When Rhino Records undertook the definitive remastering of Elvis Costello's vast catalog, they hired writers to pen the liner notes evaluating his career.
Costello, widely considered a songwriter rivaled only by Bob Dylan for sheer output and quality, saw the drafts and put a stop to it. The problem? The writing was far too kind.
The notes, he decided, "needed to be more humorous and more critical, so that's the tack I've taken. They shouldn't be too precious. I enjoy writing them, but I am writing them if not about a different person, then a person in a different time of life."
So Costello is merciless on himself; using the liner notes to skewer myths and set the record straight (six have been released so far; the next set is due next month with Trust, Get Happy and Punch the Clock).
He's looking back while looking forward; last year's When I Was Cruel was hailed as a great new album in Costello's canon, and he's already finished the next album, North, due out in September.
He can be self-effacing, but pity the poor original liner-note authors. Costello has always released consistently strong albums. He has a number of classics — My Aim is True, This Year's Model, Imperial Bedroom — and his latter-day work is almost as strong, including the nearly flawless All This Useless Beauty. He's changed styles and players and genres seemingly effortlessly.
The sheer variety of his live performances in the past decade has given him new insight into his own work. Whether touring with Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet, acoustically with pianist Steve Nieve or in the full band, he's re-examined his songs from all angles. So fans are seeing some of the strongest shows he's ever done.
"I think it's a combination of those things. I've got a great band and we get along great. We've been through enough and done enough things that the tensions of years ago with the Attractions (are gone)," Costello says.
The Imposters are really just the Attractions with Davey Faragher taking the place of bassist Bruce Thomas.
"As good as that band was at its best, it stopped being fun on-stage with that combination of people," Costello said.
As for the various side projects, "I was working my voice quite a bit with the record with Burt Bacharach. Those songs were right on the edge of my ability, really," Costello said.
Part of the change is merely stylistic. When Costello burst out of England in 1976, he was singing short, sharp, new-wave/rock songs. It wasn't until years later when he started developing ballads such as Almost Blue that fans realized what a singer he was.
"I always had a lot more vocal range than I displayed. I just found a pocket where my voice worked on those early songs and heaven knows they seem to do the right thing," he said. "Nobody knew if I had any vocal tone, which I do have. And as you get older and get physically bigger, you build up more resonance."
Costello has breathed life into older songs, whether it's an acoustic version of the early "Little Triggers" or the 1986 betrayal ballad, "I Want You," which has become increasingly frightening and paranoid in each performance.
"I'm able to still get inside songs I wrote 25 years ago. I never play any song from a nostalgic point of view," he said. "A song is written in a moment of emotional response. Then you have the task of reliving it, like an actor does. You have to be completely believable in the song, otherwise it has no reason to exist."
When you create such an affecting catalog of work, problems inevitably come. Costello has had his share of borderline stalkers, though such fans have waned over the years.
"I probably don't get it as badly as other people in terms of the scrutiny of my life. I wouldn't want Bob Dylan's mail. He's written these beautiful songs and people project all sorts of crazy things into ... them."