Not much has been heard from Elvis Costello since his last album, Blood & Chocolate, in 1986. In fact, it has been the longest gap between records since the singer (of whom it has been said, "His middle name would be 'Prolific' if it weren't already Patrick") first hit the charts with his debut album, My Aim Is True, way back in 1977.
But his many fans can at last stop wondering if the artist, who had been known to release two albums in one year, has run out of steam.
Elvis is back, and with a vengeance. His brand new album, entitled Spike, is a fat collection of 14 original songs (15 on CD and cassette) that weighs in at just under an hour. And the first single, a muscular rocker called "Veronica" (one of two songs co-written with Paul McCartney), already is hitting the airwaves.
"I do go through periods when I feel I have nothing to say, so why say anything?" he says in defense of his recent absence. "For instance, I haven't written any more new songs in quite a while, but it doesn't bother me much. And then I've been busy making this record and preparing for the next tour, so those other aspects of my career take over."
"People forget that I did several little tours after Blood & Chocolate which were intended to be low profile," he continues. "Not everything you do has to be a big deal. I think there's too much of that in the business already."
Elvis' intense dislike of showbiz flash is well known, and the new album cover, with its smiling, clown-like portrait of the singer mounted over the legend "The Beloved Entertainer," would seem to be a typically ironic comment from a man famous for his caustic tongue.
Not so, claims Elvis, who, in person, is clad all in black save for a glittering rhinestone bolo. "The title Spike sort of evolved from a casual conversation about Spike Jones, the musical comedian. But there's no deep psychological significance there," he insists. "It's just a title."
Be that as it may, Spike is loaded with Elvis' pointed dark humor, as well as some scathing political commentary on tracks such as "Let Him Dangle" (about a famous British hanging), and "Tramp the Dirt Down" (a biting condemnation of Margaret Thatcher).
In addition to ex-Beatle McCartney, Elvis enlisted a stellar cast of musicians for the sessions, including The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, The Byrds' Roger McGuinn, Derek Bell from The Chieftains and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers.
Spike also features The Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans, and some unusual instruments, ranging from an Indian harmonium (courtesy of Crowded House producer and former bandmember Mitchell Froom), to a glockenspiel, a bouzouki and uileann pipes.
"There are a lot of different things going on in this album because I basically approached it more like a film project," explains Elvis, who credits his first soundtrack for a recent feature, called The Courier, which also starred his wife, Cait O'Riordan, as inspiration.
"I imagined the songs as being like different scenes, which all needed lighting in different ways. But that's not to say there's an overall theme or thread running through the album. On the other hand, there are a lot more third-person stories on Spike than on some of my other albums, so it was very important for me to find the right musicians and special instrumental sounds that'd bring the songs to life and make them more vivid.
"I began by making a list of all the players I admired and felt would be appropriate, and just called them up," adds Elvis. "I spent about a month on the phone before we recorded a note."
Along with co-producer T-Bone Burnett and Mitchell Froom, there are some familiar faces on Spike, but also some surprises, such as the appearance of McCartney.
Typically, Elvis doesn't see it that way. "I don't think it's strange that we collaborated. After all, he's a good songwriter and so am I, and although I don't think everything he's written is wonderful, I'd have to admit the same goes for me, too," he says.
"In fact, Paul originally called me up to work on some songs for his new solo album, and two of them, 'Veronica' and 'Pads, Paws and Claws,' ended up on Spike. We then carried on writing another nine songs, some of which'll be on Paul's album, though I'm not sure how many."
Elvis also is quick to deny any rumours of friction between the two.
"The only friction was good creative friction," he stresses. "Our differing viewpoints helped, because there'd be no point in me sitting down and writing a Paul McCartney tune, and vice versa. As it was, we worked very quickly, bouncing a lot of ideas off each other, and from what I've heard so far, his new album's going to be really strong."
With reports from London suggesting that the ex-Beatle also is going to undertake his first tour in many years, will Elvis be joining his new partner on stage at any point?
"No, because I've got my own tour and record happening, and it's always a problem trying to reassemble all the same musicians for a live show," he points out. "It'll be impossible for me to do it with Spike, so I'm going to do a solo tour, with Nick Lowe opening the show."
"You know, a solo tour can be more rock 'n' roll than a band tour, because although it doesn't have the volume and spectacle, it has freedom,"
Elvis says. "So I'm going to do something similar to my Spinning Songbook show, only this time there'll be a big satin heart, about 6 feet high, and placed on it will be the titles of the 13½ deadly sins — the seven original ones plus 6½ new ones.
"Then we'll get people from the audience to come onstage, either by offering them money, or perhaps by releasing a pack of wild dogs at the back of the theater to chase them up. Then we blindfold them, and they stick a big spike through the heart, and whichever sin they pierce, they have a choice — either of committing that sin onstage, or choosing the song that most represents it. Or perhaps both," adds Elvis with a straight face.
Could he reveal what the new sins will be like? "Ah, well, highly trained experts are currently hard at work on them in a laboratory in Geneva as we speak, so naturally I can't divulge them," he smiles.
But Elvis is more than happy to reveal what he thinks about the current music scene and some of his peers. He's quick to praise Prince as a "latterday Duke Ellington — though I'm not sure why he reminds me of Ellington. I think it's the mixture of sexual and spiritual." Rick Astley is quickly dismissed as "a nice young lad with a freakish baritone voice," and Fine Young Cannibals' Roland Gift is characterized as an "Al Jolson soundalike."
Ask him about Phil Collins and Madonna, and he makes a face. "There are people who think Phil Collins is a great singer," he says in disbelief. "As for Madonna, she's too skinny now. Is she a singer? I don't think she is. She's an icon.
"As for the Stones, I like reading Keith Richards' interviews. He's very funny. In fact, the record wasn't as interesting as the interviews. He should have released them instead."
Elvis' assessments are good-natured rather than bitter. "I'm just not into that whole pop star thing," he states simply. But if Elvis has pointedly ignored the lifestyles of the rich and famous over the years, he also reserves the most scorn for the nouveau-riche artists of the English pop scene.
"You know that group Bros?" he demands. "They're huge in Britain, and their very first record was called When Will I Be Famous? Well my reaction was, OK fellas, you're famous, you got what you wanted, now bug off! But they didn't. And sadly, they didn't have another good thought, like 'Now I'm Famous I'll Retire.' That would have been a good follow-up record," he sneers.
"I could easily have sat back and kept making the same record and been a millionaire by now, if all I wanted was fame," he adds quietly but passionately. "But if fame and money were that important to me, I wouldn't be making albums like Spike."