It's one of the music business' biggest nights, and Elvis Costello is headed down the red carpet... the wrong way. As the stars amble into the Beverly Hills Hotel for J Records mogul Clive Davis' annual all-star pre-Grammy dinner, a few more discerning party reporters and paparazzi recognize the underdressed rocker headed upstream and converge, hopeful he'll be good for a pithier sound bite than Britney's or Puffy's. But Costello's just an unwitting hotel guest scouting the flashbulb-filled horizon for a valet. "Sorry, I'm actually headed out for the evening," apologizes the scruff in the brown leather jacket and thermal slippers, gamely posing for a few pictures before an attendant pulls up with his rented sports car. Moments later, Elvis has left the gilding.
Swinging out onto Sunset Boulevard, Costello asks whom he might have run into at the party, since he will be pictured as attending. Well, recent J Records signee Rod Stewart would surely be there.... It turns out Costello almost produced an album for him a few years back. "Rod's got a great voice and should be singing the really good songs," he says. "It's great to pass the time with him, talking about old records. But I guess the life you lead when you get out here is a bit different. I'd be fixing to go to a meeting, and his assistant would call up and say, 'Mr. Stewart's got to take the dog to the psychiatrist' or something. There'd always be some excuse not to work." Another guest, we mention, would've been J signatory Luther Vandross. "He's another one that sings s--- songs. But, God, he was amazing at that Burt Bacharach tribute we both did in New York. Luther should just record all the songs off Painted From Memory" — Costello's 1998 collaboration with Bacharach — "because he would sing them with such ease. Obviously they're almost at the edge of my ability."
The car slows to a halt just shy of the West Hollywood border. "Maybe," he proposes, "we should go back to the party and pitch that idea?"
There'll be no turning back. He's got his hands full enough these days pitching another idea, a fairly novel one at this stage of his quarter-century career: an actual Elvis Costello rock & roll record. Somehow, in the midst of collaborating with jazz combos and classical mezzo-sopranos, and writing everything from TV comedy pilots to orchestral scores for ballet companies (not to mention a virtual autobiography in the serialized form of liner notes for Rhino's ongoing and ambitious repackaging of Costello's back catalog), pop's Renaissance man carved out time to make When I Was Cruel, his most universally praised effort since his '80s salad days with the Attractions, and a return to wanton ferocity, if not cruelty.
Some fans — yearning for the early, funny stuff, as it were — called all this genre-crossing extracurricular activity "Elvis Costello and the distractions." Others relished getting four or five major artists for the price of one. "I took every sojourn and unpaved path he was interested in going on," enthuses filmmaker Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men), who plans to score the upcoming film adaptation of his play The Shape of Things solely with existing Costello songs. "I was as big a fan of The Juliet Letters [Costello's 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet] as Armed Forces. The breadth of his career is staggering, that it's just one guy. You have to weigh him next to the Beatles and Dylan, and even somebody like Springsteen pales when you get to the diversity. No one else, even McCartney, has, on a single, solitary level, provided that range."
Of course, in the music business, "breadth" is synonymous with "diluting the brand," or maybe heading the wrong way down the red carpet, metaphorically speaking. "When The Juliet Letters came out, it was as if I'd gone out of my mind or something, in some quarters," Costello says. "Likewise with other records.... I suppose that happened even way back when I went to Nashville in 1981. [Eventually] people get used to it and realize that nothing is that extreme," he adds, giving his detractors the benefit of the doubt. "I mean, I wasn't making Metal Machine Music, was I?"
All water under the bridge, now that the lovefest is back on. "This album seems to puzzle people a little less than some of the others," Costello allows. (He's also optimistic about the corporate push it's getting from Universal. "Now I'm on a hip-hop label," he chuckles. "I'm the Rare Earth of Island Def Jam!") Most important, he's just pulled off a feat few 47-year-old legends could ever hope to: creating music thrilling enough to fool fans into thinking they're hearing a return to the signature sound they fell in love with, while actually doing something new. Just don't call it back-to-basics. "People will be saying that, for sure — 'They're back to what they do' — mostly written by people who haven't really listened to the record," Costello scoffs. "The actual way the record was constructed clearly contradicts that."
If some fans bless the album as a return to the rock combo format of old — in fact, this is his first genuinely guitar-dominated record since My Aim Is True, his 1977 debut — while others see it more as an excursion into samples and electronic beats, they're both right, since Cruel echoes "Paperback Writer" one moment and Portishead the next. "Originally, I was convinced I could make the record on my own," Costello says, noting how he sketched out the rhythms for all the songs on "kiddie drum machines" at home. Things got more expansive after he recruited two ex-Attractions, keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, along with Thomas' Vonda Shepard/Ally McBeal bandmate, bassist Davey Faragher, to accompany him at a few impromptu European gigs. Adding live musicians to some of the metal machine mix he'd already laid down, "suddenly you've got all these possibilities. It doesn't go down the road you've been down many times before. You don't get that thing of four guys staring at each other going, 'How are we gonna reinvent the wheel?' Because that's a bit of it with rock & roll."
