Elvis Costello looks like a nice guy these days. He has long hair and a longer beard. What happened to the angry young man with the horn-rimmed spectacles and permanent sneer? Is old age getting to Declan MacManus?
"The character of Elvis Costello, which journalists mainly invented (the name adopted at the direction of MacManus's image-wise manager), is not the beginning and the end," Costello says. "I never thought of anything as an image. The angry young man thing was always bullshit.
"There were elements of my music that had aggression to them and there were elements that had a degree of compassion to them, right from the start. The tone of the music, maybe, led people to believe that everything was aggressive. As time went on and I diversified and tried to write about things that I couldn't have written about before, it became an annoyance that people would continue to see my work through that original perception.
"My beard is not a statement. I have moved to Ireland and it is windy in the hills. I have considered chopping it all off. But it has become a matter of honor because I know some people in my record company absolutely hate my appearance and I won't back down. I am letting my freak flag fly. There are millions of pictures of me snarling at the camera. I rarely smile because I have gapped teeth which make me look goofy."
Costello, who emerged from the hell-raising '70s punk movement, has moved on to the company of the establishment hell-raisers. He has worked with many of his heroes — Johnny Cash, George Jones, Jerry Garcia, Paul McCartney (Costello was a Beatles fan club member at 11). After writing "The Comedians" for Roy Orbison, he appeared with American stars such as Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt at the classic Orbison Coconut Grove Concert in 1987.
"Some of the other American artists were in awe of him (Orbison)," says Costello. "I really respected him because of his great songs. When I was a kid they didn't instantly appeal to me. As I got older I appreciated how individual he was. His material was a lot more grown up than the songs I was used to. The stories he sang were a lot more tragic than just sad."
Costello, like Orbison, has written more than his fair share about torment and torture in the mental lane. Much to his chagrin, his music has endured much analysis. Articles and books have been written about his lyrics, placing him as one of few influential modern songwriters. But Costello calls songwriters a "race of pygmies", meaning that to be placed above Stock Aitken and Waterman is no big deal.
He's cagey talking about his lyrics. On Mighty Like A Rose, it was his wife, Cait, who took over the manic-depressive reins when she wrote "Broken." Costello sang it with an emotive ambiguity-the emphasis on guilt, suspicion and threat is open to interpretation — and he won't discuss it further.
He has focused on greed and the misuse of power. Political paradox, including Bob Hawke's hob-nobbing with power brokers came under his scrutiny, and his disgust with Margaret Thatcher resulted in "Stand Down Margaret" and "Tramp the Dirt Down" ("When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam"), indicating pretty clearly which side of the bed he sleeps.
Now, with the release of Mighty Like A Rose and the single "The Other Side Of Summer," where life's paradoxes are spelt out in a Beach Boys-style parody, the references have moved from politicians to pop stars. Costello sings: "Wasn't it a millionaire who said 'imagine no possessions', A poor little school boy who said 'we don't need no lessons'."
"That (the line from 'Imagine') was one of the great paradoxes," Costello says. "'The Other Side of Summer' is a catalogue of rock 'n' roll revolutionaries ... and the really intelligent things they have said ... The song is trying to bring the whole thing about rock 'n' roll as a social panacea down to earth. I don't mean any offence. Inevitably, people are touchy about John Lennon. If you make any reference at all (to Lennon) it must be incredibly adoring."
Costello is keen to establish his right to an opinion. But pop stars with points of view stir cynicism.
He's often been described as arrogant and antipathetic, so he is guarded now, claiming it doesn't really matter what he thinks and that sometimes he wishes he wasn't drawn to make a stance. But Costello loves taking stances. The difference now is that he justifies his negative with a positive.
"You only have to listen to my music to hear how much I admire John Lennon. It is through all my music. His influence, out of the Beatles music, is greater than McCartney's. But that doesn't mean I can't criticise or use that image in that song. I happen to believe that 'Imagine' is a very trite song. To a lot of people it is a great hymn to the positive belief in human nature. I don't subscribe. It is not a personal slight against the man ... I would like to a write song that had as much faith as that one, even if I do think it is misguided.
"I don't want to make records saying what is wrong with the world without ever trying to look for something good. 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected' (from Mighty Like A Rose) has some possibility of faith in it. I try not to be cynical about anything. But it helps to have a healthy sceptiscm about those kind of dreams particularly these days."
After the gutsy emotion of his back-to-basics album Blood And Chocolate, there was a healthy dose of sceptiscm hurled about when Spike turned up in 1989. Not only did the album (his first with Warner Brothers) bring together a huge cast of musicians, but showcased the various styles and sounds that Costello has developed over the past 13 years.
"I had a bigger budget than I had had for a while. I had nothing to lose by doing something bold. I don't know that now I would have taken those songs and gone quite so extreme on some of the arrangements. Though I didn't expect massive success, I did feel frustrated with my American career which had reached a real stalemate. Hardly anybody at Columbia had any faith in me. I was almost universally reviled inside the company. They perceived wasted opportunities in what I perceived as a creative career.
"When I went to the new label (Warners) I wanted to do something that would make the company sit up so they knew I had arrived and know that I wasn't going to make another oddball record.
"You can hear on Mighty Like A Rose that although there is some use of unusual instrumentation ... there is more of a sense of a band playing.
"Spike was constructed instrument by instrument ... and sometimes in a very unusual way... drums would never dominate the track, they played a very orchestral role ... things were slightly out of sync. Rock music is such a boring formula that you have to do something with it."