You don't have to be a genius to work quite effectively within the confines of pop music, says Elvis Costello, the protean popster who never met a confine he did not dislike.
Even his real name, Declan McManus, proved too limiting for the restless expansionist. So, he adopted and shed aliases as grandiose as his vision — King of America and Napoleon Dynamite.
"There are no geniuses in rock 'n' roll," he says with his cocky but respected brashness.
But wait. Hold Costello's new album up to the "deep, dark truthful mirror" he sings about and you'll find unmistakable glimmers of genius.
After almost three years, an eternity for pop's prolific bard, Costello is back on the charts with Spike, his 12th album in 12 years. It is also his eighth to crack Billboard's Top 40 in this decade (only Kenny Rogers has more).
He is on a month-long solo tour, and the rock press continues to heap hosannas on his work. But the junior Elvis isn't keen on becoming a media pet or this year's model of pop commercialism.
"Records that want to be everything to everybody are rather like someone wanting to be the President of the United States," Costello says. "Anybody who wants the job should automatically be disqualified.
"The same goes for wanting to be the most famous person in the world. If all I wanted to be is famous and very rich, I could have done that years ago. It doesn't take intelligence. You only have to look at Donald Trump. You only have to be cunning and ruthless."
Like his willfully trend-bucking music, Costello is unapologetically indignant and opinionated.
"It's a success if it's a success in my view when it leaves the studio."
That may keep the mainstream at bay. But it's precisely his outrageousness — and the way it spikes his songs that endears him to fans.
The 33-year-old Liverpudlian who's explored every nook and cranny on the musical map since 1977's My Aim Is True debut, offers a stylistic atlas on Spike, recorded in Dublin, London, Hollywood and New Orleans.
Brazenly showy (the cover depicts him as a grinning Harlequin) but without forfeiting the bile and irony that energise his lyrics, Spike is his most critically acclaimed work in a decade.
Historically his own harshest critic (he's confessed to penning "patronising pop songs"), Costello for the moment seems in accord with his admirers. "It's pretty much the record I wanted to hear," he says.
In "Tramp the Dirt Down", Costello denounces Britain's Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, whom he labels England's "madam" and prays he'll live long enough to savour her death.
Says Costello: "Some people kick the cat, some people beat their kids, some people buy a machine gun and shoot up the local McDonald's. All kinds of crazy things happen when people get frustrated. Terrible things. Here it comes out in a song.
Spike's 15 cuts, flavoured with fiddles, bagpipes, glockenspiels and horns, take on starker proportions in Costello's current one-man show.
"It's quite a contrast to the album," he says. "It's important to me that people absorb the songs through the recording, then hear them nakedly on the tour.
"This tour is more in the spirit of rock 'n' roll than a band show, which is bound to certain conventions of spectacle and ritual."
Some spectacle remains. Costello shares the stage with a 1.8-metre satin heart inscribed with 13½ deadly sins, "the original seven and another 6½ that we've researched".
Spectators are nudged on stage, blindfolded and instructed to pierce the heart with a spike.
"Once they've elected their sin, they have to decide whether to commit that sin on stage — and we'll have an array of paraphernalia to assist them — or whether to name a song that represents that sin. And I play the song."
Any song, he says. "I know millions of songs."
Many from Linda Ronstadt to Johnny Cash have covered his songs. But he refuses to lend his tunes to advertisements. This year alone he has refused US$100,000 in endorsement offers.
"Someone offered me a lot of money to use my song in a commercial.
"It wasn't a disgusting product, but I turned it down because I don't want my song associated with something I had nothing to do with. I don't want my songs carved up into bite-size snippets."
He is perplexed by pop stars who sell out. The "fairly slightly talented" Madonna risked tarnishing her carefully constructed stardom with exposure as a Pepsi mascot, Costello says.
He is also concerned that career boosts and not moral commitment inspire pop icons like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston to donate their time to causes.
Jackson "seems to love children and animals. If he loves animals so much, why doesn't he get on TV and say, 'Hey kids, why don't you stop buying McDonald's?' McDonald's is one of the main contributors to the demise of the environment.
"Michael's a great singer, a terrific dancer, and yet he's limiting his imagery and his music, because he has to stay inside some corporate conception of his music.
"I firmly believe he'll be forgotten in 50 years, except statistically. I think he'll be like (Woody Allen's) Zelig or Rudy Vallee or Al Jolson, someone who was massively famous but in 50 years' time is completely forgotten. People will remember the Beatles because they moved us They may remember Elvis Presley."
And the alternative Elvis?
Whether his music endures is anyone's guess But he rests easier knowing 21st century archivists won't unearth his face on cereal boxes. — USA Today.