Elvis Costello picks up a tiny guitar-like instrument from its plush case resting on a huge hotel bed. He cradles it lovingly, as if it were a baby, against his barrel-like chest and picks out a little melody. It's a vintage ukulele, precision tooled by Hawaiian craftsmen.
He likes guitars a lot. But even though he still enjoys cranking things up to 11, he's no Nigel Tufnell. Costello's guitars are not for show. All receive a vigorous work-out. At a concert he played the other night he used seven different ones. Has he any idea how many he has?
"Oof," he exhales. "Dunno." A fair few, he says, but some were damaged when the storage lock-up he rented in Dublin was flooded by a canal. U2's The Edge, who also uses the facility, lost some of his instruments too. "Beautiful sound," Costello murmurs to his mandolin as he coochy-coos its strings.
It's a Sunday afternoon in SoHo, New York. The air is heavy; the heavens are about to open with torrential summer rain. Costello cuts a regal but vaguely battered figure. The glasses, of course, are there, but his hair, shot through with steely silver these days, is retreating apace up both flanks of his head.
Also less in evidence is the pinched, frowning Elvis Costello of repute. The singer-songwriter has long had a reputation as an intense artist and a very intense man. His ever-more-infrequent interviews hardly seemed comfortable, never mind fun, for any of the parties concerned. The sleeve of his last album, North, told you everything you needed to know about this middle-aged punk survivor: Costello, suited and booted, black overcoat, striding down a street in the rain, in black and white, unshaven, glowering.
But North was the sound of Costello in transition, deploying wrenching, orchestrated piano ballads to deal with what he calls "the change of heart" after he split with former Pogues bass player Cait O'Riordan and began a romance with the Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall. Now married to Krall, they are blissfully in love. As a result, this year's model Costello is more relaxed, less clenched, almost — who'da thunk it? — playful. It is surely no coincidence that his upcoming album The Delivery Man is exciting, energetic and soulful. (The same cannot be said of his other new album, Il Sogno — that'll be Italian ballet-inspired classical adaptations of Shakespeare for you.)
"I'm definitely, unashamedly happy," he says with very un-Elvis-like giddiness. His voice is precise and confident, his accent polished but not plummy, occasionally lapsing into mild Scouse. "I don't see my wife enough; we work a lot. But we try to keep our separation down to a minimum. We're in contact all the time. I know where's she's at. It's the best thing..."
Costello gives a sigh bordering on the soppy. "We understand each other's gig really well."
Today, Krall is on the other side of America, playing at Los Angeles's Greek Theatre. She's been touring since February, promoting her highly successful album The Girl In the Other Room. Her husband talks rhapsodically of writing songs with her for the record. She had never really written before, but he assiduously plays down his role. The music, he says, was mostly hers — he made a "couple of changes" to the end of the title track's chorus — and the lyrics largely came from things Krall had written in her journal. Costello took "the essence" of her ideas and moulded them into shape.
"The thing is, it's about trusting yourself. I really do believe that everyone can write songs. They just don't trust themselves to do it. We can all write books, we can all sing songs. We can do it when we're children, we can all draw and sing. And then it's either beaten out of us, scared out of us, or our own inhibition — our adult self — doesn't allow us to do it anymore. And one of the great things about music is the freedom in it. Not rock," he says with visible distaste, "as we know it now, that commodity. But rock 'n' roll at its purest. Jazz certainly has it. It's about freedom."
It's about freedom. To hell with prejudice, inhibition or fear. With boring, uptight old rock. Elvis Costello has spent all his 27 years as a recording artist making music on that basis. Now, as he hits middle-age, he seems more energetic than ever with a work slate that is ridiculously full and varied.
But would anyone think badly of him if he decided to chill out a bit, to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labour.
"Well, two things probably affect that," he says, poking his glasses up his nose. "I have not ruthlessly pursued success and I have not capitalised on success as cynically as I might have done. Therefore, I am not as assured... though obviously I am not hurting... I'm not as wealthy as I would be if I'd been very much more ruthless in the pursuit of certain successes I've had. Therefore, I have the need to keep working. I have a lot of people I want to be able to look out for. I want to be able to move and live with the freedom I have at the moment. I have responsibilities.
"And the second thing is — what else am I gonna do? I don't wanna be defined by a handful of songs I wrote 25 years ago..."
