NEW YORK — In an iTunes world, Elvis Costello has come up with a double album — put the emphasis on album.
Though it is available digitally and as a CD, vinyl is his delivery system of choice. His new 16-song National Ransom, produced by buddy T Bone Burnett, is some of the widest-ranging music he's put out at one time — from a title cut that wails about a failed financial system to some that take inspiration from the days before rock 'n' roll.
While on tour with his last album, made with an acoustic string band, the music took a different shape. He called Burnett excitedly after writing "I Lost You" with Jim Lauderdale on a bus from Dallas to Tulsa, then performing it that night.
"I said we've got to record the band again," he said. "It's different now. It's a rock 'n' roll band now."
A slimmed-down Costello took time to talk recently.
A couple of years ago you indicated you may be through making albums. What changed?
I said it to scare away the demons a little bit. I think at that time I might have been a little too wrapped up in the business. The record companies seem to be turning the lights off pretty fast. My business is doing fine.
This is a challenging album that rewards people who spend time with it.
There's beautiful playing on it. Some of the songs are of a light heart and some are not, and I make no apologies for that. These are not easy times.
On the lyric sheet, you assign a setting for most of these songs ( "A drawing room in Pimlico, London, 1919" or "1929 to the present day" for the title cut). Did you do it as an exercise or challenge for your writing?
I didn't really do it in advance. I sort of thought about these once I heard them. I thought, "What's an evocative location?" It's like a playwright's device. I'm a writer who holds a guitar, you know. I'm not a poet or a journalist or a novelist but I have some of those responsibilities.
With the title cut, did watching what's happened on Wall Street inspire you?
Inspire is not the right word. It's not a finger-pointing, sort of easy moral song. To my mind, although I don't think it's as good a song, it's certainly saying the same things as "Working Man's Blues" by Merle Haggard. ... The other thing contained in it is that we're all responsible.
Your album is filled with words that would send listeners to the dictionary — claxton, brazier, slattern, grenadine, farandoles, votive. Do you enjoy expanding the boundaries of what you'd see in typical popular songwriting?
Claxton? You don't know what a claxton is?
You must be a mean Scrabble player.
I've never played it. It's never occurred to me as a responsibility. Some words just sound more attractive to the ear singing or saying them. I'm not doing it to be regarded differently ... There's a mischievous (aspect) to it — like fingersmith, a word for pickpocket. It's almost like onomatopoeia. I think that's enjoyable to do and listen to, just like certain harmonies are sweet to the ear and some are jarring, deliberately jarring.
Would you ever be interested in having your music featured in a show like Glee or American Idol?
I don't think it's ever been suggested. I'm not a big fan of shows where the stage directions are "Fill the arena with water and now release crocodiles" ... I don't know about Glee, I haven't seen it. Sometimes if a beautiful song could be heard by a broader audience because it's attached to a show, that's OK. My songs are in movies. Sometimes they live a little longer than the films that they're in, but that doesn't matter, either. It's whether you're really hearing it or if it's just being played. That's the difference.