reflected important themes on the records and tried to place them in a sequence that made for a good listen."
"I think it flows together very well, starting very bright and then going slightly into more quirky territory, then more thoughtful and soulful and contemplative with 'London's Brilliant Parade' and 'I Want To Vanish' and 'All The Rage'" he adds.
Last year's live Costello & Nieve box is neglected on Extreme Honey; so is Kojak Variety, the 1995 album of Costello's favorite songs by other people. One non-album track, "My Dark Life" is from Warner Bros.' X-Files compilation, Songs In The Key Of X, and one new track, "The Bridge I Burned" opens the set, reportedly resulting from Costello's aborted attempt to cover [Prince]'s (The Symbol's) "Pop Life".
"It's a very unusual track with a very pretty pop hook, but at the same time it's constructed around a figure and employs a lot of techniques I've never used before, like looping," says Costello, who has once again disbanded his longtime backup group the Attractions — permanently this time, he says. "I'm not making a dance record, but now that I don't have a band anymore, I'm experimenting with a loop foundation — and a very young band, Danny Goffey from Supergrass on drums, and my son Matt on bass. If I was a year older, I'd be the combined age of the rhythm section — and I'll be 44 next year. I think that's the way I'll put bands together from now on!"
He's joking, of course, but even if that were true, Costello would no doubt have supporters.
"My stations have been involved with him since the very beginning," notes Norm Winer, programming VP at Chicago triple-A station WXRT, "and have played him since he was the surly young Elvis to the slightly cranky older Elvis. Unquestionably, he's the foremost songwriter of the past 20 years, and [Extreme Honey] sounds like a pretty solid lineup."
Costello has always had Chicago "in the palm of his hand" Winer continues, adding that WXRT, which broadcast live the Chicago concert preserved in Costello & Nieve is committed to supporting the new disc — as it continues to support the "continuity" of Costello's career.
"It's a shame to see him leave WB because it was a great match: He was making very solid strides, branching out and challenging himself with the Brodsky Quartet and the duos with Nieve, and not just resting on his laurels," Winer says. "It's disappointing that he hasn't achieved what we hoped for in terms of mass acceptance — but that's no reflection of his talent."
Still, Costello, who recently received an Ivor Novello Award for lifetime achievement and the Nordoff-Robbins Silver Clef for the same, does feel that WB's efforts on his behalf often fell between "timorous and non-existent" and objects especially to the direction in which he saw the label taking him.
"They don't understand what I'm about," he says. "I don't want to be put in a triple-A box — I don't think that's the beginning and the end of where music is for me in the modern day. They need to get braver and not more timid."
But while Costello leaves WB on a less-than-cheery note, the label is still promoting his final release there with what president Steven Baker terms an "expensive campaign", to include co-op advertising in city weeklies like Boston Phoenix, Time Out New York, and LA Weekly. Other print venues will include Rolling Stone, Details, Ice, and Option, with coverage in both music and general-interest publications, from alternative to mainstream.
Baker says that the label is also buying into various Christmas "best of" programs at retail and will continue marketing through January and February as well. He also envisions future Warner Bros. Costello product to involve B-sides and other unreleased material.
"An artist like Elvis makes you think how you do things — and that's a positive thing," says Baker. "However our relationship ended, everybody here really loved being in business with him. Personally, every time I was on the phone with him, I had to stop and say to myself, 'I'm talking to Elvis Costello, one of my all-time favorite artists! This is a cool job!' Whether he was happy or sad or whatever, I was talking to an artist that I totally respected, and it was a thrill for me and for Warner Bros. Records."
Whether Extreme Honey will pan out at retail is still a question mark in the view of David Shebiro, owner of alternative music store Rebel Rebel in New York's Greenwich Village.
"I think that fans of his at this later stage in his career have probably bought all the Warner albums anyway," says Shebiro, who figures that traditional 'best of' buyers will probably prefer already existing sets covering Costello's Columbia product. But he adds that Costello "diehards" will "probably exhaust [the new compilation] rather quickly."
As Costello remains a "big artist" at Shebiro's store, he'll be glad to know that Costello has plans for much more new product under the auspices of his yet-to-be-revealed new label affiliation, "an unusual deal" he says, which will allow him to pursue his many wide-ranging "musical ambitions."
Future releases may include unreleased material from his early years, themed compilations, and a partially completed album with Burt Bacharach, with whom he was nominated for a Grammy for their collaboration on "God Give Me Strength", a track from last year's Grace Of My Heart soundtrack.
"There are many possibilities for achieving a large and varied audience without the terror which accompanied Juliet Letters," says Costello, whose recent activities have included performances on upcoming Gram Parsons and Joni Mitchell tribute albums, and cameo in the forthcoming Spice Girls movie, and associations with the Jazz Passengers, the Brodsky Quartet, John Harle, the Mingus Big Band Jazz, and the Fairfield Four, the venerable gospel group with whom he recorded his Paul McCartney collaboration "That Day Is Done" for its new album, "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray"; he is also accompanying the later on the song live in Nashville and New York and on Late Show With David Letterman.
"I've accrued enough infamy in my 20 years to get them into prominence — and they've existed for 80 years!" Costello says of the Fairfields. "But it's a two-way street: You see their longevity, and your silly little commercial upsets seem like nothing. It really puts things into perspective and gives you a proper humility!"