Financial Times, October 12, 2018

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Financial Times

UK & Ireland newspapers


Q&A with musician Elvis Costello

Hester Lacey

"I never had any ambition. One thing led to another"

Elvis Costello, 64, released his debut album, My Aim is True, in 1977. His subsequent albums include Armed Forces, Get Happy!!, Imperial Bedroom and Punch the Clock. His best-known singles include "Alison," "Oliver's Army," "Shipbuilding," "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "Watching the Detectives."

He won a Grammy, with Burt Bacharach, in 1998 for "I Still Have That Other Girl" and his 2003 song "Scarlet Tide," co‑written with T Bone Burnett for Cold Mountain, was nominated for an Oscar.

What was your childhood or earliest ambition?

To be a coalman. When I was a lad, coal was still delivered to my nana's street in Birkenhead. I loved the smell and, I suspect, the taste of anthracite.

Private school or state school? University or straight into work?

St Edmund's RC primary school in Whitton, Archbishop Myers Secondary Modern in Hounslow and Saint Francis Xavier's Bilateral in Liverpool. I try not to read anything personal into the fact that both of my secondary schools changed their names, one shortly after I left and the other just after I joined. I've worked since I was 17.

Who was or still is your mentor?

Harold and Sylvia Hikins were — and are — poets and writers who hosted readings and musical evenings at which my first musical partner, Allan Mayes, and I tried out our songs, when we were working elsewhere for £1.50 a night and very little encouragement.

How physically fit are you?

This being a financial organ, I have to tell you that I feel like a million dollars.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

Once upon a time, I would have said ambition without talent was worthless. Now I'm not so sure.

How politically committed are you?

There have always been politicians who should be committed but I've never felt at home at parties.

What would you like to own that you don't currently possess?

"If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" by Robert Johnson.

What's your biggest extravagance?

I like to get to the end of the line with the least distress. I would rather travel by water than by air. I can swim, I can't fly.

In what place are you happiest?

When I'm all at sea.

What ambitions do you still have?

I never had any ambition — one thing led to another.

What drives you on?


What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

That I am here at all.

What do you find most irritating in other people?

I don't know about all the "other people" but the sneering confidence of some people in "their truth" is mildly vexing.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?

"Wow, he's very far away."

Which object that you've lost do you wish you still had?

My reverse telescope.

What is the greatest challenge of our time?

Fiddling while Rome burns. There aren't enough fiddles, there aren't enough bows and soon there won't be enough pines to burn.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

Yes, but not in the storybook sense.

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

In the wise words of Sir Nigel Tufnel, "It goes up to 11."

Elvis Costello's new album, Look Now, is out on Concord


Financial Times, October 12, 2018

Hester Lacey conducts a Q&A with Elvis Costello.

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney reviews Look Now.

Look Now — witty wordplay and a shifting outlook

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney

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The songs pack in a lot of lyrical action yet do not feel constricted or over-busy

Elvis Costello's first album in 10 years with The Imposters follows a tour during which he and his backing trio — Steve Nieve (keyboards), Pete Thomas (drums), Davey Faragher (bass) — revisited the 1982 album Imperial Bedroom.

That record opened with one of Costello's most accomplished songs, "Beyond Belief," in which a drunk in an "almost empty gin palace" tries to pick up a woman. Look Now begins with another lush trying it on, more successfully this time, with a younger woman in the dressing-room of a television show. He is a seedy vaudevillian who has turned up in a previous Costello song ("Jimmie Standing in the Rain"). The music has a desperate note of vitality, all strutting drums and lusty horns, a witty soundtrack for a sharply penned portrait of a comic grotesque.

The rest of the album lives up to this promising start. The songs are tightly constructed affairs, packing a lot of lyrical and musical action into their four-minute spans yet they do not feel constricted or over-busy. Costello does a great deal of singing (there are very few instrumental breaks). His voice has grown hoarser over time but remains animated and expressive.

The influence of 1960s pop-soul runs through the 12 tracks. Backing singers add a classic girl group flavour to several numbers, one of which, "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter," was written with Carole King. Burt Bacharach co-wrote three songs and plays piano on the ballads "Don't Look Now" and "Photographs Can Lie."

Romantic melodies and upbeat rhythms sugar the bitter pill of Costello's stories, in which marriages collapse ("Stripping Paper") and lovers trick each other with fake emotions ("Suspect My Tears"). What might seem a claustrophobic set of narratives, always with a sting in the tail, is leavened by witty wordplay and a shifting outlook, done with sympathy for other perspectives. A good portion of the songs find Costello, who in his younger days faced accusations of misogyny, singing from the point of view of a woman.


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