Elvis Costello may no longer be the angry young man he once was, but there's one phrase still guaranteed to raise his hackles. "A French friend asked me once what is the main philosophical premise of the English," he muses. "And I said it's 'Who does he think he is?' That defines our attitude to culture and art. And it's idiotic and self-defeating and offensive."
Costello should know. It's a question that has already been voiced by several critics over his new album, North, a collection of jazzy ballads with lush orchestrations. And they will no doubt use it again when they learn that his next project is a 75-minute orchestral score to A Midsummer Night's Dream which he's just recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra.
After all, isn't he supposed to be a rock singer, forged in the angry crucible of late-1970s punk and New Wave? Why is he dabbling in all this high art when three chords ought to do fine? We meet to discuss such questions over mid-morning tea. He's dressed in a sombre three-piece suit and a purple tie and his trademark dark-rimmed spectacles give him a distinctly professorial look. He's very particular in every detail, including how he takes his tea. He insists that the milk is poured first and appears mildly shocked when I say I don't mind which way it comes.
The dozen songs on North lay him open to criticisms that go far beyond the crooning voice and the orchestral arrangements, for they constitute a deeply revealing song-cycle that begins with the break-up of his 16-year marriage to Cait O'Riordan, charts his subsequent desolation and then celebrates his falling in love with the American jazz singer Diana Krall.
The album's opening song finds him disconsolately lamenting to his former lover, "you left me in the dark". By the end he's rapturously declaring to the new woman in his life: "My darling you make everything seem right." Which is all very well when you're a teenager. But it's a bit undignified in a middle-aged man, isn't it?
"The morbid consideration of whether the record exactly details my life isn't important," he says. "You can look ridiculous when you fall in love and there's a rapturous expression in some of the songs. But they are not happy-go-lucky. They are more about arriving at some kind of peace. I hope people will see something of their own lives reflected in it because it's not exactly unprecedented for people to move from a desolate place to a happier state."
Costello is at pains not to use names, but the identity of the participants could not be plainer. Did he have no qualms about being so transparent? "Sometimes in the past for reasons of diplomacy I've written about intense experiences in a disguised fashion," he says. "There's an impulse to create a little distance and a more impressionistic sense of emotional experience by using irony and word games. But these songs came to me very quickly and demandingly and there's no avoiding their literal definition."
Does it seem paradoxical to parade his emotions so nakedly in the songs and then regard any further questions about his private life as an intrusion? "Of course people will have that curiosity if they know anything about you," he responds. "But real life is a lot more complicated than songs can ever be. No matter how good they are, songs can't be a literal recitation of life. They have to be crafted into coherence."
Love or loathe the record, Costello has come a long way from the bitter and vengeful young punk of the late 1970s. Only one of his past four albums, last year's When I Was Cruel, has been a collection of rock songs. Before that came For the Stars — an album with the soprano Anne Sofie von Otter — and Painted from Memory, with Burt Bacharach.
So just who does Costello think he is? "I'm an artist. That's what I do and it makes you selfish and self-absorbed and I have absolutely no embarrassment about that. People say I'm self-indulgent. Well of course. That's because I'm an artist."
It's easy to imagine the withering contempt with which the young Costello would have treated anybody talking in such terms. But then, I suggest, he was never really a punk anyway, and his songwriting skills would have emerged in any era. New Wave was merely the vehicle of convenience at the time.
He admits he tailored his early abrasive style to get himself heard, but insists that punk's impact has been considerably over-stated. "The cultural annotators talk about the year of punk, but it was really the year of disco. In London they might have all been down the Roxy, but in Wakefield they were dancing around their handbags to the Bee Gees."
As to his own current crooning style, he points out that even as early as "Alison," on his spiky debut album My Aim is True, many of his best-known songs were ballads. "I always thought that I was a ballad singer who can sing rock 'n' roll. I love to make a noise and I've got a powerful kind of voice that scares people to hell. But you can't do that with the songs on this album. They are very quiet and nonhistrionic and to use that other end of the dynamic range was great.
"But I don't see why you have to give up one in order to do the other."
Finally, I wonder if Costello has been moved to write about the current parlous state of the world. This, after all, is the man who in the 1980s wrote the uncompromising "Shipbuilding" as a protest against the Falklands conflict, and "Tramp the Dirt Down," arguably the most bilious anti-Thatcherite diatribe ever penned.
"People assume there's an impulse or a responsibility to write a song in response to every major event. But it isn't true," he says. While it was easy to react against "demonic" regimes, such as those led by General Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher, the "slipperiness" of Bush and Blair (who he dismisses as "twerps") makes it more difficult to express dissent.
"There will be something to be said in response. But I wasn't moved to do it right now because you have to start entering their grey world of advertising gobbledygook."
It's good to know that something still makes Costello bristle, whoever he thinks he is these days.