For a gifted songwriter with no new songs to peddle, Elvis Costello somehow is reaching the biggest audiences of his career.
The millions of moviegoers who have rushed to see the Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant comedy Notting Hill couldn't miss his version of the Charles Aznavour ballad "She," which is played prominently at the beginning and end of the film. His other summer movie also looks to be a crowd magnet: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, which opens Friday and features a mutton-chopped Costello and recent collaborator Burt Bacharach performing Bacharach's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" on London's Carnaby Street, circa 1969.
Meanwhile, Costello is touring North America with his longtime keyboardist, Steve Nieve, and will perform for the beer-drenched masses who attend the Guinness Fleadh in four cities, including Saturday's festival at Chicago Motor Speedway at Sportman's Park in Cicero.
"I've got these things which are happening outside of my regular career, which is writing songs and touring and making records," Costello said on the phone from London before heading out to catch Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert. "These strange kind of movie songs — who knows where any of those will lead?"
Costello is used to his career following unusual paths. Resembling Buddy Holly's mutant brother as he blasted out of England's late-'70s punk/New Wave scene, he played the Angry Young Man role with such conviction that some listeners (and record companies) seemed confused when his songwriting began overtly reflecting country, Stax soul and Cole Porter influences — even though strong melodicism and supple wordplay were always part of his repertoire.
His albums with the Attractions ranged from ferocious to baroque, and he also made a string quartet-and-vocals album with the Brodsky Quartet (1993's The Juliet Letters), and last year he co-wrote and recorded the album Painted from Memory with Bacharach. The duo toured with an orchestra last fall, playing the Chicago Theatre, and won the 1998 Grammy Award for Pop Collaboration with Vocals for the song "I Still Have That Other Girl."
Now Costello qualifies as a musical elder statesmen yet seems as far from the pop-rock mainstream as he ever has. He was idolized in this year's retro-'80s movie 200 Cigarettes, in which he also appeared, and his Bacharach project and soundtrack contributions continue attracting attention. Yet given rock radio's current fragmented state and the pop world's fixation on performers with "hot" images, Costello's attention to craft and emotional content have no obvious home in the marketplace.
"A certain portion of the record industry lost their confidence or something," he said. "Now they have to ask a whole team of experts to tell a whole bunch of other people who program what's on the radio whether they like it or not or whether they think other people will respond to it. What they've turned it into is a weird kind of artificial, self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating science."
He admits he's not too impressed with what's happening on the rock front; his favorite new albums are Mule Variations, from the ever-idiosyncratic Tom Waits ("I think that's the best record anybody'll make this year"), and RCA's 24-disc Duke Ellington boxed set that he carries in a suitcase on tour.
As for today's "bashing" music, "it's simultaneously kind of oppressive and timid," Costello said. "It's timid in terms of imagination and oppressive in terms of it doesn't have very imaginative use of rhythm or of tone. And an awful lot of music that I like to listen to, not all of it is old music, but I think the thing I like in the new things that they share with those older things is a sense of space and a bit of grace and just a sense of instruments being there deliberately and beautifully expressed."
That said, his two soundtrack throwback ballads weren't his idea. The Spy Who Shagged Me contribution was suggested as a natural followup to Bacharach's appearance in the first Austin Powers, and the makers of Notting Hill approached him about "She."
"It wasn't like a song I would have ever dreamt of recording myself, but they said, `Do you think you can sing this?' and I went, `Yeah, I probably could,' " he recalled, adding that after he first sang the song, he accompanied the engineers to a room in London's Abbey Road studios where the entire London Symphony Orchestra was waiting to perform the tune. "I said, `Can I sing it again with them?' So I sang it with them (live)."
Although he continues writing songs, Costello said he has no plans to record a new album until next year, and he's not sure what his approach will be.
"Maybe it will be something very simple like I'm doing now (with Nieve)," he said. "Or maybe it will be something with a new kind of rhythm section that I've never used before or a new kind of ensemble. I have this sort of feeling in the back of my mind that it might be something with more rhythm to it, 'cause the last couple of years have been predominantly ballad music, and I'm getting anxious to play some not necessarily faster music but more rhythmically driven music. But I don't see a lot of point in playing a rock 'n' roll combo record because I've done that a lot, and I think that I can probably come up with something a bit different."
