"I don't know how well you know my songs," Elvis Costello says over a cell phone that occasionally cuts out as he drives toward Buxton Opera House in Devonshire, England, where he is scheduled to play at the Four Four Time festival. Such knowledge is near-impossible to acquire. Since debuting in 1977 with My Aim Is True, the man formerly known as Declan MacManus has issued roughly 20 solo albums, composed numerous soundtracks (including director Allison Anders' 2000 movie, Grace of My Heart), collaborated with musicians as diverse as Burt Bacharach and Los Lobos, and produced records for everyone from the Specials to No Doubt. The range of these accomplishments has challenged even his most dedicated fans.
A cult figure who is perpetually on the verge of mainstream success, Costello has never had a major pop hit, yet he is one of the only artists of his generation (along with Bonnie Raitt and a few others) whose new albums land in the top 40 of the Billboard album charts. He traffics in characters both semi-autobiographical and fancifully fictional: the frustrated rockabilly teenager of "Mystery Dance," stewing in his own hormones; the hopeless pop romantic of "Everyday I Write the Book," struggling to make his marriage work; and the elderly "Veronica," reminiscing about her eventful life. Chamber pop (Painted from Memory, his collaboration with Bacharach), country (Almost Blue), jazz (North)... it's all grist for his mill.
Extremely conscious of his art, Costello is a conversationalist who can analyze himself so well that it's as if he is talking about himself in the third person. (In contrast, his personal life — including his divorce from former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan in 2002 and subsequent marriage to light-jazz chanteuse Diana Krall a year later — seems to be off-limits.) Speaking with him is a gas, until he exhausts you with long, discursive, and well-phrased answers. He accomplishes this driving around somewhere in England while you slump at your desk, too winded and stimulated to utter a protest.
Last September, Costello issued two concept albums, The Delivery Man and Il Sogno (The Dream).
The Delivery Man, performed with his backing band, the Imposters, is a straight-up blues-rock album, loud and rollicking. It is roughly based on the titular character and his adventures and various relationships, but Costello admits that a few of the 14 tracks, particularly the wistful duet with Emmylou Harris, "The Scarlet Tide," have nothing to do with the larger premise. "I chose not to present The Delivery Man songs in a strict beginning, middle, and end narrative structure because I thought it would be too confining to the imagination of the listener," he says. He anticipated that "people would be thinking all the time, 'Do I understand the story? Where are we up to?' instead of just enjoying the songs."
If there's one common denominator between the softly acoustic "The Scarlet Tide" and the grand, declamatory ballad "The Name of This Thing Is Not Love," it's Costello's husky, emotional vocals and the gritty, raucous tracks laid down by his band. His tendency to illustrate his words as an Irish bluesman à la Van Morrison makes him something of a love/hate proposition; for those who thrill at his distinctively full-bore elucidations, he makes a powerful impression, turning mere lyrics into sonic cinema.
Il Sogno is a more unusual entry in Costello's ever-growing canon, although he has ventured into classical territory before, notably with chamber ensemble the Brodsky Quartet on 1992's The Juliet Letters. Composed to accompany the Italian dance company Aterballeto's 2000 interpretation of William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream and later recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas (who also heads the New World Symphony in Miami Beach), it is completely instrumental, a light affair in tune with Shakespeare's romantic comedy.
Unlike The Delivery Man, which is 14 character sketches cobbled together under a single concept, Il Sogno adheres to a strict narrative. It is packaged with an essay, "Costello's 'Dream,'" that explains the history behind it and an extensive track-by-track synopsis that allows you to read along as you listen. "If you read the notes that come with the record and you have in your mind how the different musical styles are attached to the characters, then it's quite fun to listen to the piece because you can hear the way it develops," he says. But he also acknowledges, "You can listen to it in abstract and you can still get something from it."
Most people think of Costello as a master lyricist, but he points out that he has always written complex lyrics with varied perspectives. Case in point: "No Action," the shotgun opener on his classic 1978 album with the Attractions, This Year's Model. "I don't wanna kiss you / I don't wanna touch," he begins, illustrating the mixed feelings he has toward an ex-girlfriend. The theme continues, dashed out in language so scathingly brutal that This Year's Model was actually sold with a parental warning sticker when it was first released in the U.K., until the climax, "Lipstick Vogue": "Maybe they told you you were the only girl in a million / You say I've got no feelings / This is a good way to kill them."
Costello believes that his recent growth as a songwriter has been a musical one. "I've gotten progressively more musically inclined as time's gone on, because I've learned more things," he says. He has since come to believe that his words should underline the meaning of the music; the music, in turn, should be textured, capable of evoking moods that words cannot fully express. "Sometimes the music leads the way; sometimes the words lead the way," he says. "But one is not more important than the other."
The result is that, since his excellent 1986 album, King of America, Costello has strayed far from his amphetamine-fueled, pub-rock roots into a world that is elegiac, symphonic, and epic. His recordings, with their layers of voices, sounds, and perspectives, creep along like passion plays. Many of them are too ambitious, dripping off the canvas like so much excess paint. But when they balance that abundance with focus and concision, they reveal priceless, hard-earned insights.
Though he's no longer the angry young man, Costello is more alive and vital than the adult alternative scene, with the bathetic singer-songwriters and faded pop stars that Costello is usually categorized with. For all its sophistication, The Delivery Man debuted at number 40 last fall, proof that Costello still has an audience for his incessant evolutions.