Elvis Costello is still an angry man. On his latest album Spike, his songs tackle the themes of emigration and the injustices of Thatcher's Britain. It's a. sombre record, with only occasional light relief. It won't rid Elvis of the "serious" tag he's been lumbered with, but that's probably not a bad thing. In a time of disposable pop pap, artists of Costello's stature are thin on the ground.
And it's Costello's stature that is the first thing you notice about him. As the former bug-eyed monster from the planet Revenge strides across the floor of his Gresham Hotel suite, you're struck by how tall he actually is. A firm hand-shake, a quick twinkle in his eye, and it's down to business. He wants to talk about Spike, and for the next forty minutes does just that. So why "Spike", Elvis?
"That's just what it's called. Depending on my mood I say different things. That it's named after the bulldog in Tom & Jerry, or Spike Milligan, or Spike Jones (an American singer in the 40's), or any other Spike I can think of. Maybe it's a spike in showbusiness."
So it's not another new persona for him? "No. It's just that over the last few years people have written a lot of bollocks about my name changing (Napoleon Dynamite, The Imposter, etc). I mean nobody expects an actor to play the same role all through their career. You write songs and you sometimes take on a character for the sake of the song. And sometimes when you're playing a show you might take on a character. It doesn't mean I'm a schizophrenic or something. People start reading too much into it."
He claims that there's also an element of fun involved in the name-changing. "People forget that, maybe because I get lumered with the image of being a serious Person. I don't think I'm overly serious. I'm deadly serious about the things I'm serious about, you can't trivialise certain things."
On Spike Costello's songs aren't as personal as some of his previous work. They're subjects about which he felt strongly enough to put pen to paper. "Tramp The Dirt Down" concerns his views of Margaret Thatcher and how he hopes he'll live long enough to "stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down." "I just wish that woman would go away," he elaborates. "After a while you stop having a reasonable democratic liberal argument about it and you just wish she was dead! That's not very nice, I don't like wishing anybody were dead, even somebody as repugnant as her. It's not a load of laughs being driven to the point where you're thinking those thoughts."
He doesn't like to think about how he'd otherwise express these dark thoughts. The songwriting process can be a cathartic experience for him. "It relieves the pain inside. That's what neurosis is. Some people go along letting it build up for ages. It could be directed at themselves, or their lover, or their boss. Then one day they go out and get an AK47 and shoot up a McDonalds!"
"Last Boat Leaving" deals with the worldwide problem of emigration. "It's about the LAST boat leaving. What's that song. "We're all coming back to Ireland?" That's a load of shit. They're not coming back, all the best people are going away. Not just here but everywhere. But it's healthy to get mad about it when it's something that shouldn't be happening."
Elvis and his wife Cait (O'Riordan, formerly of The Pogues) now have a house in Dublin and there's a lot about Ireland that he likes. He feels that some of it may have to do with the fact that a lot of Dublin got into Liverpool (he lived there as a child). "But I'm not going to be one of those green beer people. I hate all that, it really rings false to me. But this place is almost more familiar to me than it should be. It's easier to get around and people leave you alone. But there's still bullshit. I mean there's bullshit everywhere, y'know?"
Costello produced the Pogues' second album (Rum, Sodomy & The Lash) but these days he doesn't see much of the Camden Town rebels. "I never did really get on with them (laughs). I just did my job. It saddens me a little bit that they don't have the confidence in their own material, that they're starting to edit their own history to suit what they're doing now. They're denying that the record we did together is any good. In fact I think it's miles better than their last one. The band is over-populated and the sound is cluttered. I don't mean any disrespect to the individual musicians and I think that Shane MacGowan is a brilliant songwriter. But they should only put out a record when he has twelve songs ready. Still, they're miles better than most modern groups."
Two of the songs on Spike are the fruits of a new songwriting partnership between Costello and Paul McCartney. So how did that come about? "His office just rang up and asked did I want to come down and discuss songwriting with Paul. So I said 'Of course not!' (laughs). "While many would have found it an unnerving experience Elvis decided that he wouldn't be any use to The former Moptop if he was quaking in his boots. Basically they were writing songs for McCartney's new album, due out later this year.
"I think that what we did was good," he says. "There was a bit of tension to it, a healthy competitive nature to it. We wrote some really good songs. He's a disciplinarian, I learned a lot."
Costello was always a big Beatles fan and has always managed to find something of merit in everything McCartney has done. "The people who don't like him really go over the top, y'know. The want him to be Paul of The Beatles forever. That's unfair, he should have a life outside it. My job as I saw it was to try and make sure he didn't forget about some of the good things he's done in the past. I think that after all this time he's entitled to use some of his old-style of songwriting. People are constantly rewriting the stuff he did with John Lennon and if he isn't allowed to refer to it in any way ... he almost doesn't allow himself to do it ... then there's something wrong. It's stupid really."
Strangely enough the duo ended up having a reverse influence on each other, with the result that any hint of the old Paul McCartney probably stems from Elvis. Conversely, the bits that sound like Elvis were probably written by McCartney. Costello enjoyed the collaboration.
There's a strong traditional feel on some of the tracks on Spike, with contributions from Donal Lunny, Steve Wickham, Frankie Gavin and Derek Bell. Bell plays harp on "Any King's Shilling," a song concerning the exploits of Costello's grandfather. "His family moved from Birkenhead to Ireland and he ended up in the army as a bandsman. When war broke out he was put in a trench and shot and wounded. He ended up being stationed in Ireland in 1916, sort of on the wrong side, as it were. It's probably happened to others since. People who have more connecting them than they have dividing them, except the one important moral dilemma."
Twelve albums since his debut My Aim Is True in 1977, songs still come easily to Mr. Declan MacManus. "It's not like some great weight" he insists. I don't go into a trance or anything. When you get excited about something it can flow very quickly".
The interview over, Costello ponders on how he's going to get back to London for a midnight signing session at Tower Records in Piccadilly. A thoroughly intriguing and intelligent artist, you can catch him live when he guests on the IRMA Awards show on Friday, March 10. He's also in the National Stadium on 19th and 20th of May. Both he and Nick Lowe will perform solo sets before teaming up together for a grande finale.