Imagine you've never heard any of Elvis Costello's music. Maybe you really haven't. Not a single note. But you've heard about him, and now you're curious.
Where to begin the investigation?
That's not a simple question. Costello's catalog of albums, 21 of new material since his 1977 debut, covers a lot of ground. In the last few years alone, he's released an orchestrated jazz song cycle (2003's North), a roots-rock song cycle (last year's The Delivery Man, an expanded version of which came out last month) and an orchestral suite based on A Midsummer Night's Dream (Il Sogno, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, also released last year). In addition there was a 2001 art-song album in collaboration with opera singer Anne Sofie Von Otter and the six songs he co-wrote for the most recent album by his wife, jazz star Diana Krall. And now he's at work on an opera, commissioned by the Danish Royal Opera, based on the life of Hans Christian Andersen.
That's all on top of forays into balladry, punk, country crooning, lush pop, chamber music and a teaming with songwriter Burt Bacharach.
So which album would be the best starting point? Let's ask Mr. Costello himself.
"I wouldn't presume to say 'That record's the one you must have' about myself," the English composer-performer says by phone, taking a break from writing the opera while on a bus shuttling him around North America on his current rock-oriented tour, which comes to the Wiltern LG on Saturday.
It's not just that he doesn't want to impose a selection, he says. It's that he doesn't have to. Costello is embracing the growth of online access to music and of the digital playback devices that allow people to sample music easily. "I look forward to the time when all my albums can be more readily available in ways that people can make their own selections," he says.
A random romp through the collected works of Elvis Costello would certainly be a rewarding prospect, much like a conversation with him. Amiable, affable and relaxed — at 50, hardly the "angry young man" he was perceived to be in the earlier days — the erstwhile Declan Patrick McManus chats easily and enthusiastically as his bus rolls across the Texas plains. Topics range from the future of the record industry as we know it (it's doomed, he believes) to his current favorite download site (the legal world music source www.calabashmusic.com) to obscure '70s singer-songwriter David Ackles (a personal passion of Costello's for years).
Despite his reluctance to point anyone else to highlights of his catalog, he does have favorites (currently his second album, 1978's This Year's Model, as well as 1982's Imperial Bedroom and 1986's King of America, though those opinions are subject to change).
The thread through everything, though, is that he's clearly having the time of his life, especially on this tour. This is the second time he's been on the road with his backing band the Imposters (keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, both from his original band the Attractions, plus bass player Davey Farragher), and the spirit is one of spontaneity.
"One of the joys of this tour is we haven't done it as consistently as to wear it out," he says. "Old songs can become new again. And most of the sound checks we are playing songs we probably never will perform on stage, from my bag and others. There's a portion of the set that we change every night. We had 80 songs to choose from when we started the tour. Now we have about 100. We ran down five more yesterday."
It will be even more spontaneous at a few dates at which Nieve will be absent due to prior commitments in London, and in his stead Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo will sit in. In addition, there are several special shows along the way, including stops at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in late April and Memphis' Beale Street Music Festival shortly thereafter, for which Costello hopes to offer something specific to the setting.
Even looming deadlines for the Danish Opera commission don't seem to have him anxious. The production, a dreamlike telling of the intertwining of the lives of Andersen, Swedish singer Jenny Lind and promoter P.T. Barnum, will debut in October as a staged song presentation rather than a full opera. The larger-scope version, in theory, will follow at a later time. This comes at a time when Costello's confidence was boosted by the very positive reception for Il Sogno. Even the BBC Music Magazine, which tends to dismiss works by anyone with even a whiff of rock on their resume, gave the recording a largely favorable review.
"The long bus rides are ideal," he says of composing the Andersen opus. "I lock myself in and work away. And then I go to work in the evening in a completely different form."
He wouldn't have it any other way.
"I don't feel I have to choose," he says. "I'm really lucky. I'm tremendously lucky. That's why other people haven't gotten to do this much. They're not as lucky."