Hoarse from a morning radio appearance, yet elegantly dressed in a dark, iridescent straw hat and a lush, tailored outfit — all in shades of purple — Elvis Costello sits down in the upstairs mezzanine of a New York hotel, orders tea and, with a half-hidden smirk and an unmistakable glimmer in his eye, smiles at the suggestion that he's making an art form out of keeping 'em
"When I made Almost Blue, it was seen as some sort of betrayal of the new idea about music that punk and so-called new wave were supposed to embody, and which was a lot of nonsense, you know. I always felt that the punk ethic, not so much in the style of music, was more about doing something that you believed in that was out of step."
The latest of Costello's so-called betrayals is Il Sogno, a ballet score he wrote to accompany an Italian production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Newly recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra under the wand of American conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the Debussy-meets-Bernstein-meets-Gershwin work made a successful North American premiere at New York's Lincoln Center in July 2004. Although he's written for a string quartet (1993's The Juliet Letters), collaborated with Swedish soprano Ann Sofie von Otter and even set his own voice in the context of moody, Ingmar Bergman-gray piano ballets (2003's North), can the former punky nerd in big glasses, once justly famed for snarling out, "What's so Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?" record a ballet and expect his fans to follow?
"I think it would have been a bit much to ask people to accept two highly structured things coming out simultaneously," he says. Age has made Costello very serious and the confidence that has come from surviving nearly 30 years in the music business now allows his natural intelligence to shine. The punks who once accused him of being a nerd were right: He is a brainiac.
"So one has a very formal structure. Obviously, the orchestral music is a lot of stuff without the benefit of any literal meanings. But if you know the story of A Midsummer Night's Dream and if you care to follow my synopsis, the music does do the things that I intended it to — that's my interpretation of it and that's all I was asked to do.
"The Delivery Man, on the other hand, I deliberately fractured the structure, I haven't laid it out in a beginning, middle and end, storybook fashion, because for me the enjoyment and power of this work is to roll with it. I wanted to make a mobile repertoire which would allow me to tour; a more vital repertoire, a more workable repertoire to augment the hundreds of songs I've already got. And also to be able to introduce other elements into the story as I went along; to actually leave it open, not only to interpretation, but to expansion and continuation."
While the fanciful story of A Midsummer Night's Dream is well known-love tangles, magic spells and mischievous fairies named Oberon and Titania — the tale behind The Delivery Man came from a song Costello wrote for Johnny Cash two decades ago.
"The story is predominantly laid out in the central title song. It's about three women who live in an isolated community, and they are, respectively, Vivian, a divorcee who's somewhat disappointed in life, frustrated, who likes to let everyone think she's having a wild old time; her best friend is Geraldine, who's a rather pious war widow and she lets everybody believe he was an ideal husband, and in the absence of her husband she's bringing up her daughter Ivy. Into their life comes Abel, the delivery man who serves their community and they each project onto him different things they are lacking in their lives. He's an object of lust for Vivian. He's an object of trepidation and some devotion to Geraldine and obviously an object of curiosity to the younger girl Ivy. And the thing that's not stated inside the record, but again that I'm bringing to it, is that Abel is based on a character in a song that I wrote for Johnny Cash called 'Hidden Shame' a number of years ago. That character was in turn based on a true story. It was about a man who spent most of his life in prison, he was recidivist, he had not committed any capital crimes and then 30 years into a life almost totally of incarceration, he confessed to a murder he'd committed as a child.
"That was a long time ago that I wrote that song and I've been thinking about that kind of character, and how they re-emerge into the world. So in this story the secret that Abel carries and the reason that the women recognize him in this improbable way, and make these comparisons to Jesus and Elvis is because they remember his face from newspaper stories from years before.
"I haven't really underlined it, I didn't want to make it 'and the moral of the story is,' because I want to carry on with these characters, even if I never record another Delivery Man song. There are four other songs, and some people would think it was perverse that I didn't record them, but my decision was that I didn't want to make it such a theatrical presentation. I wanted it to be a collection of songs. I didn't tell it in chronological order.
"People have said that I've made up some kind of musical or something that's like (Neil Young's) Greendale, but no, it's neither of those things. Certainly if you take any of the old Hollywood musicals — can you tell me the story of any of the Fred Astaire musicals? But you can remember all the songs. So you want the songs to affect people on their own merits, not to have special pleading that comes with attachment to this narrative, but there is a certain further interest I think in provoking the imagination of the listener with the idea that they are actually characters speaking and that's underlined by the fact that I have guest singers to heighten the sense of the personality of Geraldine (Emmylou Harris) and Vivian (Lucinda Williams).
