When a world-famous rock star like Elvis Costello is discovered at the genteel Wigmore Hall, listening to piano sonatas, it flies in the face of the job description of every rocker from Bill Haley to the Rolling Stones. Here is a man who has played the shrines of pop from Wembley to the Hammersmith Odeon, who filled the Albert Hall on his own, who enjoyed a reputation as scabrous as any of his punk contemporaries, and who has been hailed as a British Bob Dylan or the heir to John Lennon. What, in short, is a guy like that doing in a joint like this?
It is a question guaranteed to trip over Costello's famously low irritation threshold. "That's really stupid," he says. "Why should I have to apologise for behaving in a different way? This country has a terrible habit of locking everyone up in little boxes and not allowing you to break the rules. I can't understand the barriers between pop music and classical and I don't see either one as superior. Every day when I get up there's more music waiting for me than I can possibly listen to. And if there's some that I don't like or you don't like, then no one's making you listen to it."
Costello has always been one of rock's most unpredictable performers, a lone ranger chopping and changing his style as the inspiration took him. In the course of 17 albums — from the hard-edged pop of the early My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, through the Nashville country Almost Blue and the sharply political Spike, to the hugely original The Juliet Letters — he has shown a total unwillingness to be typecast. His new album Brutal Youth, is released by Warner Bros. on March 7.
Even rock stars come to middle age, though, and as Costello reaches his 40th birthday he seems, despite his protestations, to have reached a watershed. He is particularly pleased with the new record, a sunnier, less antagonistic affair than many of its predecessors, which deploys some startlingly inventive orchestration and reunites him with his old band, the Attractions. He is working on a large piece which he describes as "not opera and certainly not a musical, but it uses theatre and music" — and he has been invited to mount the South Bank Centre's summer "Meltdown" festival next year.
He also seems to have settled more confidently into his body. Close to, the scraggy, antic figure who used to jerk about the stage like a marionette in a trance turns out to be surprisingly four-square and slow-moving with a professorial air, reinforced by the horn-rimmed spectacles that are one of his trademarks. The voice is deeper, too, with an accent that drifts disconcertingly from Merseyside to mid-Atlantic and back to West London.
Not that he's mellowing into an Eric Clapton father-figure just yet. The man who graduated in the bare-knuckle school of pub rock and who is reputed to keep a little black book of his enemies' weak spots is still as prickly and rough-edged as his rebellious songs. "Elvis never forgets a put-down" says one understandably anonymous former colleague. "You need to watch your back if you've crossed him; he has a lot of muscle."
What makes this man run, though, as one realises, listening to the eager stream of anecdote and cheerful argument, is not really anger or ambition, but simple enthusiasm — Costello is one of those possessed spirits who will gamble with any experiment, explore any new field. And the restless energy that propelled him through numerous incarnations on the stage has also driven him on to seek out new, less harshly constrictive experiences. Between tours over the past few months he has been as likely to be found in Paris, examining the Barnes Foundation's collection of impressionist masters, or looking at the Wilton diptych at the National Gallery, as holed up in his Holland Park home.
Most of all, though, Costello has been spending time in the concert halls of the South Bank Centre, or the Wigmore Hall. "I really started going regularly to concerts about five years ago. My career up to then was very, very intensive in terms of touring. I was always away, and when I got back I really didn't want to do anything. But when I had a bit more time, I started to go to concerts. I just took wild stabs in the dark, let the previews tempt me rather than really knowing what I ought to be going to."
Relying on pop music precedent, he concentrated on performers rather than composers — "people who have something that makes you follow them." He became such a fan of the pianist András Schiff that he even broke off a trip to America to fly back for one of his Schubert recitals in London, and he also discovered the Brodsky Quartet, through their performance of a Shostakovich cycle in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. "It turned out that they enjoyed some of my music, so we got in touch and then we thought it would be interesting to do something together."
This led to one of the most under-rated curiosities of last year, a characteristically oddball venture called The Juliet Letters, written and performed in collaboration with the quartet. Though this amalgam of song and chamber music got an uncertain response from critics, confused as to what the creator of "Pump It Up," was actually doing in this galére, the partners enjoyed themselves so much that they are already working on some new compositions.
"People in England were much more suspicious about that record than abroad," says Costello, still fighting its corner. "But at the concerts it worked better, people were relaxing into it. The critics did a bit of nit-picking — for some reason with this form, people like to play the spot-the-influence game whereas with pop music, where it's more blatant, they don't."
This new enthusiasm has floated Costello into unaccustomed waters — seminars at Dartington Summer School, glitzy nights at the Royal Opera House, a whole weekend studying Purcell with the conductor Roger Norrington. But he is not a man to let himself be swamped by experts in a strange discipline. Anyone who fronts a pop group must own a well-developed ego, and Costello gives the impression that he feels perfectly capable of taking on anyone's job if he chooses to — and doing it rather better. Indeed, he actually taught himself to read music in less than a year while working with the Brodskys.
