Kentucky New Era, April 1, 1989
Elvis Costello works with
Elvis Costello has been called a musical genius by many critics in his 12-year career.
He has an answer for them. "There are no geniuses in this business. If there were, they wouldn't be in this business."
An interviewer quickly discovers that Costello has an opinion about everything. But that doesn't come as a surprise. Costello's albums display his acute observations of the human condition. Spike, his 12th, and first on Warner Brothers Records, is no exception.
It was No. 30 and climbing on the Cashbox magazine March 25 best-selling album chart.
The record tackles such topics as God, Margaret Thatcher, coal-train robberies and capital punishment, as well as problems with personal relationships. If that weren't enough, it contains two songs written with another famous Liverpudlian, Paul McCartney.
"McCartney called and asked if I'd be interested in writing a few songs," Costello says. "It was lyric pingpong. You go back and forth with each other. We'll just have to wait and see if it works."
One of the songs they co-wrote is "Veronica," the album's first single. McCartney also plays bass on the track "...This Town..."
Another song, "Baby Plays Around," was co-written by Costello and his wife, Cait O'Riordan, formerly of the Pogues, an Irish band.
"Cait wrote it while I went out to buy a paper," Costello says, emphasizing how small his contribution was. "It was all there on tape. All I did was some musical editing."
He continues: "This album took a bit more planning. I knew the players on the other records and they were familiar with the sound. In this case, we put the musicians together." Supporting players include Roger McGuinn, once of the Byrds, former Beatle McCartney, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, guitarist Marc Ribot and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans.
"We had to get the right collection and make the right mistakes to produce this album," Costello says. It's his first album of new material since Blood and Chocolate in 1986.
Spike has been well-received by the critics, even better than most of Costello's previous efforts, which also have been favorably reviewed in general. Costello is a critical success but has not been a commercial superstar. He doesn't seem unhappy about the situation, but did leave Columbia Records for Warner Brothers.
"I don't want to go around bashing my former label," the singer says. "The people at CBS who didn't help me know who they are and the people who did help know who they are. The Warner people know the business and want to sell the record.
"I'm successful and enjoy what I do. That and selling records are two different things, really," he laughs.
Spike is a typical Costello mix of musical idioms. He has always been able to scramble different musical forms together, driven by the imagery of his lyrics. He finds some idioms — such as jazz — have been used too much by careless hands, saturating the public's appetite for them.
"Let Him Dangle" deals with a real British murder case. "It's a famous murder story and I grew up hearing about it," Costello says. "Now, every time someone gets murdered or something horrific happens, the tabloids scream, 'Let Him Dangle.'
"The song states my feelings clearly on that issue," he continues. "It (execution) is wrong, regardless of the crime that has been committed. That doesn't mean that if someone in my family were murdered I wouldn't be angry. Of course I'd be, but I'd still be against hanging the guy. It doesn't bring the victim back."
His lyrics have created a public image of anger and suppressed violence. Costello feels that's the public's problem, not his. After he has finished a song, what people do or do not read into it is in the public domain, he feels. However, Costello has strong reactions to critical reviews.
"They don't always grasp everything," he says, leaning forward in his seat. "They're saturated with free music to the point where they can only listen to eight bars of it. The people actually putting their money down to buy the record have a different relationship with it. What bothers me about critics is their telling me I can make a better record. Well, if they think so, let them go out and make it.
"An artist takes what he has and uses it with the material at hand. It's like Bon Jovi. He sells records and doesn't pretend to be an artist. I enjoy him because he does what he does well."
Costello waves his hand dismissively, "Look at Michael Jackson. I'm convinced no one is going to remember his songs. He's going to be a statistic like Rudy Vallee. Vallee sold lots of records, but who remembers him? That's going to be Michael."
Costello also wrote the highly praised lyrics of "The Comedians," which the late Roy Orbison sang on his last LP, "Mystery Girl."
The singer, whose real name is Declan MacManus, is touring, but minus the Attractions, his former backup band. They have been praised as "the perfect new-wave rhythm section" and panned as limiting Costello's range. It seems to be up in the air whether they will play together again.
"When you perform, it's the chance to do a song in a different way than the recording. So you end up with a totally new sound," Costello said. "There aren't any of my songs that I'm humiliated to play. So I'm not editing them out of my life. However, there are some songs I don't like and others that I would rather play."
He laughs. "But I'm not telling which ones."
Kentucky New Era, April 1, 1989
Mary Anne O'Callaghan interviews Elvis Costello.