"To say that Lucinda throws herself into the role of Vivian would be
something of an understatement, that's a pretty abandoned performance she gives isn't it? I've heard her sing like that live, but never on record. I feel great that she did that in response to the song. I literally wrote the song ("There's a Story in Your Voice") both about a character but I wrote it with Lu in mind. Lu embodies that quality that's described in the first verse, better than anybody I can think. She has that wounded, angry, crazy — she can represent all of those things so brilliantly."
The most obvious precedent for The Delivery Man record, although it doesn't have a story, per se, is what many consider his last great rock masterpiece, King of America, which was also recorded in America. The overriding theme of that album was exile. For subjects for those songs, Costello mixed the impressions of his father, Ross, a bandleader who came to America in the 1920s with his own, then relatively fresh impressions, to create songs that musically leaned heavily on traditional American popular song forms.
"There was a country ballad and what I call a Ray Charles blues or a Willie Nelson blues; and 'Poison Rose,' a blues with a sophisticated harmony. I think this record does something similar in that the tale I'm telling invites a relationship with a number of American vernacular forms. I've always drawn strength from them."
To absorb even more mojo from American musical forms, if not just America, Costello and former Attractions (now Imposters) keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and Cracker bassist Davey Faragher, traveled south to record. A 2003 tour stop in Alabama, a place he hadn't played in 20 years, convinced Costello it was time to reconnect with Dixie and its longstanding influence on the history of American music.
The original plan was to tour through the south, tuning up The Delivery Man material before heading to Ardent Studios in Memphis to record it. Eventually the economics of a tour followed by a recording session proved unworkable and the band decided to hole up in Oxford, Miss. in a house that backed up to the yard of William Faulkner's legendary house, Rowan Oak, and record at nearby Sweet Tea studios. To put what Costello calls "a little edge, a little fire" into the tunes, the band decided to bookend the recording sessions with club dates at the Oxford club Proud Larry's, where, during the first visit, Costello blew out his voice. While waiting for it to return, the band drove down to the Delta and the storied burg of Clarksdale, Miss.
The unofficial center of the blues world, Clarksdale is where John Lee Hooker was born, where Bessie Smith died, and remains the center of Robert Johnson lore (the crossroads, Johnson's grave and the juke joint where he was likely poisoned are all nearby). Inside Clarksdale's Delta Recording, a studio owned by Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers), Costello and band cut "Monkey To Man," what is arguably the funkiest and most compelling track on the album — if not of Costello's recent career.
"We just did one take but we played for over an hour; they just rolled it all the time. We cut four takes of 'Monkey To Man.' That's why at the end of the 'Monkey to Man' on the record, you hear 'start again.' We just went straight back into another take, that's the way we got the groove we wanted. All we had to do was relax."
Always the most American of British rock stars (one listen and it's clear he was only half-joking with "King of America"), Costello soaked in whatever musical vibrations the south had to offer and in the process made a more vital record and revived the rock side of his career, which to many ears has been lagging since the late '80s. Perhaps spending more time in the states with his new wife, jazz pianist/singer/occasional glamour girl Diana Krall, has made him appreciate his ever-growing connections to this county even more.
"There's a mythic quality to so many towns in America, particularly if you've grown up receiving these secret messages on records all your life. I remember my first trips to America being sort of simultaneously enthralled and disappointed by various musically mythic American cities. Like New Orleans, although it was obviously designed for tourism, was still the flavor of what it had been. It wasn't like Storyville, but there was something there.
Now it's a little bit more Disney-fied, as much as Beale Street is. But the great thing about Memphis is that it's slightly off the pace of the rest of America. It's got some quirk to it that I really like. Mississippi is way off the pace of America. It hasn't got the homogenization yet. Oxford, which I have to say, isn't the typical mental picture of Mississippi, is kind of a genteel, leafy town with a beautiful town square. And Faulkner of course. I was walking around Rowan Oak all the time. It was a very welcoming place. People were extremely courteous, enormously generous. And then of course you go down to Clarksdale and you see the other reality, the economy's been stripped out, people are being asked to live in a way that you wouldn't expect to see in a sophisticated country like America. It's pretty shocking, really.
"Oddly enough, people kept asking me: 'It must be very different for you down here.' I said, 'Well, of course the physical landscape is different but the atmosphere in Clarksdale is very similar to my dad's hometown of Birkenhead.' It's the town opposite Liverpool, which had its heyday in the late 1800s as the major port on the Mersey before the rise of Liverpool. Birkenhead became a shipyard town and when the shipyards closed down, it became a bit like a ghost town like Clarksdale is.
