"There is a lot of mockery levelled at anyone who has supposedly had their moment and then gone beyond it," says Elvis Costello, fixing me with a gaze that has more than a hint of the accusatory about it. "The roundheads of music in the critical world want everybody to die, after they make the perfect record. It's kind of an effete romantic fantasy. If you dare to live longer than you should — and heaven knows I have — somehow you're considered less believable. But why stop living?"
Why indeed? You might think from Costello's comments that I had suggested the world would be a better place if be tied the bulk of his recorded output around his neck and threw himself off the top floor of his record company. In fact, I had asked how he felt about the impending reunion of his punk-rock contemporaries the Sex Pistols, which had led, as things do with Costello, on to other, tangentially related matters.
The Sex Pistols are indeed back. Costello, on the other hand, never went away. Once considered the angriest young man in rock, Costello has released some 19 album, (including two collections of cover versions and two featuring B-sides and out-takes) since the heady days of 1977, the summer of hate that now appears the subject of so much nostalgia.
Widely considered pop's most accomplished songwriter, his career has twisted and turned with more convolutions than his own punning lyrics.
He has embraced musical styles from country to classical (and virtually all points in between), performed with entities as diverse as the Chieftains and the Count Basic Orchestra, recorded a Shakespeare-influenced song cycle with the Brodsky string quartet, composed for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, duetted with the likes of Tony Bennett and George Jones, written film and television soundtracks, collaborated with (among others) Paul McCartney and avante-garde guitarist Bill Frisell, and had his material covered by an astonishing variety of artists (from Jazz legend Chet Baker to Transvision Vamp's Wendy James, a minor pop star for whom Costello tossed off an album's worth of material in a weekend).
So, it is hardly surprising that the portly, smiling, 41-year-old gentleman promoting his latest album, All This Useless Beauty (WEA), bears little resemblance to the skinny, knock-kneed geek who once famously sneered that the only emotions he understood were guilt and revenge. But scratch the apparently genial surface, and some of the old antagonism is quick to surface.
"Can you name a driven songwriter?" he demanded, when I asked if he still felt as driven by his work as he did in his early days. Giving me no chance to reply, be continued: "I'm very driven. I'm driven. You don't think I'm driven, clearly, so what we're doing wasting our time here, I don't know." My attempts to assure him I was not questioning his commitment to his art were countered by a peculiar accusation: "You think this record isn't fast, is what you're saying." There was little use protesting that I was saying no such thing, for by now he had sunk his teeth into something, and was not going to let it go.
"Life has gone on. I've changed, it's a different kind of music. It wouldn't be appropriate to sing these lyrics like I'm trying to scare students. But I have no problem with all the different musical things I do, whether it's with a symphony orchestra or a classical singer. It's done in a spirit of adventure and fun. I listen to music all day long, and I make music all day long, and I probably work harder out of choice than anybody I know. So there is no way in which I am a dilettante.
"But, of course, the more you record, the more variety of work there is, the less chance of its all being fantastic. If you don't like it, it doesn't really matter in the long run. It didn't kill anybody, did it? All that matters is what I know to be the reality of the thing, what I believe. Anybody else is entitled to their opinion but it's not going to change mine; 'cause, you see, I'm driven. I'm a driven kind of guy." Costello smiled sarcastically as he returned to the phrase that had apparently so irritated him, before lightening the mood with a frankly awful pun. "I'm driven round the bend. In a big car."
Costello is not easy to interview. He talks too much. Words rattle out of his mouth like a teleprinter on overload. Ideas collide, jostling for space within ever-expanding sentences. He is a vibrant, stimulating person to listen to. But, while he produces reams of quotable copy, the problem is getting a word in. He is not so much a conversationalist as a monologist.
It is impossible to contain him, to keep the encounter in shape or pursue particular lines of inquiry. You get about halfway through a question when he picks up on some key phrase and runs off with it, dribbles down an unexpected avenue, scores a couple of outrageous goals at either end, then boots the topic clear out of the stadium (and don't get him started on football!). By the time be reaches wherever it is he is going, you have strayed so far from your original point you can no longer see how to get back and are equally baffled about where to go next. But silence is not an option. If you don't say something he will.
At one point, in the middle of a discourse on the relative merits of different art forms, Costello excused himself to go to the toilet. When he returned, a minute later, he started talking as soon as be opened the door: "That's why I wrote 'All This Useless Beauty.' Sometimes you look at every wonderful thing that's ever been made and you wonder, what's the point of it? Why did they make it?" His train of thought seemed to have moved on, as if he had been continuing the conversation in his head while attending to his bodily functions.
But then, Costello is known as something of a wordsmith. On the title track of his new album. he describes someone as "part ugly beast and Hellenic deceased", not perhaps a metaphor you would expect to find in the average pop song. In "Poor Fractured Atlas," a ballad poking fun at masculinity, he juxtaposes quotes from soul legend James Brown and literary legend Oscar Wilde. The playful "Little Atoms" is constructed as a musical riddle around girls' names that are either flowers or graces. But when I suggested to him that his songs were sometimes a little impenetrable, he appeared genuinely offended.
'I think if the songs on this album share one thing. it is that they have a very direct way of speaking and are quite easy to understand." Costello insisted. "I'm just musing on things. I try not to erect songs like big statues to how I feel. They are just a series of thoughts that occurred to me and I put them to music. Sometimes particular lines are just allusions. They're not there to be admired. They are there because they make sense to me as I'm trying to make my way through the thought."
Then he quoted a line from "Little Atoms" that he might have specifically designed to make critics uncomfortable: "And if you still don't like my songs, then you can just go to hell."
In a business characterised by false modesty, it is unusual to find a songwriter who quotes his own lyrics. Costello justifies this with another quote: "Pride is a sin which we tend to forgive." from his song "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone." "I could carry on all day," he warns.
With a body of work and breadth of musical vision that should make him the envy of most of his peers. Costello can be justifiably proud of his accomplishments. His defensiveness. however, verges on paranoia. He is deeply mistrustful of the media ("All magazines and newspapers tell lies where it suits them and tell the truth occasionally"), and almost wilfully dismissive of any notion of critical standards ("Pointless debate by people who are infinitely less talented than those they're reviewing"). He behaves as if he has been criminally misunderstood and misrepresented, yet during our encounter. he constantly misinterpreted questions by jumping in too quickly. I intended to ask if he felt free to move in any direction he pleased, or whether he was constrained by the expectations of his record-buying public. But I only got as far as the word "free" before he cut me down with a terse: "If you can't hear it on this record, you can't hear it "
But perhaps it is Costello's antagonism that keeps him alive. or at least lively. He has always seemed as much agent provocateur as pop star, never a pin-up even an a chart-topper, just too viciously anti-establishment to win the respect of the respectable. He may now attend concerts in the Wigmore Hall and admire Shostakovich far more than the Sex Pistols, but get him on to politics and he will soon be suggesting bringing back capital punishment — if only for members of the Royal Family ("I wait for the day when they announce that they are going to publicly behead the Duke of Westminster in Parliament Square").
Costello's work may now span a much wider range of emotions than guilt and revenge, but it is still fuelled by bile. "I really like writing songs, and there's plenty left." he said, on the subject of future ambitions. "I hate to keep quoting my lyrics to you, but there's a line on "Little Atoms" that explains the way I feel: 'There's still some pretty insults left and such sport in threatening.' I mean it, you know. But, you see, I'm very driven... I'm so driven, I don't know how to stop."