So what did the man who has been called the Cole Porter of rock learn from writing songs with the man who is the Burt Bacharach of pop?
Elvis Costello laughs heartily at the question, a sign that the "angry young man" of the '70s is in a good mood these days.
Among the reasons for the hugely admired singer-songwriter's upbeat outlook: Painted From Memory, the just-released album of songs he wrote with Bacharach, and a five-city tour with the celebrated composer that includes a stop Oct. 20 at the Universal Amphitheatre. On the tour, the pair will team with an orchestra on their new songs and also perform some of their own material in solo turns.
So what did you learn from working with Burt?
One of the most important things was to trust my voice a little bit more, not give everything away dynamically in the first four bars. I was used to having to jump out in front of a loud band.
The other big thing was to trust the music we had written, … to obey the shape of it so that when I came to write the words, I wouldn't bend the music to the will of the lyric, which is something you tend to do as a lyricist.
After years of writing on your own, you've now done collaborations with Paul McCartney and Bacharach. What are the pluses and minuses of collaborating?
There aren't really any minuses as such. If you enter into a collaboration, you have to accept that you are not going to have absolute control about the way things go. But that's the idea of working together.
In this case, we weren't trying to rewrite Bacharach-Hal David songs or Costello songs. We were writing Bacharach-Costello songs, … a collection of lost-love songs, which is an area where we both have thrived over the years. We didn't set out to try to come up with some ungodly hybrid of "What's New Pussycat?" and "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)," which was one of my hardest-edged things.
One thing the collaborations do for you is tend to make your writing more economical, don't you think?
Yes, I think the words are simpler, … more direct. That doesn't mean I don't think there is a virtue in torrents of words at times, and I may return to that style if I feel it is the way to express the thoughts. But in these songs, I did try to not put everything in at once.
With all the different things you've done in recent years, including the album with classical music's Brodsky Quartet, do you still consider yourself a rock artist?
I don't think in terms of rock. I think in terms of music. I never said I was punk or New Wave. Everybody else did. I'm not someone who thinks music started in 1954 just because I was born that year. I may never cram a Gregorian chant into my songs, but anything else that has come out since about 1600 is up for grabs.
When I do things like the album with the Brodsky Quartet, it's like an art dalliance. To me, it's the same stuff with a different accent or different method. The important thing is simply [conveying] what you are feeling.