Elvis Costello has never seemed much of a supernaturalist. "I know," he agrees — ever the well-grounded rationalist — "and I've not started now, have I?"
Not exactly, but this most caustic and agreeably intellectual of rock stars does have a song about the Almighty on his acclaimed new album. And if it's true that mankind tends to remake God in its own image, then it should be scant surprise that Elvis Costello's God is a little like, well, Elvis Costello. That is, a student of pop culture, cynical, hyperaware, both disgusted and amused and, of course... comic.
"Heaven as described in that song is a little bit like this bar — a waiting room for something," says Costello, gesturing around the West Hollywood hotel lounge. That song is "God's Comic," a fairly riotous account of a recently deceased drunken comedian's first encounter with his Maker. Costello picks up the story, embellishing it along the way:
"He's confronted with God on a big turquoise waterbed full of tropical fish. God's got like 19 TVs on there, all connected to satellite, with colorized versions of Dark Victory and It's a Wonderful Life... He's reading books by Jackie Collins and Jeffrey Archer — and Bret Easton Ellis, he loves Bret."
God finally gets fed up with "all of this unbelievable junk," makes travel plans to go hide out at the North Pole and leaves the departing thought that maybe he "should have given the world to the monkeys." In interviews (he's given similar recountings of the song several times), Costello invariably adds the tag line: "Davy, Peter, Mickey and Michael."
You can almost hear the rim shot and cymbal crash.
Indeed, the once-and-future fiery Englishman was recently quoted in a magazine as saying that his new album, Spike — with its title alluding to musical funnyman Spike Jones — is "my first foray into comedy records." His tongue was wedged well into his cheek, probably more so than was Bob Dylan's when that songwriter claimed a few years back that "all my records are comedy records."
"Who said that?" Costello asks, chuckling at having been beaten to the punch. "That could well be true. I think he's very funny. Dylan was right. He's an overlooked humorist."
Costello's writing — oft-accused in the early days of harboring misogyny and even now of being unnecessarily bitter — has been taken at face value more often than not, its elegant pop formalism and sophistication throwing listeners off the trail of its puns and occasional sly self-deprecation.
Now, with Spike — which, for a "comedy" record, has some of his most somber and tragic songs ever — Costello outrightly presents himself as the clown. Its outrageous cover has his grinning, harlequin-like visage mounted on a wall plaque in the shape of the logo of Warner Bros., his new record label after a dozen years with Columbia.
"Well, there's humor where I can find it, as dark as it might be. If there's no light at all, you can't see anything, it's completely black. There's no such thing as completely black. Well, there is, but you wouldn't be able to take a picture of it, or you wouldn't be able to make a song out of it, I don't think. They're not all humorous like fall-on-the-floor laughing. The song 'Chewing Gum' is certainly humorous, and very sad," he noted of his story about a dissatisfied mail-order bride who plugs up her ears with gum.
"But there are some songs on this album without any redeeming humor. 'Tramp the Dirt Down' is the only one without even any apparent hope. And 'Let 'Em Dangle' doesn't have a tremendous amount of laughs in it, does it? But that one does have hope in it. It is for life, it's not against it."
There's an irony in comparing those two songs that doesn't completely escape Costello: While "Let 'Em Dangle" makes a cogent argument against capital punishment, "Tramp the Dirt Down" has Costello almost wishing someone — Margaret Thatcher, to be precise — dead.
"Definitely wishing someone dead, not almost," he corrects, laughing. "There's no reasonable argument intended there; it's an unreasonable response to very unreasonable events... If you call somebody 'a madam of a whorehouse' as I do, it's a fairly cheap insult. But there are plenty of times that they patronize you and insult your intelligence. So let's trade the language; let's talk at their level."
That Dylan joker couldn't have said it better.
Spike may prove Costello's best American seller ever; it's currently bulleted at No. 35 on the Billboard album chart in only its fifth week out, though it's his most unconventional album ever. In place of his longtime backing band, the Attractions, the singer-songwriter employed a diverse cast of musicians in a variety of locales, including Los Angeles, New Orleans and his new home, Ireland. Putting in noteworthy appearances are Paul McCartney, Roger McGuinn, T Bone Burnett, Chrissie Hynde and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Many of the players on the same songs — McCartney and McGuinn, for example — never met each other.
"Heaven knows I've been an exponent and a champion of the live, spontaneous recording against any other production value, but you have to acknowledge it can have certain pitfalls. With this record, each player that came in had to play in reaction to what was on the track before he came in. And some very happy accidents came about..."
That Costello would end up taking on Paul McCartney as his first continuing songwriting partner — at the latter's behest — has confused some fans. Where Costello is dry and often cryptic, McCartney has had the less esteemed reputation in recent years of being a sentimental writer. (McCartney helped out only a little on the writing of two of this album's songs, the single "Veronica" and "Pads, Paws and Claws"; the more equal collaborations between these two won't be heard till McCartney's own album comes out.)
"I end up in this very curious situation of having to defend writing with him, and therefore having to defend his writing — which I don't see as my place," says Costello. "It's kind of patronizing. It's not really anybody's business what I think of his other writing. I don't like every record he's made, and he doesn't like every record I've made, either. That wasn't important. We're trying to write new records, not rewrite old ones."
On the subject of old collaborators, Costello is a bit defensive. Much loved as this album's multiplicity of textures is, many fans want to know if there will ever be another record from what many consider one of the great rock 'n' roll quartets of all time: Elvis Costello & the Attractions.
"I don't know. Ask them. I wanted them to play on this record, but Steve (Nieve) had a problem with not being the only keyboard player on it. Because he has a different conception of there being a group called Elvis Costello & the Attractions, like the Who or something, and I don't think that's the case. So my feeling is that it's a mistake to be sentimental about these matters....
"I saw Bill Monroe play at McCabe's, and right at the end of the show he thanked everybody for coming and he said, 'I remember the old days.' Everybody went, 'Oh, Bill's gonna tell us some confidence, some old tale....' And then he said, 'They're gone.' "
Costello very nearly guffaws at the brusqueness of the sentiment. "I agree, man, they're gone. You either saw it or you missed it."
Guess who plans to have the last laugh?