In what now seems like another age, but was in fact only March 13, 2020, Elvis Costello & the Imposters played a typically rambunctious show at the Hammersmith Apollo in London. As Costello spat out the words to "Watching the Detectives" against a backdrop of film noir scenes, leant on a piano to croon out George Jones's country lament "A Good Year for the Roses" and finished with a mass singalong (yes, they were still allowed then) of "Oliver's Army," I remember feeling a Dunkirk spirit running through the night. Half of the seats for the sold-out show were empty, but the other half were filled with people dancing and cheering as if it was their last chance — which, as it turned out, it was. Costello encored with 1991's "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)," and it still seemed funny.
"Doing that song may sound like a bad-taste joke now, but at the time I was thinking we might as well enjoy ourselves because we could be on the edge of something," Costello says down the line from his home in Vancouver. "The Wednesday before the gig I was among 55,000 people at Anfield, watching Liverpool get beaten by Atletico Madrid. The following night we played Manchester and I could see a few holes in the crowd. We had all heard about what was happening in Italy and Spain, but at the time it was like the apocryphal newspaper headline, 'Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off'; something that couldn't happen here. Then I get to London and there are messages from a few pals: 'I know I said I was coming tonight, but it doesn't feel safe...' The feeling back then was, 'Yeah, like it's really going to kill us.' And then it did!"
Costello, born 66 years ago as Declan MacManus, has had an enviable quarantine. He cancelled his remaining gigs after that concert in Hammersmith and flew back to Canada, where he retreated to a log cabin on Vancouver Island for the next three months with his wife, the jazz singer Diana Krall, and their 13-year-old twin boys. Against a backdrop of "beautiful old trees and nature walks" he reconnected with his family, made the most of the land around him, and got to work.
"I'm certainly anxious when the bad news arrives," he says. "A close friend died. My 93-year-old mother is in the Wirral, and with everything now being declared a disaster I have no prospect of seeing her again. On the personal side, though, I couldn't have been more grateful for the time. Whereas normally I would be on a bus to Omaha or somewhere, I was at home where the boys were doing homework in one room, my wife was putting together her record in another, and I was outside on the back porch, trying to stay out of the way. I wrote a comic radio play, an audio pamphlet on how to approach music in a fashion that takes the fear away, and a lot of songs. By next year I could have a whole other record ready to go. It's been far from paralysing."
It helps to be the kind of erudite, clever songwriter so critically acclaimed; David Lee Roth of Van Halen once complained that Elvis Costello always got good reviews because music critics look like him. Hey Clockface, Costello's latest album, is a typically far-reaching and dextrous affair, covering everything from Arabic oud music to spoken-word poetry to 1920s ragtime, all held together by the kind of wordy lyricism, everyday yet mysterious, that Costello first made an impact with in the early days of punk.
He did the initial recordings for the album by himself in Finland in early February, taking a ferry from Helsinki each morning to spend eight hours in a studio inside an 18th-century fort that was built to protect the country from Russian invasion, before teaming up with regular pianist Steve Nieve and a quartet of classical musicians in Paris. You listen to "Hetty O'Hara Confidential" — a rap about a gossip columnist who gets her comeuppance — and then the Bob Dylan-like "Newspaper Pane" and wonder: after all these years, where does Elvis Costello actually fit in?
"It's always been like that," he says. "Before I made [his 1977 debut album] My Aim Is True there was a tape I'd made in my bedroom that got played on the radio, and it certainly didn't sound anything like new wave or punk. I had been taking my cues from Randy Newman and John Prine. I can write a country ballad without coming from the world of country because I'll borrow the clothes to tell the story. Hey Clockface is a whimsical idea — when you're waiting for your girl to arrive the clock slows down, when it is time to go it speeds up and the clock becomes your romantic rival — so a Fats Waller-style ragtime suited the words. That's the way I've always worked."
In other ways, though, Costello has changed. Making his name in the late 1970s by fuelling classic songwriting with punk's energy and aggression, Costello also built up a reputation for spikiness. There was a notorious incident at the Holiday Inn at Columbus, Ohio, in 1979, when he got into a drunken argument with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett and ended up using racial slurs against James Brown and Ray Charles (he held a press conference afterwards to apologise). At 66, however, after a cancer scare in 2018, accepting an OBE in 2019 ("my mum wanted me to do it"), two decades of working with songwriting legends including Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney and Carole King and a seemingly happy third marriage to Krall, he has mellowed considerably.
"For every person that thinks you are great, someone else will say, 'I never liked him, he has a horrible voice, I hope he dies,'" Costello says of his reputation. "That's what it means to do this. You could be going down really well at a concert, and someone at the back is thinking that it is a total waste of money. When the numbers of the latter constituency become greater than the former, it is time to leave. Right now, though, it doesn't feel that way."
Hey Clockface does sound surprisingly joyous. "A lot of the music I've heard coming out recently sounds defeated, a bit 'woe is me, I'm in isolation'," Costello says. "That doesn't seem like the flag you should be waving right now."
You wonder if Costello's musical approach, of having one foot in the past while at the same time pushing his own legacy aside in favour of the new, has something to do with growing up under the shadow of his father. Ross MacManus sang with 1960s big band the Joe Loss Orchestra and he wrote the 1970s advertisement for R Whites lemonade, which an entire generation remembers for its depiction of a man being caught by his wife in the dead of night as he sneaks into the kitchen to indulge his vice as a secret lemonade drinker. In Costello's memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, MacManus comes across as a charming if feckless figure; easy to romanticise, not so easy to rely on.
"I was incredibly melancholy when I had to hand in that manuscript," Costello says. "My father had passed while I was writing the book and in some ways I kept him alive by working on it, but the truth is my parents separated in the early Sixties. My dad only ever came in and out of my life, and he was a great guy, but a terrible example as a husband and a father. My mother was the one who brought me up and now it seems unfair that he features in the memoir so much more than she does. He broke my mother's heart, but at the same time he was never cruel, and I made exactly the same mistakes as he did. "Toledo," the song I wrote with Burt Bacharach, is about infidelity. Take out of that what you will."
Six months on from that final concert at the Apollo, you have to wonder how Costello is feeling about the prospect of going back out on the road again. Baby boomer legends Van Morrison and Eric Clapton are calling for a return to live music, just as the Musicians' Union has reported that a third of British musicians are on the verge of quitting.
"It's a swirling mass," Costello concludes. "Someone says it's all made up, someone says it will change the way we live for ever, and someone else tells us to keep calm and do what you're told and it will all be OK. Who can say? But I do think that this is a great time to try new things. You can do the maddest thing possible on a record at the moment because you don't have the usual connection to a live audience to worry about, so there's nothing to fear. Normally I'll be thinking, 'I need to make more sense.' Now I'm thinking, 'I need to make less sense.'"