(CNN) — The record company's been boasting that When I Was Cruel, Elvis Costello's new album, is his first "loud album" in years. The reviews have ranged from respectful to raving, some saying it's his best album in eight years, or maybe 15, or perhaps even 20 — invoking those halcyon days of Armed Forces and Trust when the one-time "King of America" was the Nabob of New Wave.
Costello is pleased, but he takes his praise with a grain of salt.
"Any kind of comparison like that is not going to be doing you any favors," he says in a phone interview from the Atlanta, Georgia, venue where he's playing this summer night. "People have had a number of years to be in love with [my older records], and their first impression is, 'Oh well, my new girlfriend is not as nice as my old girlfriend.' But when they get to know the record..."
Yes, when they get to know the record, they might find something just as nice, if different. Costello, 46, is playing with two-thirds of the old Attractions — keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas — but he's also brought aboard bassist Davey Faragher and a bunch of rhythm machines, which gives When I Was Cruel a starker, more minimalist feel than "classic" Elvis.
But the melodies are still there, and so are the sharp, tart lyrics.
"We were really looking for a fresh sound, and I think you can hear that with the use of electronics on the record," says Costello. "It makes it fun to play loud music without it being a retro thing at all."
But what about the words of the record label, Island Records? "Painted from Memory [Costello's low-key collaboration with Burt Bacharach] is a loud record if you turn up your stereo," Costello says.
Or the rock critics? "They've got a deadline to make, they've got a Sisqo record to review... they don't have all that time to ponder what it's about."
Look, he hastens to add, he really doesn't mind. He just doesn't take it too seriously.
"Heaven knows I don't think this record has been misrepresented as much as many others I've made," he says.
Which pretty much sums up the last 10 years or so for Elvis Costello.
For the first decade of his career, roughly from 1977 to 1986, he could do little wrong. His first three albums — My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, and Armed Forces (currently being re-released in deluxe editions by Rhino Records) are considered out-of-the-box classics; his 1982 record Imperial Bedroom was hailed as a "Masterpiece?" in a famous ad campaign by his old label, Columbia Records.
Even the albums considered missteps by some critics, the country album Almost Blue and the pop work Goodbye Cruel World, weren't easily dismissed. At a time when "alternative" music was still known as the stuff on college radio stations, Elvis Costello mattered, his words studied, his records collected by the cool crowd — though it didn't necessarily pay off in record sales, he observes.
"Here's the big myth: It's that This Year's Model was a hit. It wasn't a hit. It didn't sell," he says. "You know what records of mine were hits? Almost Blue, in England, and Spike. They're my biggest-selling records."
Spike, from 1989, was the pivot point, the album that arguably put Costello on a different path. He collaborated with Paul McCartney; he embraced baroque arrangements and quickly changed styles, working with a classical quartet, back with the Attractions, embarking on an album of semi-obscure covers, teaming with Bacharach.
If he couldn't be pinned down before — it's not like those "classic" Elvis albums sounded the same — he was determined to blaze some new trails for himself in the '90s. Except, this time, people didn't hang on every play on words.
Meanwhile, those early albums became the oldies of alternative stations, something that's given Costello a chance to build a new audience.
"If people come through the door because they think they're going to hear something from the past, I think the strength of this record is going to carry them into the present day," he says.
'Let's not kid ourselves'
Costello has learned a few lessons from his years of experimenting, and altered his songwriting style accordingly. For When I Was Cruel, it was often the beat that came first.
"When I wrote these songs, I wrote them mainly with rhythm ideas," he says. He and the other musicians played with beat boxes and electronic sounds, and built the songs from there. "In some cases there were no chords," he notes. "I think it makes a different sound on the record than you'd get if you picked up a guitar and strummed it, which is the way I've written in the past."
Not that he takes his lyrics lightly, such as on "...Dust," a song about truth and history.
"The words that are being spoken are serious, whether you take them at face value or listen to them at all," Costello says. But, he adds, "I'm not a preacher, I'm a singer. I can sing about serious things, but I don't think I have to put on a pious face to do it."
College radio has embraced the new album, particularly "45," the lead track, and "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)." He expects little from commercial radio.
"[Commercial radio] is owned by one or two corporations now, and they're not in the music business. They're in the advertising business," Costello says. "So let's not kid ourselves. If you want to hear music, go buy a guitar."