Costello had plans for his 50th birthday, Big plans. He had booked Carnegie Hall for the night in question, 25 August. Although he has toured America almost every year since 1977, he had never — despite an Oscar nod, three Grammy nominations, one Bafta, two Ivor Novellos, a Nordoff Robbins Silver Clef Award, something called the Dutch Edison Award, a berth in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and collaborations with everyone from Burt Bacharach to the Brodsky Quartet via Transvision Vamp's Wendy James — played the legendary New York venue.
Costello at Carnegie, it just sounds right. So, to celebrate turning 50, he was going to play the old dame and invite some of his friends along to join him. You can just imagine the line-up.
Then, New York's Lincoln Centre phoned. Did Mr Costello want to do three nights at its annual, highly august festival? Three different shows at which he could showcase the breadth and depth of his repertoire? In This Moment: Elvis Costello would follow past retrospectives and tributes to artists such as Ornette Coleman, Philip Glass, Leonard Bernstein and Oliver Messiaen.
"So I let the Carnegie date go," says Costello. "This was really a better opportunity."
And so on a hot summer night last month, Costello took to the stage of the Centre's Avery Fisher Hall. It was Saturday, and this was the last installment of his trio of performances which had begun with an engagement with Holland's Metropole Orkest.
That was followed by a rock show at which Costello and his three-piece band The Imposters barrelled through a two-and-a-half-hour set that roamed freely over a back catalogue numbering some 400 songs. "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" was energetic but messy; "Radio Radio", introduced by a brisk "One-two-three-four", was greeted with lusty cheers; "Indoor Fireworks" was tender and lovely.
The lengthy set also found room for a raft of new numbers from The Delivery Man: "Bedlam", "Needle Time" and a rollicking "There's A Story In Your Voice", which he told the sold-out audience of 2,700, was, on record, a duet with Lucinda Williams. The acoustics of the hall, not designed for electric guitars, thumping drums and rasping vocals, weren't overly kind, especially to the unfamiliar new material. But Costello, being Costello, had relished the challenge of tackling architecture. He would later reflect that, while "it was exciting-sounding, I think clarity was difficult with the * new songs, for lyrics and everything. But they didn't know that we were gonna play an entire new record at it. When they booked us they thought we were just gonna come and play a rock 'n' roll show." As if.
Finally, on the Saturday night, the capstone on Costello's current career activities was lowered into place. The Brooklyn Philharmonic was, in the capitalised words of the Lincoln Centre press release, "Performing the North American Premiere of His First Symphonic Work, Il Sogno, and Orchestral Versions of Some of Costello's Pop Classics". Il Sogno is based on A Midsummer Night's Dream. Costello sat in the gods and watched as the orchestra played the 63-minute piece. He seemed to have woven elements of swing, jazz and Bernstein's West Side Story into more "traditional" sounding classical textures. So did it work for him?
"I thought [the orchestra] did an excellent job," Costello reflects the following afternoon in his suite in the Mercer hotel. He says any success wasn't about whether the score was written down accurately — having taught himself how to write musical manuscript, he had spent 10 weeks writing 200 pages of score in pencil — but whether the musicians "can feel it". Did they understand his musical ideas for this incarnation of the Shakespeare play, with its suggestions of "swinging fairies", use of cimbalin (a kind of hammer dulcimer used in Eastern European folk) and evocation of Bottom by marching music?
Because he could talk about the nuts and bolts of music until the cows come home (or until the time left to ask him personal stuff has dwindled away), he expounds at length like this, one hand on his lightly bristled chin, a leg swung over the other, vaguely ursine body moulded into a too-comfy hotel chair. There was the thrill of importing a "jazz drummer who does a lot of Broadway work" into the orchestra, the possibilities offered by the few bars where he had given the saxophonist the opportunity to improvise. It all sounded very impressive and thought-out. He'd clearly put the hours in. No dilettante he.
For the second half of the previous evening's performance, he and his long-standing pianist Steve Nieve had hopped on stage for those orchestral versions of some of his more familiar songs. Costello's week of pan-genre, cross-cultural roaming ended with what was mostly an a capella version of the closing track from 1991's Mighty Like A Rose. He had thought the song's "circus music" feel would be fitting for the finale. He also thought it would be funny to have the orchestra join him at the line "I'm the lucky goon who composes tune from birds arranged the high-wire".
As 70 musicians weighed in, and Nieve pounded away, the sound was chaotic and flying out of control. Costello loved it. He beamed and bowed as he received a standing ovation and a bunch of flowers. He applauded his conductor, and his lead violinist, and the whooping crowd. He exited stage left, came back for more cheers, then trotted off again, his leather coat wafting behind him.
