Here is a story that seems to sum up the creative energy, restless curiosity and single-mindedness of Elvis Costello, the 50-year-old, British-born musician who played the Palais on Tuesday and will perform at a big outdoor show at a Yarra Valley winery tonight. In 1996, Costello had reconciled with his long-time backing band, the Attractions, and released a diverse, elegant album, All This Useless Beauty.
The album, his sixth for the Warner Brothers label, did poorly in the US, selling fewer than 100,000 copies within a year of its release. Costello was anxious. About the same time, he had teamed up to co-write a song, "God Give Me Strength," with Burt Bacharach for a film soundtrack. The film wasn't so great but the song, a soaring ballad, was; Costello and Bacharach wanted to keep working together, to write and perform a whole album. But there was a problem. "Burt wanted to make the record but he wouldn't make it for Warner Brothers because he had seen how wasteful they had been with All This Useless Beauty and he couldn't see any point in making it for Warner Brothers," Costello recalled this week.
"So I went in and picked a fight with them and walked out of the contract, effectively. Because I was managing myself, I had to do it and we had a fair and frank exchange of views. And they let me go even though I owed them a record because they knew that in that frame of mind there was no prospect that I would make any record that would claw back any money that I owed them."
Costello promptly signed a unique, multi-pronged contract with Polygram (now Universal), which allowed him to record different types of music for the company's specialist labels, variously embracing jazz, classical, country and pop styles. His first release for Polygram was the collaboration with Bacharach, Painted From Memory, which was a critical triumph. Costello had got his way.
You cannot encounter Costello, either through his records or his stage performances or in person, and go away believing this is a man gripped by indecision or indifference. When his first album, My Aim Is True, appeared in 1977, Costello, who had been working as a computer operator with the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics company, emerged as a fully formed artist. His lyrics were clever and direct, his melodies were unadorned and self-assured, his singing was assertive. An only child who had been born to show business parents, he had thought through all the angles, including his estimation of his own talents, well before he arrived in the public consciousness.
But what was, in his younger days, a certain belligerence has taken on a more appealing form. For this interview, Costello arrived kitted up in a natty black suit, tie and shirt. He looks slim, fit and happy. Costello married Canadian singer Diana Krall last year, after meeting her at the Grammy awards in 2002, but right now the pair are on different sides of the planet. Krall was playing in Vienna this week. He still has strong views, and clearly enjoys putting them sharply, but he also seems more accommodating, not just with his inquisitor but with the human race generally.
This tour of Australia is Costello's ninth. Members of his extended family (he was born Declan MacManus) live here and he is familiar enough with Melbourne that whenever he comes here, he has music and book shops in the city that he always visits. He lost his bearings momentarily early this week on a stroll at the eastern end of the CBD. "I thought, 'Where's the Southern Cross?' but it's gone," he says.
Costello's now something of a stateless person. Raised in London and Liverpool, he lived in Dublin during the '90s. Now, he lives in North America. "When people say, 'Where do you live?' I say, 'Well, if I'm ever home, I'd tell you.' We have an apartment in New York and we spend a lot of time in British Columbia, where my wife is from, and that's a beautiful part of the world, as you probably know," he says.
Although steeped in American music forms for a long time, Costello maintained, or at least regularly returned to, certain English cultural, political and emotional concerns in his songs — including sharp criticisms of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and the occupation of Northern Ireland — but his relationship with the country of his birth has undergone some strain lately. "I don't like British culture very much. They are great people and I've got great friends. Some of my best friends are English and I grew up in England, and there's a lot of great music still comes out of England but you know, when you're just visiting, it hasn't sort of moved on any, you know? The cultural scene is a bit crowded and seems a bit wrapped up in itself, it doesn't look outward."
The peculiar nature of the contract with Universal was in evidence a couple of months ago when two new Costello albums were released on the same day: a rock outing, The Delivery Man, recorded with his backing band the Imposters and Il Sogno, a score for an Italian dance company's performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, played by the London Symphony Orchestra.
While Costello is proud of The Delivery Man, it's Il Sogno, an alternately melodic and atmospheric work that owes a debt to Debussy and Gershwin, that really gets him excited. And why not? He scored the entire thing straight out of his head, having taught himself musical notation through trial and error in the early '90s. "It came down to my love of Italy. One of my very few ambitions I've had, a concrete ambition — and I've always said that I don't have ambition and it sounds ludicrous but I don't, because ambition is to say, 'By a certain point, I must have achieved this, otherwise I will be thwarted in my ambition' and I don't have that way of thinking; I do things and they lead to something else — was to have some kind of career in Spain and Italy because I like both those countries more than a lot of other European countries. I thought if I could establish some sort of relationship with the audience, I would be happy."
The result is that Costello's face beams out of the racks in the classical sections of music stores, with the storied imprint of Deutsche Grammophon just next to his right temple on the Il Sogno CD cover. "Who can say where it will go?" he mused.
As for pop music and his place in it, Costello is unfussed. He doesn't pay much attention to the charts and the last hit he liked, after happening upon it by chance, was Milkshake by Kelis.
This week's Australian Idol mania had also passed him by. "I always think, 'When are they going to let the alligators loose?' whenever I hear about those programs. It just seems like the Roman games to me . . . It's a continuation of vaudeville. It has all the tragedy of it, all of the cruelty that ever existed in it.
"I interviewed Joni Mitchell recently for Vanity Fair for 6½ hours. If you think I'm irascible about popular music, you want to talk to her. But if you were her, you'd understand that. She says, 'They play me these records and it's the first three chords you learn on the guitar, there's no depth, no metaphor, there's nothing. And that's most songs.' "
Costello understands and appreciates his good fortune in being able to continue to make new music and to be able to attract substantial audiences to his shows that are willing to listen to it. "If you look at my generation, the class of '77, how many of those guys are recording? Me, Sting, Chrissie (Hynde), that's about it. Joe Jackson is still doing some stuff. There's a lot of people from the '80s who are sort of on the nostalgia circuit."
What Costello does when he performs — and this almost certainly explains his unusual artistic and commercial longevity — is make his live shows a continuation of the creative process. Live shows, he says, provide "the opportunity to remake it night to night. And the cumulative story of all of the songs. I mean, what you find is that songs you have written 25 years apart talk to each other on stage in a way that you can never do on record.
"I could never be an actor. I could never say the same lines night after night. I'd want to change it … I think I'm tremendously lucky to do the things I do. The idea that I'm doing them to make myself look clever is so silly. For one thing, it's way too much work. People say, 'What's your act?' I don't have an act. This is really what I'm thinking about. I'm not f---ing about."
At last, a glimpse of that old post-punk attitude. It's as close to the nostalgia circuit as Costello will ever get.