Elvis Costello may be a little difficult to recognize these days with his shoulder-length hair and beard.
But his contentious personality hasn't undergone a similar transformation, as evidenced a few days ago during a break in rehearsals with his band of sessions pros, the Rude 5. Costello was fine-tuning arrangements in Los Angeles with drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Jerry Scheff, guitarist Marc Ribot and keyboardist Larry Knechtel for a national tour that will bring Costello to Alpine Valley Music Theatre on Friday and the World Music Theatre on Saturday.
"I imagine as we talk now this may well be the last interview that I'll ever do," he says. "I'm not at school anymore, I know what I'm doing, which is more than I can say for a lot of people in this business and the music press. I ask myself, 'Is this really part of the job description?' Because it doesn't seem that way to me."
Costello answers questions with a mixture of garrulous combativeness and congeniality. He has been the proverbial great interview ever since his first American tour in 1977, even though he has been known to shut out the press for years at a time.
Several of his records have sold as many as a half-million copies each, but those figures hardly reflect his artistic impact. He's perhaps the greatest pop songwriter in the post-Dylan era, and also one of the wariest. When he sang "I wanna bite the hand that feeds me" on one of the best of his early songs, "Radio Radio," he wasn't kidding.
"I've always been fed up with the music business. It's crass, ugly and demeaning," he says, after briskly taking care of business recently on Saturday Night Live to promote his new album, Mighty Like a Rose (Warner Bros.), his 16th domestic release.
"There's a tremendous amount of aggrandizing of very small ideas from the executive level, from the artists themselves and particularly from the journalists.
"But unfortunately what I do for a living is write songs and the way I avoid becoming a martyred poet who lives like a beachcomber is to make records, and therefore I have to subject myself to some of these indignities, like appearing on television and doing things that have nothing to do with what I do."
Costello was still chafing from a couple of negative reviews of his latest album in major publications: "The same off-the-peg biography-cum-capsule review is churned out every time I put out a record."
He has a point, because many of these critiques can be boiled down to some variation of the following: Costello's latest album isn't bad, but it seems cute/fussy/overproduced compared to his intense/passionate/stripped-down earlier work.
Indeed, it seems Costello can't live down the fact that he was once the angriest of the angry young men who came storming out of Britain in the late '70s, when his contempt was as obvious as the horn-rimmed glasses on his nose and his music a slightly more sophisticated version of punk rock.
Compared to the almost unanimous praise that greeted that early phase of his career, critical reaction to Costello's recent work, particularly Rose and its 1989 predecessor, Spike, has been mixed. And no wonder: They're easily the two most varied, most difficult-to-categorize albums of his career. With the exception of Pete Thomas, session pros have replaced the members of his longtime backing band, the Attractions, on these two albums. The songs on Spike, recorded at four studios, were elaborate production pieces, the album a kaleidoscope of clashing styles.
Mighty Like a Rose is a somewhat more organic, less jarring collection that was recorded entirely in Los Angeles, but it again spreads a variety of players and production effects over 14 songs. They range from a waltz ("All Grown Up") to a march ("Invasion Hit Parade"), a rueful whisper ("After the Fall") to a mocking wail ("How to be Dumb"), herky-jerk novelty ("Hurry Down Doomsday") to stark confessional ("Broken"), anguished ballad ("So Like Candy") to, as Costello describes it, "a lot of shouting and screaming and running around in your underpants" ("Playboy to a Man").
The lead track and first single, "The Other Side of Summer," overdubs no less than 14 keyboard parts, a galaxy apart from the live-and-kicking approach of the early Costello records with the Attractions.
"I try to incorporate a lot of different musical sounds in what are basically pop songs, but I do perform in the manner of a rock 'n' roll singer, which is to say with an unself-conscious abandon," Costello says. "The fact that I can analyze to that extent obviously means that I'm not a primal rock 'n' roll singer like Jerry Lee Lewis, but I am capable of letting go."
Costello was more obviously "letting go" on his early records, but even that was part of the plan, he says.
"Some of the most calculated, affected music I made was on those early records, but there was less variation there, so it reinforces the feeling that it was somehow spontaneous," he says. "But I don't think it would be as good if it were totally spontaneous. The more you diversify, the more people assume you've become very calculated."
In the same sense, many of Costello's early lyrics-mostly tirades against conniving women and manipulative media and government-are often perceived as less contrived than his more recent work, which encompasses a wider range of emotions. But Costello's level of involvement has remained constant.
"Every song I've written is taken at least somewhat from personal experience," he says. "I think the mistake is to imagine that you're somehow a prisoner of these uncontrollable lusts and desires which torment you through the songs. It's nonsense. There's a theatrical element in there, some distance.
"It doesn't mean I don't feel any less, but a little more ability is involved than just a knee-jerk response to personal experience. There have been times when I've done that, but more often the deepest personal lines have been put in a coded form because that's how I first awakened to them. If you sing everything you feel, it's like you're asking for sympathy. Instead, I try to portray certain things, hopefully in a sympathetic way."
If anything, Costello's portrayals have been more sharply etched in recent years. Always a master of the pun and the ironic phrase, Costello's more ambiguous songs sometimes strayed off into obscurity, especially on such middle-period albums as Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World.
But beginning with King of America in 1986, his lyrics have became more direct, the wordplay less convoluted.
"I did become aware of certain mannerisms starting to creep in-'Oh, there's a good turn of phrase,' 'Oh, there's one of my things,' " he says.
"I reached a point where I just got tired of it, just left it behind."
Lately, he has taken to poking fun at his image: an artist hopelessly out of sync with an era that celebrates artifice and sensationalism. Spike was ironically subtitled "The Beloved Entertainer," and in the liner notes for
Girls Girls Girls, a recent career retrospective, Costello commented on the track "Brilliant Mistake": "At best this might be called the title track of the collection."
"Sometimes I wonder what the hell I'm doing this for," he says. "But I know there are people out there who really take things I sing to heart. I've had some really touching letters from people, or they'll approach me and say that some song of mine helped get them through a couple of weeks in their life, or through some serious, even tragic, circumstance.
"People get a lot of stimulus from all different directions. They're bombarded with all sorts of information about what rock 'n' roll is and what this record means and what that artist stands for. But when it gets down to just the record and the headphones, just you and the listener, something real happens that can't be quantified.
"Those things make it worthwhile-not whether you got more stars in a review than some other artist."
In the same way, he has stripped his shows to their essence. On Friday and Saturday, Costello will perform the songs that he likes to play ("I'm not swayed by the celebrity of songs or sentiment about them") without theatrics, fancy staging or special guests. The concerts will likely include selections from another album he recorded last year of cover versions of favorite R&B and rock 'n' roll tunes, which he says will become available "whenever Warner Brothers wants to put it out."
"I'm 37 and I feel like I haven't even begun, because I'm finally headed toward what I do best, which is to write songs and perform, and away from all the other stuff. Which is why I said this very well could be my very last interview.
"Anything I've got to say will be in the music. And if it isn't there, it's because I didn't say it."