Image, often so transient, is everything in the music business, but Stiff Records' greatest marketing creation, Elvis Costello, has proved punk rock's greatest survivor. Twenty-five years on, his latest release, When I Was Cruel — his first solo album for seven years — is as edgy, lonely, bitter and political as his first.
It may take longer to walk round the man these days, and there's a fashionable notion, even among his fans, that he's mellowed (this punk rocker's done Desert Island Discs), but in his own way, this year's model is as awkward as the last.
Touring in the New Year, as part of a campaign against landmines, Costello was on stage in Glasgow and London. Typically, he alone among five performers — Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and John Prine were the others — provoked the hecklers, with his condemnations of the bombing in Afghanistan and of Tony Blair. They are incidents which rather prove that, as often as critics dismiss him, Costello retains his edge.
It's true there was a time when he wouldn't have done these charity gigs, but that, he admits, "would have been down to my prejudices". And once you might have sought him out amid the grime of the Hope & Anchor, rather than in a comfortable sitting room at an expensive London hotel. He no longer drinks, he doesn't smoke, but his present circumstances should not indicate a man, at 46, subsiding into comfortable but unproductive middle age.
"What are you supposed to do?" he complains. "Mike Leigh has made film after film about this, and Arnold Wesker wrote plays about it — are you supposed to sit in a dirty jumper with soup stains on it to prove your credentials for not having sold out?
"I have absolutely no problem with ageing. I've earned the money. The only thing I need to do is get on with the job. It's all I want to do. Being lectured about it by people who have no understanding of what I do isn't worth anything. Who would they rather have been on stage? Chumbawamba? Imitation Marxists or whatever they are — would they have been more real? That's just stupid."
Unlike his contemporaries, who, pot-bellied, only perform when penury pulls them out of retirement, Costello's output has been breathtaking in its range over the past few years. There have been collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet and mezzo-soprano Sofie van Otter, followed by his last album, recorded with Burt Bacharach. His next release, following When I Was Cruel, will be a recording of his orchestration of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a score he wrote for the Italian dance company, Aterballetto. It will be available on Deutsche Grammphon, and features Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
Of course, not everyone has been impressed, and a former acolyte, now Channel 4's leading 1980s revivalist, Stuart Maconie, has called him "self-obsessed and charmless".
"Maconie?" The name makes Costello spit. "That horrible little face? Maconie must be one of the most unpleasant presences in television. He really should think twice about putting himself on camera, it's a deeply unpleasant sight.
"Who cares about nostalgia for the 1970s and 1980s? It's like an illness, this compulsion to comment on things all the time. These programmes, they drive me nuts."
But then, over the years, critics have rarely been to his taste. After his 1998 show at London's Festival Hall with Bacharach, the two men reconvened in Costello's dressing room, because they had heard they would be reviewed live on a late-night arts programme.
"Burt had no experience of the pantomime brutality of the British media chatter. What they said didn't matter. He doesn't lack self-confidence any more than I do, but their hatchet job was just such bad manners and so badly informed. You had some mad poet and someone who had once daubed something on a canvas saying ‘Burt can't orchestrate' … It's like ‘Shut up, take some Prozac, get some HRT."
Costello has had his identity crises along the way. Towards the end of the 1980s, the "Elvis" image began to grate, the huge marketing effort that had gone into creating his identity was weighing him down.
"I thought I might do something about it, the expectations which came with the look, the glasses. I felt people were judging the record before I made it … and then as soon as I did it, as soon as I said it out loud, it didn't matter. When you're younger, you're more self-important; the truth was nobody really cared that it was ‘Elvis'.
"There are choices I've made along the way which have seemed totally off-the-wall to journalists — making a country record, growing a beard — all those things which are easy to ridicule. But I'm just an ordinary person, with moods. I made a more conscious effort to frighten people in that period. When I grew the beard I was in a confrontational frame of mind. Very gloomy."
Coming out of this period of doubt was almost like growing up. Since then he has performed his most ambitious work, and won new audiences. For the performer himself, it's plain that his experiences have brought a new level of maturity to his output.
