Elvis Costello has changed his name. He is now Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus, which is almost the name his parents gave him. He has also released a much-praised album (still under, a "Costello" tag of sorts) on which he is not backed by his band The Attractions, apart from one track. And, unusually, he has been talking to the press.
I last met Elvis (or Declan) 9 years ago, when The Attractions were just a month old.
The shift back towards his real name is apparently a sign that he is embarking on a second stage in his career, re-assessing all that he's done up to now.
He explained the new Declan like this. "I've freed myself of other peoples limited view of what Elvis Costello means. I made a good impact, had initial success, and established a certain identity. But I wanted to leave behind the constricting elements of 'the image of Elvis Costello."
In the process he has started some speculation that hasn't pleased him at all. "It's very easy to over-read it, particularly if you start going for psychological reasons. There's been a couple of suggestions where people were alluding to schizophrenia. That's over-dramatising it to a ludicrous degree."
Even so, it does seem a confusing move, particularly as the use of the name Elvis Costello seems to have restricted him as little as the use of the name David Bowie has restricted David Jones. As Costello, he has recorded a whole batch of very different albums with The Attractions, including an excursion into country music, has toured as a soloist, or duetted with T Bone Burnett, worked as producer for bands like Squeeze or The Pogues, and managed to turn up as special guest with anyone from John Hiatt to Ricky Skaggs. The problem, it seems, is that he feels his public image has been more restrictive.
"The most commercially successful things were in the first three years. If I died in a plane crash tomorrow, Radio 1 would play 'Oliver's Army' and 'Watching The Detectives' as my obituary."
I suspect he could be right. "Shipbuilding" and songs from Punch The Clock and Imperial Bedroom would surely be more appropriate. But if he is trapped by his early image and material, then maybe the new and already successful LP King Of America, will change a few people's minds. This was originally intended to be "half a solo album, and half recorded with The Attractions" but producer T Bone Burnett decided that the use of acoustic bass or brushes would "give a greater degree of warmth to the vocals." In the end, The Attractions only appeared on one track, and Elvis himself didn't play completely solo on any track. His acoustic guitar and excellent mandolin work are only accompanied by string bass on "Little Palaces." For most of the songs he was backed by very distinguished American session men. These included the Elvis Presley team of Ron Tutt, James Burton and Jerry Scheff. Their presence has inspired him to surely his best vocal performances to date.
"I sound happy and relaxed? So would you, if your were in a room with those people. You have nothing to lose. My grandfather used to say 'You, can't fail — there's nothing, to stop you,' and that kept coming pack to me making the record. Because whenever I got nervous at who these people had played with, I thought 'I haven't come here to get reflected glory. They played with those people because they were really good, and I'm really good, I've get some really good songs here, so why don't I sing them properly?' "
He also "made an effort to explain myself — perhaps clearer than I'd done in recent years, even with The Attractions. You know the way you can go into a bar and tell a stranger your problems, but you can't tell your best friend."
He complained that people often read too much into songs that are "just observations." My favourite, "Little Palaces," is a pretty but angry acoustic piece about brutality in England, which "describes a place I lived in briefly. I went there and left in tears." Another apparently autobiographical, but more mysterious song is "Suit Of Lights" (the only one on which The Attractions appear). Inevitably, this has been seen as a description of the death of Elvis, but he insists it is about people's morbid interest in celebrity.
This new and varied set of 15 songs includes straight-forward story songs, bar-room cameos and unhappy love songs, many of which he says were written very fast. "American Without Tears," the story of two now-middle-aged GI brides, was started on a plane "just as the seat-belt signs went on for landing, and was finished in a hotel 20 minutes later."
This track, and the inclusion of J. B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues," have led to suggestions that the aim is to criticise America, something he strongly denies "because if there are any political implications, I think there's a lot of racism towards America in this country. America needs a lot of love." The Lenoir piece, which was banned in the Fifties, was recorded "as a joke, because me doing it is satirical. I could write a fraught protest song about the way US culture and politics is hell-bent on being sucked down some time-tunnel to the Eisenhower fireside, but what's the point? It's idiotic, but it's as plain as the nose on your face. It's rather like writing another song about what a terrible person Margaret Thatcher is. If you don't know by now you're an idiot."
Did this mean that the writer of "Peace In Our Time" and co-writer of "Shipbuilding," surely two of the most original political songs in recent years, had changed tack? "I don't think I've ever written a political song. I've written songs about things you observe, but they are not promoting some ideology. They are an emotional response to events". Although he played benefits for the miners last year, he went on to voice his suspicion of Red Wedge ("a terrible name") for he is no fan of Neil Kinnock either.
Elvis Costello was always an odd pop star in terms of his attitude to fame. "I've been very fortunate in not being very successful."
Even so, I suspect that Costello (and MacManus) would appreciate renewed large-scale commercial success to accompany the new name and image. He mused at the recent success of writer Garrison Keillor and Bruce Springsteen, two other figures who have also been around for some time and are now major, stars. "Springsteen's record is no better than any other. They are all pretty good. But he wasn't a national hero when he was a grubby-looking bar-band singer, and suddenly he's elevated to this heroic scene. He must be really surprised, and thinking 'what did I do right'?
It seems that he'd like the same to happen with King Of America. "I don't see why it shouldn't sell millions. It's better than most records released at the moment because more thought has gone into it, and there is better playing on it. I think this a punk rock record, do you know that? Just because of the way it is. Whatever record sounds like it?"