To conduct his rare audiences with the British press, a briskly authoritative Elvis Costello moves just yards down the road from his Holland Park home to an ultra-discreet West London hotel. His personal territory thus protected, he bats the conversation back and forth with a slightly disdainful air.
As with his preference for hotel-room anonymity, his initially disconcerting froideur comes to seem more self-protective than hostile. Never an effusive man, even on paper, Costello, currently gaunt and wildly bearded, has tended to reach for the safety of the third person narrative during a distinguished and varied songwriting career.
Only the most creative, between-the-lines reading of the often-angry lyric sheet for Mighty Like A Rose, his newly-released album, will reward those looking for Joni Mitchell-style borrowings from the bedside diary.
"That way you can say very personal things in a way that would be almost intolerable — far too disconcerting — if you were to say them in the first person," says Costello of his preferred style. "But I don't think that means you're hiding from your real feelings. If anything, I think it means you're being more creative with them.
"But I tend not to look too closely at the writing process in case it stops happening. For me, it's a little mysterious and I like it that way. The more self-conscious you become, the less room you leave for happy surprises."
With a 13-year legacy of critically praised and often commercially successful albums behind him, the prolific Costello — in the past, no stranger to putting out two studio albums within the same year —has swapped a ragbag of individual deals in varying territories for a worldwide contract with Warner Brothers. Though his releases are now less frequent and carefully co-ordinated according to corporate policy (the new album is his first since 1989's well-received Spike), he denies that this puts limits on his creativity.
"Most of the pressure within a major company is pressure by absence," he shrugs. "They don't actually try to censor you or influence you. It's just that if you do something that doesn't fit in, it doesn't get promoted as enthusiastically.
"That said, the music business is capital 'M', little 'b' for me — I don't care about the business side of it at all. Obviously I hope my music reaches as large an audience as possible, and if I feel something is impeding that, I get annoyed and do what I can about it. But I'm not interested in wasting an hour talking about it."
His well-known fondness for putting journalists in their place could make one wonder if Costello, at 37 no longer the angry "young" man of British pop, deliberately cultivates his prickly public persona. While the musical output of most established pop figures becomes increasingly comfortable with age, Costello's own current single, "The Other Side Of Summer," curdles a pastiche of an old-fashioned surfing anthem with a heavy dose of bile.
Is the artist, whose prettier pop songs were once covered by the likes of Linda Ronstadt, now actively avoiding the onset of a mellow middle age?
"The inspiration for writing a pretty melody just comes, and you can't force it — any more than you can force yourself to write more aggressively," he says. 'You can only write in response to the inspiration you find. I can craft a song, but only to refine it after inspiration has started things off.'
Although devotees have pronounced Mighty Like A Rose an instant classic, the casual listener may find old prejudices being reinforced. Despite a rich array of musical textures and a second songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney, with whom he worked on Spike, and the inclusion of two moving ballads, "Sweet Pear" and "Broken," the latter written by his wife Cait, the overall tune is dark and sardonic. Does it concern Costello that this may prevent the album from reaching beyond his established fan base?
"Well, that's their loss, isn't it?" he snaps of any missed constituency of record-buyers. "I can understand that about as much as I can understand people who say, 'I don't like music'. That's like saying you don't like breathing, because there's music in everything: "In the roaring traffic's boom / In the silence of my lonely room ... "'
This verbal sleight-of-hand is followed by an impatient denunciation of his towering reputation among the international rock press. don't think about it,' he insists. 'Why should I?'
Respect from other musicians is a different matter. Having already collaborated with such legends as George Jones, Johnny Cash and the late Chet Baker, Costello retains an ambition to work with Aretha Franklin — though he notes with a rare smile that, given her choice of George Michael as a past duet partner, he is unlikely to have the necessary commercial standing. Instead, in tandem with preparations for a three-month world tour, he is completing work on the original music for Channel 4's summer epic serial GBH, written by Alan Bleasdale.
Talking about the project, Costello relaxes sufficiently to offer up a detail from a recent promotional visit to Madrid. The day's schedule completed, he took advantage of two free hours to queue for an exhibition of anti-fascist art at the Prado. Entry was delayed interminably by the burden imposed on security officials by a party of French schoolchildren.
"As I passed through the metal detector, I saw why. There was a whole table loaded down with weapons taken off them. There they were, going to see this fabulous anti-war art, and on them they had Ninja stars, commando knives, knuckle-dusters, the lot. I found that very encouraging."
And did he himself have anything confiscated? "They didn't find my weapons," replies Elvis Costello smoothly from behind his sunglasses. "They're all inside my head."