Along with the Costello brand, other facets of his character have persisted, notably the political, social edge. While he would never describe himself as a political songwriter (the term, he says, implies an agenda) he recognises that his responses to the Falklands War and to Conservatism were important. Journalist and comedian Mark Steel called his 1989 album 'Spike "a haunting soliloquy of bile against Thatcher".
"Each of those songs — like, say, 'Shipbuilding' — is an emotional reaction," he says, "just like a love song, only in the case of 'Tramp the Dirt Down' it's not about love." (Fair point: it's about dancing on Mrs T's grave.) "Some of them, like 'Pills and Soap,' are reporting events. That's an element which remains in my new work. On [the title track] 'When I Was Cruel' it's expressed in a slightly different way. It's about the social order of things and the power certain people wield in society. You might say that was a contemporary counterpart of those earlier songs.
"I haven't written a song in the same way I wrote 'Tramp the Dirt Down', specifically in reaction to the feelings I have about the ruling regime." He pretends to consider matters for a moment and then laughs. "Frankly, I think it's only a matter of time."
Like all fortysomethings of a leftist persuasion, he has witnessed the slow death of idealism over his lifetime, a change charted in his "autobiography by numbers", the song 45 that introduces his new album. In part, it chronicles the musical background in west London that nurtured him as Declan MacManus. His father, Ross MacManus, was a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra. His mother Lillian worked in a record shop. But part of the song's hinterland are the broken dreams of the post-war era.
"That feeling that anything was possible went away, didn't it?" he asks. And while together we can't find one thing to blame for this defeat, he itemises a few of the heavy blows: the hard winter of 1947 that damaged the Attlee government; the early death of Hugh Gaitskill, and later of John Smith; the defeat of Tony Benn for the position of deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1981.
"I'm not making a big lament about it," he adds. "I just look around at the things, at today's culture and think: ‘Is that really what we're offering people, is that the best we can do? Is this what we dream of? Is this television programme the best we can provide, or is it just the easiest thing ?'
"That doesn't mean we don't all enjoy some bone-headed brain-candy once in a while, but there's a difference between offering that as an alternative and it being the height of your ambition. Nobody's dreaming of a better place — but dreaming of how they're going to clean up, or how to make people pay for things they already own. I could never accept the privatisation of the fundamental infrastructure of Britain. That's when I left."
He denies that the attraction of his destination, Dublin, was its status, relative to London, as a tax haven. It's more the case that privatisation drove him out. "Water was the most bizarre. It comes out of the sky. It's inconceivable that one minute you own it, the next you don't."
Then there was the matter of his second wife, Cait O'Riordan, a former Pogue. Fifteen years on, the marriage still works, as happy, awkward, infuriating as marriages are. If that sounds an imaginative leap, the relationship, like so many of Costello's, is aired in his music, on this occasion the difficult, brassy and rhythmic "15 Petals."
It is, he agrees, hardly a typical love song. "But that's the way I feel, like a real charge of love. It's almost upsetting, but it's a love song written for someone who's been married for 15 years. That is the real power of love, not some sentimental syrup. It picks you up, lifts you up … "
In the air, there is a question forming about these love songs of his …
He cuts in with are laugh. "They're almost exclusively negative, aren't they? Fifteen Petals is one of the very few positive ones, and even that wasn't written in a greetings card kind of way, with a trite sentiment."
He recognises though, from "Alison" in 1977 to "Indoor Fireworks" and on to his latest bittersweet creations, it is the simplicity and banality of his lyrics that make his love songs work.
"The ordinary stuff is often more fascinating. Like 'Tart' is about kicking a piece of fruit into the gutter, a little detail, like a camera dancing around a scene all the time reminding yourself to look up from it, and not be down in the depths of the gloom.
"With love songs, if you are too personal there is an indulgence. You're talking in a private language to your lover or to the experience of your life through your own sadness. They have to be informed with some sort of sense of experience, but it doesn't mean if you're married you can't write another sad love song."
But then with Costello, there have never been constraints. Thanks goodness the man's unchained again.