“The feeling on the stage was: ‘What the hell, let’s have a good time, because we don’t know when we’ll do this again.’ I don’t think anybody thought it would take as long as this.”
Elvis Costello is remembering the last time he stood on a stage in front of an audience — March 13 2020, one of the last gigs in London before the pandemic ended live performances. “The Wednesday night I was at Anfield, watching Liverpool lose to Atlético [Madrid], with 55,000 people. Thursday night I was playing in Manchester and I could see holes in the crowd where people had obviously thought better of coming, even though the show was sold out. Likewise in London.”
There was, for the first time at any of the shows I attended in that febrile week, a real sense of fear at large. At one point Costello addressed the crowd: “We’re all gonna be all right, if we do the right thing. Or maybe we’re not. But our time has to come.” The Costello songbook has often dwelt on emotional darkness but it is not, I suggest, usual to tell one’s crowd to prepare for death.
“Did I say that?” he replies. “Oh good. I do have a dark sense of humour, but I don’t think anyone thought it would become as grievous as it has. So I said to the guys when we came into the wings: ‘Let’s play “Hurry Down Doomsday”, this song’s hour has come finally.’ I said it with a whistling-past-the-graveyard attitude.”
It turned out to be a busy pandemic for Costello. He released one new album, 2020’s Hey Clockface, and completed another. This, entitled Spanish Model, doesn’t feature Costello performing anything new, but it’s indisputably a new album. Released alongside a new remastering of This Year’s Model, his brilliant 1978 album, Spanish Model features assorted luminaries of the Hispanophone pop world — including the Colombian star Juanes, and Luis Fonsi, maker of 2017’s inescapable Despacito — singing Spanish versions of This Year’s Model material, to the backing of the original tapes of Costello and the Attractions.
It’s the kind of project that rather invites the question: why?
“Because we can, and I imagined it,” Costello says. The idea sprang from being asked to take the song “This Year’s Girl” and add a female voice to it, to feature as the theme to the second season of David Simon’s TV show The Deuce.
“We revisited the tapes and found them in good order,” he says. “And when we pushed the faders up without my voice, something was happening that you had never heard quite that way before.” So, having fiddled with one song, why not fiddle with them all, in Spanish?
I mention Dave Edmunds’ version of the Costello song “Girls Talk”, and how it seems to mean something different to Costello’s own version simply by sounding different. “I think this is much more profound, in the sense of transformation,” he says. “Not being a Spanish speaker, I had to trust it was done with integrity. The artists wanted to ask me questions about little idioms in the lyrics, so they could make it work in a Spanish adaptation. These are obviously not literal translations, because literal translations wouldn’t work with the music.
“So that alone changes the task of adapting it truthfully. If the nuance of the lyric is slightly changed, I embrace that. And, of course, the most obvious thing, in the case of the young women who sing on the record, is that it flips the perspective around. The songs tended to be seen as a young man’s gaze, and at the time I felt people read into them something that wasn’t always there, which was a hatred of women. But I guess the way I sing makes everything sound furious and angry.”
Costello has one of the richest catalogues in pop: 44 years of records, many of them brilliant, some glorious and fascinating failures, none boring and by-the-rote. He is not overly concerned with that past; he wants to be perceived as looking to the future. A gentle inquiry about legacy is met with the response: “That’s a business page question. I’m not building a legacy. I won’t be here to worry about it.”
Instead, he’s working. He and his producer/collaborator Sebastian Krys have been working on nine separate albums over the past few years, since 2018’s Look Now. This flurry, he says, is a response to realising he’d gone several years of recording only collaborations or special guest appearances.
I never felt at the centre of anything. I wasn’t paying attention to those markers
“I woke up one day and said: ‘What the hell am I doing? Why aren’t I recording properly? Why am I not still doing this?’ We did Look Now because I had an accumulation of really good songs, and the minute we started doing that one thing led to another.”
He’s also realistic. “People aren’t holding their breath till my next record comes out. It’s not that kind of career now.”
So, does he miss the days when people were holding their breath until his next record, when he seemed more central to popular culture? “It’s a relief, to be honest. You don’t invite [fame] and you can’t predict its longevity and really quite a lot of the time you’re either not aware of it or deeply ungrateful for it. I never felt at the centre of anything. I wasn’t paying attention to those markers. I was thinking of the next song and I always have been.”
So what Spanish Model isn’t, Costello insists, is nostalgia. “In my opinion, you could have made that record last week, if you could find people that could play like that,” he says, bullishly. He has no desire to soundtrack other people’s sentimental journeys into the past. “Many of the songs have remained in the repertoire. But my attitude to all old songs is if I can’t sing them as I feel about them now, I shouldn’t sing them. If I’m singing them out of nostalgia, then there’s no point in doing it.”
He would rather you think of Spanish Model as a new album. That might be a bit much, but to be fair — it certainly doesn’t sound old.
‘Spanish Model’ and the remastered vinyl edition of ‘This Year’s Model’ are released on September 10 by UMC