Costello has left the country. Home these days is the New York apartment he shares with Krall, whom he married last December at Elton John's Surrey mansion. The couple also spend time at their house on Vancouver Island in the Canadian's home province of British Columbia.
Strictly speaking, Costello hasn't been "here" much recently anyway. For much of the 17-year duration of his relationship with Cait O'Riordan, he lived in Dublin. That is when he wasn't in a studio recording one of his near-annual albums, or playing a show with someone someplace on a world tour that has, in various guises, been going on for 27 years. This autumn, Costello the aesthete can be found gigging round Australia's finer vineyards.
But Costello's departure from the British isles is more than geographical. Of his two new albums, Il Sogno was originally written as a dance piece for an Italian ballet company, while The Delivery Man is a rootsy, vaguely thematic rock set recorded in the deeply Southern environment of Oxford, Mississippi. Assuming no other idea has barged its way into his big, restless brain — and by the time you've finished reading this article he's likely to have had at least one new creative notion — his next project will be a piece of musical theatre he's writing on the life of Hans Christian Andersen, commissioned to celebrate next year's bicentenary of the author's birth.
The diverse nature of these ventures leads us to the most fundamental part of Costello's leave-taking. If he were still here, in the Ireland of his ancestors or the England of his birth, he wouldn't be "allowed" to pursue his relentless high-art fancies. North, released barely a year ago, bore the imprimatur of venerable classical record label Deutsche Grammophon and was savaged in the UK. Following on from album-length collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter and Burt Bacharach, Costello was accused of having ideas above his station.
He's prepared, he says, for Il Sogno to receive a similar kicking, not least from classical purists.
"There will be some people who, even if it were the greatest piece of music ever written, would say it was terrible. Because they're defending a citadel against invaders. And you get it with jazz, you get it with pop music, and you get with classical music for certain."
Does he get a kick out of offending purists?
"It's not my motivation but I'm ready for it. I know that I'm going to read patronising dismissals of Il Sogno simply because I wrote it. By people who won't have heard it. I had the same thing happen, particularly in England, with North. People dismissing it, and describing it in terms that really proved they hadn't even heard it. Because they were making assumptions based on hearsay. They couldn't possibly have heard it and described it as they did."
"But, you know," he says, with a defiant prickle in his voice, "if North got the worst reviews of my career in England, it got the best reviews of my career in Germany. It was number one in the jazz charts in America. I mean, you can't please all the people. I don't live in England. I'm not very with the English sensibility, I haven't been for many years. And I'm getting further and further away from it. It's very distant to me and seems very small and — I don't mean this to be rude — but kind of insignificant. That's not to say the people of the country are insignificant — I have some of my closest friends there, my family lives there. But the cultural scene and its seethingness doesn't interest me."
Does he find it insular?
"It's like a tiny crowded bar, with everybody elbowing for room. And it just bores me."
This is Costello at 50: still criticising the critics, ever convinced of his own infallibility. He zealously pursues his own agenda, and will stoutly defend his right to take whatever musical path he pleases. His excursions are not the idle indulgences of the moneyed bored. Nor are they "detours" — a word that implies that they are brief forays off the one true path that will always lead back to rock music. The truth is, rock music was never broad enough to contain or satisfy him.
It is all about reinvention and regeneration for the angry young tyro who ditched his given name (Declan MacManus) for a deliberately provocative stage name. Who has had a succession of deals with different record labels, and has recently transferred his business affairs to the care of Krall's high-powered management. Who thinks that, if he had not blown the whistle on the sudden success of his early career by calming down his excesses and reassessing his music, he would either be dead by now or "bent out of shape". Commercial acclaim, he insists, "didn't sit well with me".
As far back as 1981 Costello was banging the drum for his right to experiment. The sleeve of his album of country music covers, Almost Blue, bore a warning sticker: "May produce radical reaction in narrow-minded people." The album was slated at the time — the impudence of this skinny, amphetamined, New Wave geek who thought he could take on Nashville. History, though, has been kinder and the album has just been rereleased and lovingly expanded.
Singing "She" in the film Notting Hill, he says, that was a detour. Did that take bravery — cheesy song for cheesy film? Even the film's writer, Richard Curtis, warned him: "I'm going to ruin your reputation."
