Elvis Costello has worn many hats. Early in his 27-year recording career he was an angry young punk whose raw energy on songs like "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio" belied his knock-knees and heavy-rimmed glasses. He's been a bandleader, torch singer, folkie, husband to jazz pianist/vocalist Diana Krall and songwriting partner to Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach.
With the release of two new albums Sept. 21, Costello, 50, tries out a new identity: composer of scores for the stage and ballet.
The Delivery Man is Costello's latest rhythm and blues work with his backing band, the Imposters. Il Sogno is a full-length orchestral work recorded by the London Symphony under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.
Costello thinks the two projects needed to be released together. That's his way of declaring to his loyal rock 'n' roll followers — as well as classical music buffs — that he plans to work in both genres from now on.
"When I've done nontraditional projects before there's been criticism that it's some side trip for me," Costello says. "By releasing these together I have made them of equal value — which, for me, they are.
"I think in some ways they are more similar than some might imagine."
The Delivery Man plays like a thriller rock musical that has yet to be be cast. Recorded mostly in Oxford, Miss., the album has many Southern signatures, including the country strings and twang of "Heart Shaped Bruise" and the powerful soul of "Monkey To Man," which Costello described as a "New Orleans rock 'n' roll song."
Several songs have already been given character identities thanks to guest singers, like Lucinda Williams on "There's a Story in Your Voice" and Emmylou Harris on "Nothing Clings Like Ivy" and "Heart Shaped Bruise."
The story of a jealous murderer, The Delivery Man has some gaps; only half the music Costello wrote was recorded. With a wide-ranging palette of pop styles, particularly R&B, country and blues, this may be his most accessible studio work in a decade.
"I don't really have any connection to Irish or English folk music," says the London-born Costello, whose father was a big-band leader. "I'm much more confident with the stuff on this record, like the Memphis blues and what we called `beat music' when I was a kid."
Il Sogno (The Dream) is a dramatic contrast. Italy's Aterballeto dance company commissioned it for a recent production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Costello flirted with Shakespeare and classical music on 1993's The Juliet Letters, recorded with the Brodsky Quartet; since then he has become a much more academic composer and interpreter.
"I collaborated with songwriter Richard Harvey on The Juliet Letters and it was very inspiring but a little frustrating, because I couldn't read (the music)," Costello says. "It really galvanized me to learn the technical skills to create arrangements."
In a recent review of a live performance, Peter G. Davis, classical critic of New York magazine, praised Il Sogno's "quirky melodic shapes that always keep the ear guessing, as well as an innate feeling for tangy instrumental combinations. ... It definitely adds up to a most engaging romp through Shakespeare."
Costello knows that Il Sogno may be lost on most of his audience. He is curious about who will be listening.
"It wasn't written for those who are impatient. Some people won't enjoy it because it is outside their music experience," says Costello. "In my mind, that's why they should be listening to it."
In addition to the reissue of three classic albums last month (Almost Blue, Goodbye Cruel World and Kojak Variety), Costello is preparing a live concert DVD. And he's talking about composing an opera.
"I pride myself on the writing of 300 songs and mining an area of lyrical interest. The Delivery Man is proof of that," Costello says. "(Il Sogno) is about the vanity of doing art (instead of) being a rock 'n' roll star."