"The problem with a lot of music these days," says Elvis Costello, "is that it's nothing more than sonic furniture. Stuff like Eric Clapton and Simply Red... you put it on at a dinner party and it operates at a kind of sub-audible level. You can say what you like about the music I make. But you could never say that it's the kind of music that's played at dinner parties. I never wanted to make the kind of music that's played in the background at wife-swapping parties to warm things up. And if I discovered that my albums were being played at wife-swapping parties, I'd happily fucking kill myself."
It's 20 years since Elvis Costello established himself with his debut album, My Aim Is True, as one of the few new wave musketeers worth getting into a lather over.
After two decades his knack for an instantly memorable hook and a well-turned lyric still holds firm — as evidenced by the 12 tracks on his latest album, All This Useless Beauty. Finally, he appears to have renounced his membership of the Awkward Bastard Squad. Indeed, while he stops some way short of performing backflips and offering up the contents of his bulging wallet, the affable geezer who greets your Loaded representative in a west London hotel seems a far cry from the stroppy git of legend who threatened journalists with sharpened nails and carried around a little black book containing a death-list of all music biz types who had dared to cross him,
"If anything," he says, "the sharpened nails and the little black book were all part of the persona that I invented for myself back then. There was a kind of obligation to be a bit stroppy in those days. I'd be touring with The Attractions and we'd arrive in Scarborough — staying at some grotty guesthouse that the Sex Pistols had stayed in the night before. It was like Gunfight The OK Corral. We'd arrive at the place and these heads would pop round the door: 'Ooh father, the pop group's arrived'. When people expect you to behave a certain way, you tend to rise to the occasion.
"I suppose I was pretty wound-up in those days. That was a time when I couldn't get enough drink down me; I couldn't take enough drugs; I couldn't chase enough women. And I'd be doing these tours where all these idiots would be shouting for 'Oliver's Army.' A lot of anger came out of that. I got this reputation for being a difficult sod and I enjoyed that for a while. It seemed to clear a lot of ground around me, so it was useful for a while. Undoubtedly, a lot of it was exaggerated. Like with the famous black book. I'm not even sure it actually existed, It the truth be told though, I've never really been one for actual revenge. If I've ever needed to get my own back, I've always felt that it was more effective to write a song than go to the trouble of killing somebody.
He might admit to being, "an altogether more reasonable bloke these day," but happily, his songs still simmer with the dogged unreasonableness of old.
"I once said all my songs were motivated by revenge and guilt. That these were the only emotions I understood. But I'm not sure that I ever believed it. Looking back, I'd say that it always had more to do with disappointment. My songs are different ways of looking at the same conundrum — about who men are, who women are, who the hell they think they are. That's what it's all about really."
Targets for his latest set include a good few counterblasts on the subject of men in the '90s — leaving one with the firm impression that Costello has little time for blokes in general.
"Well," he says, "there's a lot of truth in that. It's funny y'know. Because I've always had to put up with people saying that I hate women — largely because a few old songs of mine were completely misinterpreted. But the truth is that I really hate men. And this new album is the men-hating album of all time. Obviously, there's a certain degree of self-loathing involved. If I'm talking about what I dislike about men, then I'm going to have to face up to the tact that there's things I dislike about myself.
"I just think there's so much bullshit talked about men in the '90s. And there's so much crap going on. Like these men who go on Iron John courses and spend their weekends screaming and hugging trees in order to get in touch with their real feelings. Then there's your other lot who pretend to be gentle and caring. They're the biggest frauds of all because, underneath all that so-called sensitivity, they just want girls to take their clothes off. I know that's true because I've done it myself. We've all done it. If you haven't done it, then you've certainly thought about it.
"Then you've got the kind of men who behave like pigs and make no apologies for it. That's the Loaded end of the spectrum I suppose [laughs]. And I have no real problem with that. That's why I like Loaded so much — it's a fucking good laugh and it's basically honest. I'd sooner live with the Loaded attitude than deal with those new man types. Because to my mind, new man has always been convenient shorthand for a massive lie. Because even the most pious, remodeled man is going to do the other thing at some time — they're always going to weaken and commit the sin of lust, and they'll do it again and again. Like it or not, that's human nature and there's no arguing with that."
Declan McManus, The Avenging Dork, The Emotional Toothpaste, The Beloved Entertainer, The Imposter, Napoleon Dynamite, The Human Jukebox... he's toyed and juggled with numerous aliases and poses down the years. But now, at the grand old age of 41, Elvis Costello admits that he's more than happy to play at being himself. And with more than 300 top-notch songs to his credit, he's got no complaints with his role of full-time maverick outsider.
"In many ways," he says, "I was always the outsider, A song like 'Watching The Detectives' was regarded as part of the whole new wave thing. But, when I sat down to write it, I was trying to write some kind of film noir thing. What I do musically has little connection with any prevailing fashions or trends. I made a conscious decision that I wasn't going to be a Robert Plant type of singer — a Greek god with a cucumber down my trousers. I always found that a bit embarrassing myself. And not nearly as sexy as something a bit more offbeat.
"The people who are interested in what I do seem to be genuinely interested. I don't have the kind of audience that sees an advert on TV for a record that's been out for 18 months and says, 'I know, I'll buy that Phil Collins record.' Who the hell are those people? Can I not be trapped in a lift with them, please? And, while they're about it, would they kindly fuck off. Thank you and goodnight."
All This Useless Beauty is released by Warners on 13 May.