"There's no bravery in it," he says dismissively, "there's no such thing. Bravery is a misused word in terms of art, or even in pop music — not to call it art. It was fun. Singing a song like that is going to a fancy dress party. Those sort of things, they're the true detours. The work that I've done aside from rock 'n' roll are full-blooded collaborations or investigations of one particular way of working. You can't do [something like] writing Il Sogno in your spare time. It's an all-consuming thing. And to do it well you have to throw yourself totally into it. What you have to be prepared to do is let go of how you look doing it. If you want to look hip — that wouldn't go with my..." and here he spits the word with visceral distaste "... image. I don't give a fuck about being a rock 'n' roll star. I just want to do the things that interest me."
All that said, Costello is patently less tense these days. Love seems to have chilled him out. When Krall phones up from Los Angeles during our conversation he comes back almost gooey. "It's an amazing thing to fall in love with somebody and find that you can write together," he murmurs. "I imagined I would just be a collaborator with her and I didn't try to become what I have become." He goes quiet for a moment; it's a rare, un-self-conscious moment for one so controlled and controlling. "So for it to have worked out the way it has, is extra."
Notoriously clam-like when it comes to discussing anything other than music, Costello's personal contentment even enables him to open up a little. Having children together, he concedes, "would be lovely [he has a son, Matthew, 29, by his first wife, Mary]. But it's a big thing to take on, with me being older and for her, because her career is in an amazing place — it's a huge success this record and deservedly so. It's the best work she's done." It doesn't feel like he's saying this because he co-wrote half of it.
He's also careful to temper his bliss.
"I'm not ignorant or careless, or not mindful, of the sad things that you have to pass through to reach this point. I haven't made a success of two relationships before. I'm not proud of that but I can't live in the past. I live in the moment, with hope for the future. And that's the best I can manage, I have respect for the past. And you know, you should have. But you can't keep turning something over."
But the best evidence of the new lease of life Costello is enjoying is the vibrant, organic-sounding The Delivery Man. It's a cracking record, at times hungry and enthusiastic, at others simple and heartfelt. It's his least mannered, most unforced album in years, even as it ambitiously aims to encompass parts of a Gothic story-cycle about the character of the title, meditations on the War on Terror, and more general thoughts on the nature of violence and fear.
He considers "Bedlam" to be as vitriolic about the Dubya era as "Tramp the Dirt Down" was about Thatcher. He aims a few digs at the Jessica Lynch capture/rescue fiasco. "She's Pulling Out the Pin" is a classic piece of Costello lyrical imagery, twinning the plight of the female suicide bomber with that of the pole dancer letting down her hair. Costello says the song "juxtaposes the most heartless part of our culture and the most desperate part of another culture. Two women's fates. It's just a bald telling of it. It doesn't have a judgement. They're both desperate, dead-end jobs," he says. Interestingly, this song will not be on the US version of the album because, he says, "it slows the flow". Might it also be that any hint of understanding of the plight of "terrorists" is too contentious an idea for the US?
"There's no moral point of view in it," Costello insists. "I don't feel myself equipped. I'm not the Holy Ghost. I'm just a songwriter."
But he has, surely, made much creative hay out of moral certainty before?
"Oh, I have moral certainty that I know better about this than some of the people who are pulling these levers right now!" he laughs.
In contrast to the beefy, beardy, dishevelled figure he was in the early 1990s, Costello's 50 years sit well on him. He's the first extant icon of the punk generation to raise his bat for a half-century — John Lydon has two years to go, Paul Weller has four, while Joe Strummer didn't see out his 51st year. And unlike his peers, he is less of a hostage to his past. He complains about Britain's tall-poppy syndrome, yet his gently declining sales, a tricksy image and a dogged eclecticism give him a creative freedom and a general leniency that isn't afforded, say, Sting.
He thinks British dance culture offers the "greatest musical choice", more so than any other genre, and positively bobs with enthusiasm for The Streets's A Grand Don't Come For Free. He sees Mike Skinner as part of a continuum of storytelling English songwriters, from Ray Davies through The Specials and Madness.
Ask him how he feels about hitting 50, twice the age of Mike Skinner, and he swings back to the music, as he must: "I was glad that this Lincoln Centre [thing] gave me an opportunity to have a hugely charged way of celebrating it."
But aside from the music?
"I never wanted to be young," he shrugs, that faint, knowing Costello smile playing on his lips. Maybe he's casting his mind back to those late-1970s/early-1980s tours of America when drink, drugs and women nearly did for him. "I didn't like being young. It just never appealed to me that much. I always thought the adults seemed to be having all the fun. And now I am old, and I'm having lots of fun!" Has he had a chance for a post-mortem on the New York shows yet? "Ah, it was what it was. There's no point in a post-mortem. It's on to the next thing."