"Before then I couldn't even follow a score. I'd also worked on the music for Alan Bleasdale's television drama, GBH, with Richard Harvey and I thought, wouldn't it be great to be able to be really specific about how you wanted it to sound? So I just started to learn and once I'd got through the block about the viola clef I was away."
It turns out that there is a strain of music running through Costello's family almost as strongly as the Irishness that underpins so many of his songs: "Both my father and my grandfather played the trumpet. My grandfather was an orphan who was sent into the army band and when he was demobbed he played on the liners and finally in theatre pits until there weren't any pits.
"My father worked with the Joe Loss Orchestra, down at the Palais. He started as a trumpeter — that was the time of be-bop — then he moved to being a vocalist. My record collection is a testimony to the band's versatility and the ambition of the arrangers who worked for Joe Loss, because my father used to get demonstration pressings.
"That's why I know so many songs, because I had more records than pocket money — the records were passed to me. But I don't remember any of the original rock and roll — I don't remember any of the original rock and roll — I don't think that it was that popular in the house, so it didn't get played. Even Cliff — the girl next door had Cliff records but I didn't.
In spite of his background, Costello opted for a mundane computer clerking job when he left his Birkenhead school — a surprising act of conformity by the future rebel. "It was the year that there were one million unemployed for the first time and we were advised to take whatever job we could get, or else join the army. I kind of locked into computers, to the great consternation of my teachers, because I'd always been a total dunce at mathematics."
But music was still his major preoccupation and he ended up tending a small computer for Elizabeth Arden in Acton by day and working his apprenticeship through the folk clubs by night. "Then in 1976 the fellow who's my manager now, Jake Riviera, formed a small record company based on the principle of signing people who didn't fit in anywhere else, and they took great delight in signing me and that was it. So I've worked literally every day since I left school."
This was the moment that the butterfly Elvis Costello emerged from the chrysalis that was Declan MacManus: "I had already adopted Costello, which was my father's grandmother's name, along with my initials, because I found people couldn't spell MacManus if I was on the phone trying to get a booking. Then my manager came up with this mad scheme about taking on Elvis as my first name but inconveniently — and sadly, as well — Elvis had to die shortly after my first record came out, which made it a touchy subject with people who thought it was disrespectful."
In a fit of bravado he even consecrated his new name by deed poll (though more recently he changed it back again). "It was the time of the Sex Pistols and punk and this was the sort of berserk thing we were all doing. There could have been worse names mind you, it could have been Sid Vomit."
It was also a time that was particularly receptive to the irritable, aggressive stance of the new star though he kept his distance from the mindless nihilism of punk proper. "We were going around the same places, but we weren't really connected to that movement. It was comical, really. We'd arrive somewhere a couple of days after such and such group had created havoc. We would look much more respectable, with no rings through our noses or anything like that, so the hotels wouldn't expect trouble from us — though we were probably much worse, if truth be told."
As a man who witnessed punk in close-up Costello is unsentimental about its genesis: "There were a lot of people who were already middle-aged, like Malcolm McLaren, who were stage-managing this phenomenon. They were borrowing slogans from the French social movements and doing an entertaining job — I wouldn't have it any other way, I'm not knocking it.
"There were people behind most of the prime moving groups. They made up the script and the boys did the job — they looked the part, they cast it well. Of course, where the tension started was when the bands wanted their own way. They wanted to become musicians or to give up the combative nature of it or simply to follow their own destiny.
"With us it didn't matter because we weren't limited by it. I was quite happy with some of the confrontational nature of it, and the speed and brevity of the form. I had tried different forms, using folk music and suddenly I found this short pop song form which was compatible with the energy of punk but" — the flow of recollection pauses and Costello chuckles grimly as he remembers a long-ago criticism — "well, it had more melody than some of those assholes could manage.
"On the other hand I'd already spent five years trying to become an international musician and I didn't intend my career to be over in six months. I had no idea that I'd still be doing it 17 years later mind you."
Like his fellow rockers, the new Elvis had to be sold with an image. His earlier Irish folksiness evolved naturally into a Buddy Holly clone, all horn-rims and turned-in shoes. But where most performers found a style that sold well and then stayed with it, Costello raced through a dizzying repertoire of characters, each calling for different mental and physical wardrobes.
What infuriates him nowadays is the suggestion that these changes of direction were introduced simply to stimulate his career — that he constantly reinvents himself to find new audiences. "The notion of reinventing yourself is just one of those pathetic journalistic words. I first heard it applied to David Bowie and he very consciously invented theatrical characters. I don't see how it links with me. I'm just different. I get stuck on a certain kind of music and it becomes the overriding interest.
"That obviously influences the kind of life I'm living and in some cases it might influence the way I look. You don't necessarily go and get a new set of clothes because you're listening to a particular kind of music, but something about your frame of mind filters through into your dress."
To break away from a successful formula demands great self-confidence — some critics say hubris. Without being cocky, Costello never seems to doubt his pulling power. "Other people would have been more ruthless in following their commercial instincts. You have to decide whether you are prepared to take the risk of losing a portion of the audience from time to time — but there are a terrible lot of people out there. New people are going to come and some of the others are going to understand the convoluted logic that leads to the move you've made."