In other words, don't expect another reunion with the Attractions — ever. Their last album together, 1996's "All This Useless Beauty," boasted ballads at least on par with the Costello-Bacharach project, but the tour to support it finished off the band.
"I think that there wasn't the heart and soul in the ensemble that there had been at one point because some people were committed, other people weren't, you know?" Costello said. "That's no good. No matter how good you are at playing your instrument, you've got to believe. If that belief is not there, then it has to go another way."
Little reading between the lines is necessary to figure out that when Costello refers to "other people," he means bassist Bruce Thomas, with whom he's had a history of conflict.
"I've worked with (drummer) Pete (Thomas) and obviously I've worked with Steve (Nieve), so that pretty much works out where the problem lies," Costello said. "But I don't see working with Pete and Steve and another bass player because I might as well just work with a completely different band, because then it would be completely fresh — or continue to work with Steve, which I really enjoy, and I think our rapport is just getting better and better."
The last Costello-Nieve show in Chicago was three years ago at the Park West, a far more intimate venue than the Sportsman's Park infield. Still, Costello said he has no fear about the pair's ability to reach the Fleadh crowd.
"If they're rowdy, then we can go with that," he said. "Just because we don't have a rhythm section, don't take us to be folk music or like that we're all sensitive and we can't pick up the tempo if we feel we need to."
Fleadh, incidentally, marks Costello's U.S. festival debut after playing many in Europe, where such events are more numerous.
"What happened was in the late '60s you had the real Summer of Love festivals like Woodstock in '69," said Costello, ever the rock historian. "Then everybody in England saw the movie and said, `Yeah, we want that because maybe girls will take their clothes off' — forgetting that it rains in England all the time.
"So you go to these festivals — I went as a teenager — and it would just rain the whole time, and you'd be lying in a muddy ditch somewhere at 3 in the morning and suddenly Captain Beefheart would start shouting from the stage and be singing very scary music. And it's slightly frightening and funny and fantastic at the same time, but it certainly wasn't like it was in the movie."
That live experience has become Costello's passion.
"My catalog seems to be in the process of shrinking, not growing, because Warners have decided to delete all of my albums (from 1989 through 1997)," he said. "I was thinking of maybe just deleting everything and starting again. Just release new albums rather than just living in the past. Because I can play the (old) songs in concert, and I feel more connected to the live performances of my songs today than I do to records. Some of the records sound old because they are old, whereas the songs, you're playing them in the moment."
RE-RECORDING CAN BE ROYAL PAIN
If Elvis Costello needs career direction, perhaps he could take a cue from The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, who has announced that he will re-record all of his old albums. Wouldn't Costello also like to remake Prince's albums?
"I tried that, but he wouldn't let me," Costello said.
He was referring to his abortive attempt to cover Prince's "Pop Life" for his 1997 best-of-Warner Bros. compilation, "Extreme Honey." He and the Attractions previously had played the song live "in the style of `Instant Karma,' " he said, "but when I went in to do it on my own, I wanted to do it with a slightly lighter feel.
"And then I wrote this other song with the same sort of rhythmic feel, which I liked better than `Pop Life' because you know what? I actually think I'm a better songwriter than he is. I know it's immodest of me to say, but I think it's the truth. And then I thought I would do him the favor of quoting his song in mine, and he didn't seem to take the compliment," he said with a laugh.
The song "The Bridge I Burned" — which features slurred chants of "pop life" and a Prince-like "Dig it!" — marked Costello's farewell to Warner Bros., the same company that Prince fled with such acrimony. "I thought he might actually find my song funny, and particularly the fact that I wanted to quote lines from `Pop Life,' " he said. "Whether he ever even heard the track, I don't know, but suddenly I got some highly threatening letters from the lawyers. So I did what you always do in that situation: I shouted some renaissance philosophy through a megaphone in place of those verses and put the record out anyway."