Costello pulls the car up outside the Sunset Sound Factory studio in Hollywood, where 65-year-old Solomon Burke is cutting an album. Producer Joe Henry has a surprise for Costello: Tonight they're about to record "The Judgment," a ballad that Costello and his wife, ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan, recently wrote for the soul great.
"The king is here!" shouts Burke, a bear of a man in a suit so formal you'd think he was headed to Davis' big party. Costello will play both acolyte and teacher tonight. Burke and his band are being thrown off a bit by some dramatic pauses Costello built into the ballad. Self-conscious of how difficult it's been for other singers to wrap themselves around his wordiness, Costello intended to give the lyric some extra breathing room, but somehow managed to make it even trickier. "Here's where I f--- everybody up with my extra half a bar," he apologizes, out of Burke's earshot, then offers the elder singer a mea culpa: "Those extra beats that are in the demo are just me waiting to remember what the next chord is." Eventually, everyone decides to try cutting the pauses out, and Costello records a new guide vocal for Burke to practice with. He's struck by a fit of irony, hearing one of the guys who helped invent rock singing as we now know it wailing along with his voice in the other room. "Do you suppose this is what Mick Jagger did with Solomon's records?" he laughs.
Several hours later, the song is nailed. "You didn't know you were coming here to produce a record, did you?" exults Burke, an ordained minister. "God knew it!"
The agnostic Costello doesn't beg to differ as good-nights are exchanged. He gets back in his rental car and abruptly pulls out of the parking lot onto the wrong side of Selma Avenue. "Forgot where I was for a second," apologizes Costello, who hasn't had a proper rest since flying in from Dublin, his hometown of more than a decade. He's too tired to notice when we pass Hollywood High — prominent in Costello lore because of the 1979 live EP recorded there — or maybe it's just a general aversion to the rearview mirror.
Revisiting his early gems for Rhino's reissues series found recognized classics dropping in his estimation and supposed stinkers rising. "I haven't really liked My Aim Is True for a long time, and I don't see what the fuss is about," he says. "The songs are good, but I think it sounds quite tentative; the singing is quaint as well. This Year's Model  and Blood and Chocolate  hold up really well.... I was [once] fairly critical of Goodbye Cruel World , but I don't feel that way anymore. I wasn't saying it's the worst record ever made — just my worst record, which still puts it ahead of quite a lot of other people's best record, you know?
"I can hear some of the [older] songs and think, Wow, what a self-righteous little prick. You do get into the rhythm of always taking that oppositional tone after a while, which can hem you in." Even having a hit in half the world's territories in 2000 crooning a Charles Aznavour ballad, "She," hasn't erased the punkish severity of his original Buddy Holly-cops-a-'tude image. "The whole angry thing that was written up became associated with a particular look and particular stylized way of singing and playing. And I did consciously undo it, about four records in, but I sometimes replaced it with something just as ferocious-sounding. It wasn't until about six albums in that the overt expression of tenderness crept into it." Costello tries a little tenderness in the new album by including two upbeat love songs written to his wife — putting the total happy romantic numbers in his catalog at about a half dozen — but it's got healthy amounts of vituperation, now less to do with romantic recrimination than with areas of failed personal responsibility. "It's accusatory, but you have to be prepared to say all those things to yourself," he reckons.
Back at the hotel, Costello retires to his bungalow, resisting any impulse to crash Clive's clambake, storm the bandstand, and play When I Was Cruel's epic title song, which is a party anthem in its own languid fashion. The lyric describes a swanky affair full of drunken "captains of industry," their trophy wives, and insolent journalists; its title slyly alludes to how a younger Costello would've greeted such pageantry with contempt. "The reflection is that there might have been a time when there was more force than strictly necessary in the disdain that could be expressed in relation to people of influence and power. Now, it's just a matter for laughter." In other words, he used to be disgusted, and now....
He's about to turn in when an envelope glides under his door. "What's this?" he says, ripping it open. "It's an invitation from Clive! 'Come down and sing a couple of numbers with Angie Stone! It's not too late! You and Rod, get back together!'" Surely Costello jests, but given the Elvis revivalism in the air, stranger things have happened: Maybe even O-Town want to wear his red shoes.