He is now the acknowledged bard of the thirtysomethings, the CD-collecting generation close to his own, who have grown away from the anarchy of punk and into stable jobs but admire the way he avoids blandness — the raw edge in his voice that reminds them of a less materialistic youth. Less fickle than teenagers, they seem willing to adjust to his new enthusiasms, and a cynic might suggest that they are particularly susceptible to a touch of classical respectability. "Only people of limited imagination would jump back with dismay at a change. It's not so radical — it doesn't erase the music that's gone before, it's not a denial or anything because it's no manifesto. It's not like being a politician who doesn't live up to his promises."
What has never changed much, however, has been the territory of Costello's lyrics. Whether the background had been a furious stomp or a plangent twanging, the words have usually explored the same preoccupations. This seems to be the heart of Costello's appeal — he is a chronicler of longing and betrayal, whether emotional or political. There are echoes of Dylan's rage or Randy Newman's irony, but there is also a surprisingly close affinity with such Continental balladeers as Jacques Brel or even Jacques Prevert.
For a man who is serious about his music, taking infinite pains over details of arrangements and balance of tone, Costello is curiously casual about these lyrics. "I don't really think much about what I write, technically — it just came as second nature to write. The idea or the feeling of the songs are what are important to me — not necessarily the words. It's a mysterious concoction. An expression or a turn of phrase can begin a thought which has music embodied in the rhythm of it."
Such off-handedness goes a long way to explaining the awkward syntax and metre of so many songs. Some Costello standards, such as "Alison," are comparative gems of clarity, but others seem to work only through a kind of osmosis, by which the listener shares the sentiments without quite understanding every word of the actual text. (One critic has unkindly suggested that the orchestration often drowns out the words simply to disguise their inadequacy.)
In any case, it's a remarkable tribute to their power that such vague phrasings have been accused of promoting a political agenda — though Costello turns out to be "agin" things in general rather than an activist. "I'm not in any political party, never have been. I was invited to Sheffield at the end of the last general election campaign but I didn't go. I thought my invitation was a stunt by the Young Conservatives to discredit the Labour Party, because it read like a parody of what the Labour rally would be. And it was ludicrous — I honestly believe to this day that the election was lost by that rally.
"There is a political content to some of the songs, I suppose, as much as there is politics in life, but I don't think they belong to any protest movement — my role is simply to comment. 'Tramp The Dirt Down' was a counter to the Thatcher triumphalism, but it wasn't about any viable alternative, it didn't support a programme. It wasn't really a rational song at all, it was about the despair of being driven to feeling homicidal enough to say 'I'll have a good dance on your grave when you're dead, you old bag!'
"I don't separate my songs — political in one box and love songs in another. Love songs are a never-ending source of interesting material, but the ones concerned with relationships that are aggressive or have dark feelings in them really belong with the 'Tramp' songs. They are all cut out of the same cloth — just the trigger is different. Mind you, I'm not saying that I love Margaret Thatcher!"
Costello is ready with an opinion on pretty well anything, in fact. He's articulate about life as well as music and he applies himself to both with an intensity that is a far cry from the mumbling platitudes of most stars: "I do take my work seriously. I think that anything else is insulting to people who spend time and money on what you're doing.
"One of the characteristics about the English that made me want to go and live in Ireland is the attitude that Life's a Laugh. 'Oh, we had a laugh!' — I hate that. There's a certain thing in society that craves and celebrates the mediocre. We wouldn't have the prime minister we have now if it wasn't for that."
The one arena into which he's touchingly reluctant to step is the debate about making classical music more popular — a subject to which his real musical intelligence could be usefully applied. "I don't think there's any way to jazz up classical music. You don't want to adulterate it — and it's not something you can be converted to, like a religion. So I don't know the answer.
"But I do believe that there are too many experts telling you what you can and can't do. There's this Puritan thing that a performer must be completely transparent to let the music flow though and I think the technique needs to be such that you can hear both the music and the performer's character.
"If a pop performer was too transparent, they'd all be asking, 'What's the matter with this person?' I think that's something the classical side lacks. I understand the criticism that some performers can be self-regarding but I feel sorry for people whose enjoyment is inhibited by worrying about this code of right and wrong."
Ultimately, though, Costello feeds on the febrile indiscipline of pop. He has no intention of becoming rock's answer to Nigel Kennedy, and exposure to Beethoven, Mozart, Shostakovich and Schubert has not persuaded him that his first love may be inferior. "You mean am I wasting my time? No, absolutely not. A lot of popular music may be no more than it appears to be, but then it has these transcendental moments — which are quite extraordinary.
"You will hear something that is of great importance to you at one particular moment. Even if it doesn't last, it's great at that moment. Look, which is more exciting — a bad performance of a great classical work or a mean record by someone like Little Richard, who's a force of nature?"
In the Elvis Costello songbook, enthusiasm always wins the day.