Elvis Costello's new album, When I Was Cruel due for release in April opens with a deliciously evocative track called "45." It tells of how he has measured his life according to singles and albums since, basically, the day he was born.
Not surprisingly, perhaps. After all, Costello is the son of a mother who worked in a record store and a father who was a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra. He also was born Declan Patrick MacManus in Paddington, London, in 1945 and remembers "liking records a lot as a baby" and responding to favourites.
"Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra, the records my folks had," he explains. "In fact, the first record I remember listening to, as a child, maybe before I could speak, was Songs for Swinging Lovers, which had 'I've Got You under My Skin.' That's the first record I remember responding to. And Only the Lonely still, to this day, is one of my favourite albums. That's a Sinatra record from the late Fifties and it's particularly melancholic."
Sinatra's more melancholic side also found a parallel in Costello's psyche.
"I have a quite melancholic disposition," he says. "The first song I ever wrote was in E minor and called 'Winter,' which was when I was 13! And you are that way disposed when you're that age."
Maybe. But by this time Elvis also had discovered the "sheer joy of rock 'n' roll, in the shape of the Beatles." And the delights of sex. On an unconscious level, of course!
"I remember hearing 'Anyone Who Had a Heart' when I was 10 and it made me feel peculiar," he remembers, laughing. "It's an erotic song. The music, not the words. And the music of Bacharach is really torrid. And how it made me feel was like a sexual feeling you don't have the words for because you grew up in a time when all that was swept under the carpet. Yet a few years later, when I heard 'Girl' by the Beatles and 'Play with Fire,' by the Stones I realised these were songs with a feel of decadence, a sense of young men having truly adult experiences. I definitely was attracted to all that!
And later on, in the Seventies, I also realised that Dylan's Blonde on Blonde was the overt version of what 'Girl' was about. But by then you'd got girlfriends so you know what these things are. And now I know I've lived long enough to have lived the life that's in the songs on Blonde on Blonde. Yet everything Dylan was writing at the time was heightened by the life he was living and the drugs that were around. I never had that experience."
Meaning? Elvis Costello never was the kind of amphetamine freak Dylan was when he wrote Blonde on Blonde?
"Strangely enough I hadn't done that at 16!" Did Elvis do it later? "No comment!"
This answer should come as no surprise. Elvis Costello rarely if ever talks about what his biographer Tony Clayton Lea described as the "substance abuse" of his mad, early days touring. But Elvis will admit that at the beginning of his career, which started with the success of his album My Aim Is True in 1977, he'd often get "fired up" on vodka before gigs.
"It got me in the mood," he says. "Yet I never really liked vodka very much. Nowadays I don't have to do anything. And there isn't any dark story. I just quit drinking. I lost the taste. And, as I say, I have quite a melancholic disposition. So as you get older you have to watch that drink is a depressant. In fact, there's two songs on the new record that are about the tendency to embrace just the gloomy side. 'Tart' and 'My Little Blue Window.' The blue window is the one you can choose to look through all the time. And you need the hooligan in your life — the person who loves you — to break that for you. You need your partner to shake you out of that. And you need to be able to do it for them. You don't need love like an aspirin for toothache. You need love like a brick through a blue window."
Believe me, it is surprising to hear the usually intensely private Elvis Costello refer, even tangentially, to his "partner." Y'see, as with his drug use, Costello rarely, if ever, speaks publicly about his partners. Including his first wife whom his biographer refers to only as Mary or his marriage to Cait O'Riordan, which has since ended. Though, when pushed, Costello does reveal he is "in love" at the moment. But then his new album also features at least one song, "15 Petals," which celebrates love in a way that is relatively new to Costello, who admits he hasn't written many love songs. So to paraphrase "torrid" Bacharach's "Alfie," what's the song all about, Elvis? "The mad way being in love makes you feel," he responds, laughing. "The place it takes you to, the actual physical destination, and the way it takes you out of yourself."
Not only that, Elvis Costello is just as passionate about his new album as he was about My Aim Is True. Or Songs for Swinging Lovers.
"I am!" he responds. "And I really enjoyed making this record here in Dublin. This is where I live, this is my home. It has been for 12 years. And the production team who worked with me Ciaran Cahill, Leo Pearson and Kieran Lynch deserve equal billing with the musicians, because they gave the whole flow to this record. So this kind of rock 'n' roll record we couldn't have done without the environment these guys helped me create. That's part of the reason I love living in Ireland!"