"What I love so much about being [in Clarksdale] are the passionate attempts to sustain the culture of a town like that against all adversity, which have got to be applauded. The people who run the Delta Blues Museum, Jimbo trying to keep a music scene going there, Morgan Freeman having a club and restaurant there. Believing in a place you come from, a place that you love is an inspiring thing. I was happy to patronize, not pejoratively but literally. We got a great track out of it."
All this activity occurs just as Costello, a performer who first burst on the scene in 1977 with the release of My Aim Is True looked and acted like a child. After a run of successful albums which changed the way many thought of the nascent new wave — This Year's Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy — Costello ended the 80s with King of America before signing with Warner Brothers in 1989 and releasing Spike. For a variety of reasons, many of them related to his turbulent personal life, the Warner years became a downward spiral. By the time Brutal Youth was released in 1994, his records had become indulgent and nearly un-listenable, and his once rabid fan base had cooled considerably. His career began to turn around via his late '90s collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory. His 2003 adventure into art songs, North, furthered the recovery, which has now been cinched by the one-two punch of Il Sogno and The Delivery Man (which he plans to actively tour behind). He sees his ongoing musical curiosity and willingness to take on new projects as part of a process that his parents first set into motion.
"Country music, jazz, R&B, ballads. I was lucky to grow up in a very rich household of music, diverse. I didn't have a generational divide in my family because my father's work meant that he had a relationship with popular music. And he also had a curiosity about popular music. My father gave me my first Joni Mitchell record, my first Aretha Franklin record, my first Marvin Gaye record, my first Grateful Dead record. He gave me two stacks of records of things. He'd pass them on to me. My mother sold records. She was the one who told me about Lee Konitz, who ended up playing on my last record.
"My understanding of every form of music that I already loved exploded when I came to America," Costello says. And none more so than country music, which Costello dove into headfirst in 1979 with the release of Almost Blue, which has just been reissued by Rhino, complete with a 27-track bonus disc of mostly unreleased material. Ridiculed or ignored at the time of its release, Almost Blue has come to be seen as one of the touchstones for the alt-country and Americana musical movements that are thriving today. "It was foolhardy really. No, I never really thought career. I thought this is what I want to do and I'm an ornery bastard and I'm gonna do it."
"The second disc [of the new reissue] sort of shows that your love and respect for things can sometimes get in the way. And also, I have to be really honest: being really drunk also has a lot to do with the fact that Almost Blue, the album, isn't better. I was tremendously hung over through most of the recording you know. If you'd have recorded it at three o'clock in the morning, I think it would have been a totally different record.
"I just re-cut a lot of the Gram and Emmylou songs really. I cut 'Too Far Gone,' 'I'm Your Toy' and 'How Much I Lied' because I just loved them so much. In some ways it brought those songs into view. I've always been amazed at how many times I've been thanked by people for tipping them off to either George or even to Gram; 'cause actually, in 1980, Gram's reputation was fairly obscure to a lot of people. People had sort of forgotten. In the '80s, yes, there were a lot of groups that came up and started to name-check him, but I wasn't on any sort of crusade, I just loved it, the way I've always referenced songs from the past, you know?
Costello seems to be on a crusade now, a crusade to win back his older fans, the ones who at live shows still shriek out requests for "Watching The Detectives" or "Oliver's Army," while also winning new converts to his more adventurous projects like Il Sogno.
"It's historically the same distance between my first record and The Jazz Singer as it is from the beginning of rock and roll until now. And when you think of it like that, it's pretty scary. Not scary to me that I'm getting old, but scary as in Jolson singing in The Jazz Singer is 1927. So that's 50 years between 1927 and 1977 [when My Aim Is True was released]. And also from 1954 to now, the rock-n-roll era, which still hasn't finished yet. If you don't try and find some new way to keep — not reinvent, but re-animate, to keep some ardor, keep the spark thing going — part of it is sometimes the willingness to go away from the form that is the easiest and most facile.
"You know those people [who like North and Il Sogno] really listen intently. You can have a hit and people are barely hearing it. You can sell a lot of records and people are not really listening. You sell a couple hundred thousand records of something like North and those people are really listening to the record. Certain forms of radio, certain forms of records even have a very determined listening audience. Of course they're smaller in number, but they're more dedicated in their relationship to the music."
Prophetic words indeed. "Very determined" and "dedicated in their relationship to the music" could also be used to describe where Elvis Costello — increasingly a moving target, liable to record anything, and dare I say it, happy — is circa 2004.