It’s a slightly worrying trend. Rock musicians are getting up earlier. Traditionally, of course, rock stars have kept the hours of vampires. Rising late, stumbling into the studio as the rest of us finish work, and laying down their best tracks while the rest of us watch soaps on TV. Things, apparently, are changing. Earlier this year, I interviewed Noel Gallagher. Could I, his PR wondered, do the interview at 10? I was just explaining that this was a bit later than I’d prefer when she cut me short. Ten in the morning,. Noel Gallagher does interviews at 10 in the morning? Yes, she said,. He likes to get on with things.
And now, this. Elvis Costello wants to do the interview over breakfast. Breakfast! As those nice young men in the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club sang recently: “Whatever happened to my rock 'n' roll?“ So, I’m gearing myself up for the drive to Costello’s Richmond hotel for our 8.30am meeting when the man himself rings my mobile. Can I make it for eight o’clock? Of course.
When I turn up, Costello doesn't even want to eat breakfast. He had his earlier. "I've been up since 5.30," he says. (And he played a gig the night before.) Like I said, it's a worrying trend. But then Costello loves defying expectations, whether in his music — making albums with the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter or Burt Bacharach — or in person. The first rule of famous people is that they're all smaller than you think they are. Costello is bigger. This, and the sense of certainty in his every statement would make him an intimidating companion, if it wasn't for the wit that ripples through his conversation as readily as it does through his songs. Costello's conversation is as finely crafted as his lyrics, whether discussing the parlous state of the record industry ("They've got it coming. It's which dies first, the planet or the record industry?") or which Rolling Stones tracks he prefers ("I always liked their fey pop tunes — Jagger's "I've got off with a middle-class bird" songs").
We're here (only a few hundred yards from Jagger's Richmond mansion, coincidentally,) to discuss teh new "tour edition" of Costello's latest album, When I Was Cruel. In an age when music is pigeonholed and formatted more than ever before, Costello has worked wonders in encouraging a large chunk of his audience to follow him into a variety of different musical areas — from country to classical to crooning — but for those who waited patiently for the man to get back to bashing out loud, angry rock songs on his guitar, When I Was Cruel is the real deal. There are even two Attractions — Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas — in the backing band. From this purist point of view, When I Was Cruel is the latest in a line of brilliant rock albums, that begins with his first three records, My Aim Is True, This Year's Model and Armed Forces — and also takes in Blood And Chocolate and Brutal Youth. The new edition of the album contains a bonus CD that features live versions of songs from When I Was Cruel (and some older favourites), taken from the current tour.
While most of Costello's contemporaries are preaching to the converted, Costello continues to attract a new audience. When I Was Cruel reached No. 1 in the US College radio charts. As a result, his live audience contains a significant proportion of kids. "It's amazing what a difference that makes," says Costello. "It's a terrific injection of energy — and they don't feel they own you, so they're a bit more open-minded. You get this curious thing where the whole family comes along, and you get the funny feeling the parents are saying: 'Well, you must see this before you can't see it any more.' Not that I'm thinking of going anywhere ..."
The rage that fuelled his classic early albums is referred to in the title track of the new record, which describes the dreadful people at some horrendous social functions. But Costello refrains from sticking the lyrical knife all the way in. "It was so much easier," he sings, "when I was cruel."
"You're more inclined to be tolerant as you get older," he explains. "You see the human frailties. And you have to keep reminding yourself that, yes, they are as wretched as your judgmental younger self thought they were. When you're young, you can demonise people easily. I look as some of the brutality of the language in some of the early songs — probably overdoing it just to make a point, and to make a name for myself."
Costello's back catalogue is currently being reissued, and he has written some of the liner notes himself. Originally, journalists were commissioned to supply them, but Costello found them too fawning. Hardly surprising, you might think, when the latest batch includes This Year's Model and Armed Forces. "No" says Costello. "I couldn't let them publish them. There was no suggestion of fallibility in them. Records are bound to be flawed. We live in an everything's fabulous all the time, 24 hours a day world, which is why I wrote that song 'Episode Of Blonde'," he continues, referring to another track on When I Was Cruel.
"Everything's got to be as blonde as it can be, whether you want it to be or not. Blonde is a synonym for any number of qualities that we're told are essential. But it's not a moral crusade. There's a sense of humour in these songs. There's a sense of humour in some of the early songs, too, but the fury of the sound meant people didn't always notice it." Costello opens his mouth and points to the gap between his front teeth. "It's this. It's this. It always sounds like I'm spitting. People jump out of their skins when I speak. They think I'm angry all the time, but I'm just saying something. This percussive way of speaking makes everything sound angry."
There's still plenty of anger on the new album, still plenty of fury in the sound. Costello attributes the evident passion to two factors. First, he'd been playing so many different types of music recently that he was genuinely enthused to strap an electric guitar back on. And second, he approached the writing for the songs in an entirely new way; he wrote the songs using cheap drum machines, not a guitar. "These songs were written very much rhythm first, then words, then melody and harmony. A lot of these songs don't have any harmony on them to speak of, because I was kind of up to here with harmony, from working with Burt Bacharach."
His plans changed when Robert Wyatt — who was curating Meltdown — asked Costello to play, and, soon afterwards, Bob Dylan asked him to play a support slot. With two reasons to put a band together, Costello thought he might as well bring the musicians back to the studio to work on his new songs. The result is an album that sounds, on the surface, reminiscent of Costello's early work, but has underneath a layer of surprising rhythms and textures that probably owe as much to hip-hop as they do to rock. "The last thing you want to do is to self consciously try to make a hip-hop record," he says. "But I like what I hear in hip-hop and R & B more than what I hear in rock. I cannot abide the straight, square rock beat. Give me anything that's off kilter — Turkish music, reggae, New Orleans."
The fact that Costello's musical tastes are off kilter is clearly proven by his discography. But Costello has no time at all for those who consider albums made with The Brodsky Quartet or Burt Bacharach to be annoying side-tracks from what he should really be doing. "I can see the value — and I don't care if anyone else doesn't like it. Know why I'm doing it? Because I f***ing can. Somebody asked me to and I enjoy it. I'm fed up with apologising for it."
It's news to me that Costello has ever apologised for his musical adventurousness. "No, I haven't. But I'm fed up with people expecting me to. People think music has to be instant payoff — has to tell you everything about itself in three minutes. But it doesn't work like that. It can be like waiting for a flower to bloom. The song that's a hit from an album isn't the best song — it's just the one that's the most maddening."
Based on this definition — that maddening means catchy — When I Was Cruel offers a pretty good mix of songs; some of them blooming flowers, others blooming maddening.